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Oldest Known American Revolutionary War Flags for Sale at Sotheby’s


June 14 is Flag Day in the United States. Sotheby's auction house in New York marked the date this year with a unique offering. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports on how the holiday and history intersect with one family's private collection of flags now heading to the auction block. The flags could fetch as much as $10 million.

The flags were the symbols of an American nation in its infancy -- symbols currently under the care of Sotheby's vice chairman, David Redden. He said, "It's ironic to think that the most important item on the battlefield wasn't a sword, wasn't a musket, wasn't a cannon, it was the colors."

To the country they represented, they were more than just simple colors. It was in a battle fought more than two centuries ago during America's War of Independence that the story of four flags began.

Revolutionary War re-enactor and retired U.S. Army Colonel James Johnson describes the significance a flag carried during the early days of the American military. "The flag was very heavily protected. It was not something you wanted captured. It brought dishonor to your regiment,” he said. “People rallied around that flag in battle."

One such unit was the regally uniformed Second Continental Light Dragoons.

They marched into battle on July 2, 1779 north of New York City to fight British and Loyalist forces at Pound Ridge. While there was no clear victor in the battle, the Dragoons did lose their regimental colors to Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, an infamous British officer.

Johnson said, "Banastre Tarleton was probably one of the best British cavalrymen. He gained a reputation probably for propaganda purposes, probably by us [revolutionaries], but a reputation he gained as being a ruthless commander."

Tarleton would capture three more flags, defeating the Americans in 1780 at the Battle of Waxhaws in South Carolina. A painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds on display at the National Gallery in London shows Tarleton with those three flags at his feet.

After Tarleton died in 1833, the flags made their way from the walls of one Tarleton family home to another and have finally appeared at Sotheby's in New York some 226 years later.

While the family knew the flags were special, Sotheby's considers this collection a discovery.

The flag Tarleton captured at Pound Ridge is one of the first to display the 13 red and white stripes of the American colonies. Another he captured in South Carolina is one of the first to display 13 five-pointed stars on a field of blue. Together, they are variations of the American flag that came to be known as the ‘Stars and Stripes.’ Redden said, "No ‘Star and Stripes’ survived from the Revolutionary War era at all so this is as close as you can get."

Redden is now somewhat of an expert on the flags, having traced three of them back to where they were made. He said, "We know three of them were in Philadelphia in 1778, and described in this description as new. If they were new in 1778, then they almost were certainly made in Philadelphia because Philadelphia had a thriving flag making industry."

The once-private collection of family heirlooms soon heads to public auction at Sotheby's. Redden says the auction house and the family are committed to selling the flags to a responsible buyer. Ultimately, they hope the American public will have a chance to view these rare and well-preserved symbols of the founding of a nation.