On a late summer afternoon in 2005 representatives from Sotheby’s, the world’s most prestigious Fine Art auctioneers, pulled up outside the Hampshire home of Christopher Tarleton-Fagan. Fagan was a retired Grenadier Guards officer and the owner and custodian of four of the most historic Revolutionary war artefacts still remaining in private hands. He was also the great-great-great-great-nephew of British cavalry commander, Banastre Tarleton. Once inside, the amazed appraisers stood opposite four invaluable battle flags captured by Tarleton’s British Legion, including one regarded as the precursor to the iconic “Stars and Stripes.”
Though Tarleton had been a notorious womaniser, at his death, he had fathered just one illegitimate daughter, and she had predeceased him. His war trophies, therefore, he bequeathed to his nephew Thomas Tarleton whose direct descendent Christopher now stood alongside them. He was destined to be the final Tarleton scion to own them. Captain Tarleton-Fagan explained to the representatives, “I am very sad to sell them. They are an important part of our family history. However, there comes a time when their value is such that one can no longer afford to insure them.”
Nearly two hundred and fifty years after they were captured from Continental troops and smuggled away to England, these precious standards would finally be returning home. Or would they?
On July 2, 1779, Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton and his newly formed “British Legion” were ordered by the Commander-in-Chief Henry Clinton into northern Westchester, New York. Clinton had given instructions for Tarleton to subdue the 2nd Light Dragoons, who, under the command of Col. Elisha Sheldon, were harassing Loyalists in the so-called “Neutral Ground.” This region between Morrisania and the Croton River was pillaged by both sides but was particularly significant to the British who were otherwise practically hemmed into New York City. The prosperous farms here were rich in forage and cattle and constituted a vital resource for the Royal army.
In what was to become his trademark tactic the newly promoted Tarleton drove his troops on a lightning attack from Mile Square near Yonkers through Bedford to Pound Ridge. Here he intended to surprise the 2nd Light Dragoons at forage but, forewarned by a rebel spy, Sheldon was waiting. The ensuing engagement was little more than an indecisive melee which Tarleton dismissively reported as “trifling.” But on their retreat, the British burned patriot homes and the Presbyterian church before retiring with prisoners, cattle, and, most significantly, the battle standard of Sheldon’s Regiment.
Colors, or standards, historically served as a means of identifying units on the battlefield and men were trained to follow and “rally” around them to maintain unit cohesiveness. But their significance went beyond the merely practical. Colors were the embodiment of the history and spirit of the regiment and held an emotional sway over every soldier serving under them. The capture of this flag was an embarrassing blow not just for Sheldon’s dragoons but for the whole Continental army. Sheldon maintained that the flag had been abandoned amid an orderly retreat. However, Tarleton’s report to Sir Henry Clinton provided a different perspective, stating, “The enemy did not stand the charge [and] a general route immediately ensued.” Whichever the case, the flag’s capture transformed Pound Ridge from a “trifling” skirmish to noted engagement. Tarleton was propelled to national prominence with newspaper reports launching his reputation as an officer to be regarded and feared.
In the auction world, there is no such thing as “priceless.” The lost color now sat in Bond Street, London, where specialists from several departments contemplated the critical level at which to pitch the estimate. Sotheby’s had the unenviable task of putting the flag on the international market with a guide price that would be unique for a piece of Americana. After much debate, they came to a consensus. The estimate for this single standard would be $1.5 to $3.5 million.
It was a bold, even audacious appraisal. Revolutionary war artefacts, flags especially, are rare, and Sotheby’s had little precedent to fall back on to guide them. Certainly, there had never been a sum like this realised at auction before for a battle standard from any war. But the specialists felt confident that the historical significance of this flag made it worthy of a price tag more than double the current world record. It was, after all, the earliest surviving American flag of any kind with a field of thirteen red and white stripes. No other example of the national flag had survived from the Revolutionary War period. Besides, it possessed a unique regimental symbol. Painted in the centre was a winged thunder cloud raining thunderbolts. Below this, a motto in Latin strikingly read, “When their country calls, her sons answer in tones of thunder.”
Remarkable as it was, this was not the only color captured by Tarleton during the war. Alongside it lay the complete color stand of the 3rd Virginia Detachment, captured after the Battle of Waxhaw, South Carolina, on May 29, 1780. This battle was a disaster for the southern Continental army. A confused and chaotic affair, the 3rd Virginia had initially held firm but were eventually overrun by Tarleton’s cavalry. Upwards of one hundred officers and men were killed on the spot and above two hundred prisoners along with these regimental colors fell into Tarleton’s hands.
This stand of colors was also of historical importance. Made of gold-yellow silk, the regiment’s main battle flag was painted with a captivating central design of a beaver felling a palmetto. Underneath was the motto “PERSEVERANDO.” Above was a painted blue canton containing thirteen silver stars. Poignantly, the flag carried a bloodstain, most likely from the American standard-bearer who died trying to defend it. With it were two blue and yellow “Grand Division” colors, each fashioned from three strips of silk sewn together and painted with a scrolling white ribbon, bearing the word “Regiment.” Experts wisely decided not to split these three colors into separate lots, instead, giving them a single pre-sale estimate of $2.5 to $6.5 million.
Though Sotheby’s still liked to portray itself to the world as an erudite, quintessentially English auction house, by 2006 they were essentially a giant American Corporation. There was little debate then as to where and when these colors would be sold. They were duly transported to Manhattan and catalogued as a single-owner sale of just two lots. The event was simply titled “Four Battleflags of the Revolution: Captured by Lt.-Col. Banastre Tarleton.” They would be auctioned appropriately on flag day, June 14, 2006.
The PR department of Sotheby’s then went into overdrive. The flags toured the country before their four-day formal viewing in New York. National news was drummed up regarding their significance. Given the patriotic symbolism of the flags, speculation about the buyer and their permanent home became intense. Surely, they would be purchased by an American national institution and made available to public view? What if they went abroad? The sale also caused a political furore between New York and South Carolina, the two places where the relevant battles took place, each State demanding the auction should take place on its soil.At the viewing rather “modern” looking reenactors of the 2nd Light Dragoons stood at ease near the battle flags giving a somewhat artificial sense of theatricality to the public view.
Given the pre-sale interest within the media and academic circles, on the day of the sale, the room was surprisingly only three-quarters full. However, as few lots of this value are ever actually bought “in the room” the real attention was on the bank of telephone bidders situated to the left of the rostrum. Here serious connoisseurs would listen live to the auctioneer while protecting their anonymity.
Bidding on Sheldon’s dragoon flag began nervously at just under $1.5 million, but soon developed into an Olympian struggle between six determined telephone bidders. Within a matter of minutes, the total had reached an astonishing $10 million before eventually, the gavel fell at a world-record $12.3 million. Spontaneous applause rang out in the sober auction house. The Virginia regiment colors followed straight after and also smashed their lower estimate to sell at $5 million. The fiercely contested auction had lasted just fourteen minutes and had raised Tarleton-Fagan $17.3 million. With a typically British sense of understated pathos, Fagan admitted “I’m somewhat overwhelmed and very gratified” before ending laconically “Of course I’ll miss them.”
But the real question was who had bought them and where were they now going? The buyer was anonymous, and Sotheby’s, professionals that they are, have always declined to identify the individual or even confirm that they are American. The firm did, however, let slip a few clues both before and after the sale. During the initial view, the auctioneer, David N. Redden, a vice chairman at Sotheby’s, said, “I’ll eat my hat if they don’t remain in the country.” After the bidding, he merely added the cryptic appendix: “I won’t have to eat my hat.”
So, all concluded that these four flags had returned to their mother country ironically at a price more than the cost of the entire Revolutionary War. To date, the buyer remains anonymous. However, the flags have been exhibited on occasion, implying that a citizen indeed bought them and they reside somewhere in the USA.
And as for Tarleton? Well, in the National Gallery in London hangs the iconic Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of “Ban.” Dressed in his green British Legion uniform with a rearing horse above him, scattered beneath his feet lie the Virginia and Light Dragoon flags. And in this sense at least, they will never leave his side.
For additional information on the precarious nature of Westchester during the Revolution see Edna Gabbler, allthingsliberty.com/2019/02/caught-between-the-lines-eastchester-new-york-during-the-american-revolution/.
Michael Schellhammer, allthingsliberty.com/2013/01/tarleton-in-new-york/.
For a debate on the confusing nature of the battle and subsequent historic arguments over Tarleton’s culpability see Wayne Lynch and Jim Piecuch, allthingsliberty.com/2013/08/debating-waxhaws-was-there-a-massacre/.