- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

NEW YORK Patriots, collectors and history buffs yesterday bought $1.3 million worth of American flags, including a shield that might have flown during the presidential inauguration of George Washington and a Woodstock banner displaying its stars in the shape of a peace symbol.

But 1789 won out over 1969. The hippie relic sold for $22,705. The hand-sewn Washington shield with its 13 muslin stars was the day's top seller at $262,500, drawing spirited applause from the crowd of about 200 Americana connoisseurs in a gallery at Sotheby's auction house. The identity of the buyer, who acquired many of the sale's top items, remained a secret.

Audrey Isselbacher, an art dealer representing the private customer, said: "He does not want publicity."

Mrs. Isselbacher also bought a 31-star American national flag believed to have been unfurled during Abraham Lincoln's 1860 presidential campaign.

The collection of 74 lots belonged to Thomas S. Connelly, 56, a retired businessman. Mr. Connelly wants to move out of his "exceptionally large home" to something more sensible. He still has "50 or so" flags in his private collection.

Mr. Connelly's interest in flags began about 20 years ago when his wife was looking for a tapestry to cover a staircase landing in their home in the south of France. Instead, he brought her a 38-star flag marking the admission of the state of Colorado to the Union in 1876.

Flags and history excite Mr. Connelly, a former Marine. His voice throbbed as he explained that the top-selling, hand-sewn shield was with Washington when he was sworn in at Federal Hall in New York City in 1789. During the auction, Mr. Connelly stood in the rear of the gallery wearing a flag-printed silk tie.

"I love the flags," he said. "I love American history and the attention to our flag and the renewed pride in America and the things we stand for."

Mr. Connelly watched as a bidding war erupted over one of his favorites, the Grand Union or Continental flag (1790-1810). The price soared to $163,500, a record paid for a flag, according to the auction house. The flag's canton the rectangular section in the upper-left corner is designed in the form of the British Union Jack and the 13 alternating red and white stripes represent the American Colonies.

The American flag is the oldest flag in the world that has been continually updated, or, in the words of the Sotheby's catalog: "There has never been another national flag that has gone through so many varied evolutions, yet remained the same in terms of the symbolism it represents."

The Continental Congress adopted the stars and stripes in 1777. But until 1912, when President William Howard Taft wrote an executive order outlining the design of a 48-star flag, no rules or regulations governed what the American flag should look like except that there be stars and stripes. Much was left to the ingenuity of citizens, which is why museums and galleries like to designate the flags as "folk art."

A "Bible" flag, dating back to 1918, sold for $14,340. But the price belies its poignant history. Such flags, treated as family heirlooms, often were folded into Bibles and carried to shore by immigrants. This particular one a POW Bible flag probably belonged to a member of the American Expeditionary Force who had it with him while serving in France during World War I.

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