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November 13, 2015

George Washington’s Telescope

By Joel R Kolander

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To claim an item as George Washington’s is nearly as American as the Pater Patriae himself. As was shown in our story about the Thompson submachine gun that was thought to be John Dillinger’s, in a surprisingly short time myth and rumor can take the place of fact and documentation. So many items and places are associated with George Washington that the cliché has even entered the popular realm with a comedy stage play entitled “George Washington Slept Here,” that was also adapted into a 1942 movie starring Jack Benny.

Granted, in George Washington’s younger days he would’ve undoubtedly slept in a number of beds. He was a surveyor in the 1750s and a colonial officer, both jobs that required frequent travel. From 1775 and on, he rarely found himself at his Mount Vernon estate, instead spending time in either Philadelphia for business with the Continental Congress or in Massachusetts to satisfy duties as the head of the Continental Army. Even after the American Revolution, Washington was far from sedentary. Just four short years later, he would be elected president and would feel an obligation to tour the nation as a way to introduce himself to his constituents. With this kind of travel, any number of locations can rightly state that “George Washington Slept Here,” used their dinner set, or gave a new found importance to any number of what would otherwise be mundane, everyday objects.

Lot 3084: Historic Dolland Brass Spyglass Inscribed “G. Washington, Mt. Vernon” with Notarized Letter of Family Provenance from William Lanier Washington with Case.

This unfortunately, and as with nearly every object of value, gave rise to a counterfeit market of items all claiming provenance to George Washington. Collectors of Washington artifacts have every right to be skeptical of any item claiming a first-hand interaction with the first president, especially important ones such as pistols, swords, uniform pieces, silverware, or other items of value. With both the importance of Washingtonian artifacts and the wariness of spurious memorabilia in mind, Rock Island Auction Company is proud to present an item of significant historical significance: a brass spyglass of President George Washington.

It is a humble looking treasure of Americana. While its brass bears a pleasant patina, dings and scratches fleck its surface, the optics themselves need work, and several parts bear over 200 years of honest age. However, this field telescope is the product of one of the finest optics manufacturers of the era. It was made by The Dollond (later spelled Dolland) family, who built their superior instruments from the mid-1700s until the last decade when they have become the subject of several corporate acquisitions. Named as “Optician to the King” in 1761, the Dolland family also made several important contributions to the telescope. For these reasons and others, early Dolland telescopes remain in high demand by collectors. Examples are currently housed at Monticello as well as a model at the National Museum of American History that was used by Washington during the American Revolution. Telescopes have been highly valued historically – the wealthy and social elite of Washington’s day drove their popularity and, in turn, their technological development. Both a invaluable tool to the military man and a hobby of the wealthy, Washington fit squarely into both groups and unavoidably found himself in possession of a telescope. In fact, Washington’s will lists “11 Spye glasses” (sic) in his estate’s inventory at the time of his death. The social and mechanical significance of the telescope are sure to entice some, but the historic importance of this telescope cannot be overstated.

George Washington holding a brass-colored spyglass in “George Washington Before‌‌the Battle of Trenton” painted by John Trumbull.

This artifact of President Washington’s had been passed down through family generations for over 120 years. We know this because the spyglass was previously sold by the first auction house in the United States, the now defunct American Art Association (AAA), in February, 1920. The sale was billed as “William Lanier Washington’s Collection of Relics and memorabilia of George Washington.”

Accompanying this spyglass is a notarized 1920 affidavit from William L. Washington, the great-great-great grandson of George Washington’s brother Colonel John Augustine Washington. It states that the spyglass was given by George Washington to his nephew Col. William Augustine Washington (son of the aforementioned Col. John Augustine Washington) while George was still alive. This nephew must have held a place of importance in Washington’s life as he is also listed in George’s will as the Executor of his estate after his wife, Martha.

From there it was passed on to the nephew’s son, Colonel George Corbin Washington (William’s great grandfather), who in turn passed it to his son, Colonel Lewis William Washington. The affidavit then states that “His widow gave it to their son, William d’Hertburn Washington, who, during his lifetime, sold it to my younger brother, Lewis William Washington… from whom I inherited it.

Furthermore, in the investigation of this article, I was able to track down a digital copy of the original auction catalog with some assistance from the helpful Chief of Archives and Records Management at the Frick Art Reference Library, an institution that houses the records of the former AAA. Beginning this catalog is a lengthy and detailed five page letter written by William Lanier Washington describing special items in the collection and listing “several direct family sources” that at one time point inherited or bequeathed many of the items in the sale. It is strikingly thorough. The section discussing the Washington heritage reads nearly like the first verses in the Gospel of Matthew, giving detailed lineage all the way back to George Washington. Thankfully, William also takes the time, at nearly every level of the family tree, to quote extracts from that person’s last Will & Testament detailing to whom these historic artifacts should go, and specifically mentioning many of the items. It is astounding that the provenance of these items should be detailed so thoroughly and even more so that such information is available to collectors and investors today!

As shown in last week’s article, Rock Island Auction Company regularly offers astounding pieces of history from America, Europe, Japan, and of firearms development. Many of these items would not be out of place in the world’s top museums for history or art, and we are proud to do our part in finding new stewards for these remarkable pieces. If you would like to get more up close and personal with this important spyglass, or any of the items in our auction, you are cordially invited to attend our Preview Day. Held the Thursday before every auction, Preview Day is your opportunity to hold, inspect, touch, or shoulder any item in the auction. It’s been called “the Museum You Can Touch,” by many collectors, but it improves on a museum in two distinct ways. First, our inventory revolves a lot more frequently than any museum. That happens when you sell over 22,000 guns annually. Second, you can actually own the items you see! It would be our pleasure to have you as our guest at this or any of the industry leading auctions at Rock Island Auction Company, and when you see the care we take in presenting these phenomenal specimens, we promise you’ll want to come back.

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