Star Spangled Banner to Be Sold at Auction
On December 3, Christie's will sell at auction a rare first edition of America's national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner. Composed by poet Francis Scott Key during the evening of September 13, 1814, the sheet music will be offered in Christie's "Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts Including Americana" sale at its headquarters at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. The pre-sale estimate for the lot is $200,000 to $300,000.
The sellers are two retired Pennsylvania antique dealers who bought the sheet music as part of an album in 1989 for $50. The dealers only later realized the significance of what was contained in the album.
According to Chris Coover, senior specialist in books and manuscripts at Christie's in New York, the dealers attended many small auctions in the Pennsylvania area over a period of many years. At one of these small auctions, they acquired an album that contained popular songs from the 1814 era with most of the songs being undated. "After buying the album, the dealers studied it closely and realized it contained a first edition of The Star Spangled Banner which was bound into the album," says Coover. "They did their homework and realized they had a very rare piece indeed. They were thrilled to be the owners of a great piece of Americana."
According to Coover, there are only eleven copies still in existence, including this one, though, until recently, it wasn't well known that this one even existed. "It is the only one still in private hands with all others owned by institutions," says Coover. "It is quite a rarity."
Gallery: Star Spangled Banner
Coover estimates that perhaps 250 to 500 copies were printed originally. "We have to assume that most of the copies produced were destroyed, thrown away or discarded," he says.
During the fall of 1814, Baltimore-based music publisher, Thomas Carr, was attempting to cash in on the immediate popularity of the song. "Once it was combined with the music, it was a very powerful piece that was performed widely," says Coover. "The song dovetailed with the patriotic spirit felt during the War of 1812."
While the song was immensely popular, it wasn't adapted as the national anthem of the United States until 1931. "Until then, it was just considered to be a patriotic song," says Coover. The first printing includes all four versus of Key's poetry. "All of us know the first stanza, but the second, third and fourth stanzas have been neglected," says Coover.
One unique feature of the first edition is that it contains a noticeable misspelling. "Carr was in such a hurry to rush this into print that he worked carelessly and misspelled the word patriotic," says Coover, pointing out that Carr listed it as pariotic (see gallery above). "Carr also omitted Francis Scott Key's name as poet."
The last copy sold at auction was in 1967, by Sotheby's in New York. "It sold for $23,000, which was a record price for the time," says Coover. That copy was bought by a private individual and gifted to a foundation. It is now owned by Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "That was the last chance anyone had to acquire one until now," says Coover. "Forty-three years is a long time to wait."
Second editions of the song have recently sold at auction, says Coover. While later editions may also be rare, they are not as interesting, as important or as valuable as first editions, he adds. A second edition sold for $15,000 in December 2002.
In addition to first edition that is owned by Wesleyan University, the other copies are owned by the Library of Congress, Indiana University, Maryland Historical Society, New York Public Library, The Pierpont Morgan Library, Johns Hopkins University Library, White House, University of Michigan and the Moravian Music Foundation.
The score is included in an album that contains 50 pieces of popular sheet music of the era, including military marches that have long since been forgotten. The album belonged to a Mary Barnitz of York, Pa. (1793 to 1886) or her father George (1770 to 1844). Francis Scott Key lived from 1780 to 1843. Because the sheet music was bound into an album, it was well-protected from abuse and harmful elements from being displayed. Christie's had a professional conservator carefully take The Star Spangled Banner out of the album. "It has been professionally conserved and is in excellent condition," says Coover. The top left corner has a light water stain, which is normal.
Other significant items (see gallery above) that will also be sold at Christie's Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts auction include a calling card that belonged to Abraham Lincoln. "This is the first one that I have handled in 30 years," says Coover. The engraved calling card was modeled after the president's signature, which was rare at the time. Paired with an actual autograph of Lincoln, its estimate is $7,000 to $10,000.
Twenty lots featuring Winston Churchill's belongings and memorabilia will also be offered, including a cigar (estimate $1,500 to $2,500), various letters, documents, signed photographs and an expandable leather briefcase owned by Churchill in the 1940's (estimate: $3,000 to $5,000). These items are from the legendary Winston Churchill collection belonging to publishing mogul Malcolm "Steve" Forbes.
The Christie's auction will commence at 10:00 am on December 3.