The University of Hartford quietly sold one of the most extraordinary collections of American political memorabilia ever assembled – a collection that one of the city’s insurance titans spent his life assembling and then donated to the school in the hope that it would be preserved and displayed to the public in perpetuity.
The school sold what was known as the J. Doyle Dewitt Americana & Political Collection to Heritage Auctions. Finished March 19 and 20, the auctioneer collected $1.8 million for some parties, mostly from private collectors, at the first of what should be at least two auctions in dallas.
Neither the school nor Heritage revealed what the auction house paid for the 70,000-piece collection including items such as the cufflinks. george washington wore at its inauguration. Intact, it was only the second after that of the Smithsonian Institution in historical significance. The authoritative antiquities and arts weekly reported that March auctions were $1 million above expectations.
The auction appears to dash any hope that remained among collectors and scholars that Dewitt’s collection might remain in Connecticutcomprehensive and as a center of political scholarship and tourism.
Dewitt, former Chairman and CEO of The Travelers Insurance Cos. and director of half a dozen major banks in the county, built his 70,000-piece collection by spending decades traveling across remote America in search of artifacts of the nation’s political culture.
It is said by those who knew him that he became fascinated with Americana and an avid collector early in his life. He was a World War I veteran when The Travelers hired him to monks in 1925 as an accident investigator. He was in Hartford two years later. In 1943, he ran the Travelers Claims operation. He served as Vice Chairman in 1950, Chairman in 1952 and Chairman and CEO in 1964.
Dewitt competed for acquisitions against the Smithsonian, then built the national collection, and friends said that as he rose through the ranks of The Travelers, he enlisted his extensive sales and claims teams. in the hunt.
Its collection included textiles, prints, pottery, glassware, mugs, medals, buttons, banners, ribbons, posters and cartoons. Dewitt found a pair of pants worn by one of the sailors rowing Gen. george washington through East River when the British drove out the settlers Long Island during the revolutionary war. There was a whale oil torch carried by the Wide Awakes, a paramilitary political walking club that started in Hartfordthen a leader WE city, before spreading across America and helping to put abraham lincoln in the White House.
the dallas auction may have set at least one record, depending Curtis Lindner, Director of Americana’s Heritage Auctions. A buyer has paid $118,750 for a silk ribbon bearing Matthew Brady’s photographic images of Stephen A. Douglas and Herschel Vespasian Johnson, the Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the 1860 election.
During the presidential election years, Dewitt opened his collection to the public in a building Travelers owned on Prospect Street, where it has been visited by thousands of children on school outings. When not on display, Dewitt stored part of the collection and kept the rest at his home.
He was a founding member of the Council of the University of Hartford of Regents, and eventually donated the collection to the school for a dozen years, beginning in 1959. Friends and other collectors said he wanted his collection to remain intact and available to the public and to academics.
The University of Hartford’s decision to auction off the collection, divide it up and put it into the hands of private collectors, has disappointed some history buffs and others who claim the school does not honor at least the spirit of Dewitt’s gift and deprives the region of an important asset. Scholars fear it will be lost to scholarship.
“I was born and raised in Hartfordand I first saw the collection when I was in first grade,” said Joe Andersonwho has since moved to Singapore and read about selling on the other side of the world. “The cover of the exhibition catalog WE presidential campaigns have sparked a lifelong interest in history.
“The collection was donated to the University of Hartford not as a financial asset, but with the understanding that the U of H would provide institutional stewardship of this important community asset,” he said. “The sale is disgraceful and a complete violation of their stewardship responsibilities.”
Harry R. Rubensteinchairman of the political history division of the Smithsonian at the National Museum of American Historyonce called Dewitt’s collection “one of the leading national collections of political history in the country, both in scope and in quality of material.”
Of particular note, Rubenstein said, are the 19th-century collections, which make it “an invaluable resource for scholars and the public interested in American political life and culture.”
The school released a statement acknowledging the sale to Heritage. Although Heritage said buyers at the auction were “primarily private collectors”, the school said the sale would remove the collection from the warehouse where it had been stored for more than a decade and return it to the public.
“In March 2021, after completing a market assessment and with Board review and approval, the University of Hartford sold the Dewitt collection to Heritage Auctions,” the school said. “Heritage is the third largest auction house in the world and is considered a leading expert in political memorabilia. The collection had been in storage for over 15 years and we are very pleased to have these historic artifacts returned to the public domain to be cared for, shared and celebrated.
For years, the school didn’t know what to do with the collection.
In the early 1980s, then president of the university Stephen J. Trachtenbergthen complained WE Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.. that the school had no place to display the collection to schoolchildren and researchers. A former aide said Weicker was so impressed with what Dewitt had accumulated that he classified it as a “natural resource” and pushed a $5 million ownership by Congress to help pay for a campus building in which it could be displayed.
The school exhibited the collection in 1989; among the regular visitors was Heritage’s Linder, which organized the March auction. But in 2003, the university packed it up and put it in storage to make the exhibit space temporarily available for a traveling exhibit of the National Archives of American Historical Records.
It has never been unpacked. Dewitt’s collection had been locked away in a warehouse north of Hartford since and the school has converted the former exhibition space for other uses.
The university has said for years that it lacks the resources to maintain and display tens of thousands of delicate artifacts. Since Dewitt’s donation came without restriction, the school said the collection is an asset and it has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the assets in the best interest of the institution.
After storing it, the school tried unsuccessfully to sell it to a local institution that would keep it intact and on display. Some were unwilling or unable to pay. Others didn’t want the whole collection.
Among the local institutions that passed were the Old State House, Trinity College’s Watkinson Librarythe University of Connecticut Dodd Research Centerthe Connecticut State Library and Connecticut History Museumthe Connecticut Humanities Counciland the Connecticut Historical Society.
Outside Connecticutthose in decline were the National Archives, Library of Congressthe Smithsonian and the National Constitution Center. the Library of Congress was the only national institution to express interest in the collection, but balked when asked to make a bid, the university said.
When it became apparent five years ago that the school was seriously considering selling the collection, there was local opposition. Among those who challenged the school were Hartford lawyer and collector Hubert J. Santoswho himself had an extensive collection.
Santos argued, unsuccessfully, that the school was prevented from selling by restrictions created when the federal government helped fund a campus building to display it.
Santos and others then turned to the then-state attorney general George Jepsen who reviewed numerous sets of documents related to the donation of the collection and concluded that there were no conditions preventing a sale.
Opponents of the sale thought they had the answer in 2016 by Greenwich businessman Mark R. Shenkmanwho had given generously to UConn and whose personal Americana collection includes original copies of the Declaration of Independence.
Shenkman offered to pay a price determined by the school’s assessor, to keep the collection intact at least during his lifetime, and to make it available to scholars and the public, possibly in a new building at UConn, according to two people involved in the talks.
When the school didn’t respond to Shenckman’s offer for several months, he took the opportunity to invest in another collection, the two people said.
The University of Hartford declined to discuss the matter.
Heritage then won the collection in a competition with other auction houses.
“I rode with a colleague of mine for a week and we evaluated him,” Lindner said. “And we ended up acquiring it from the institution. And then we got back up and it was loaded onto a big tractor-trailer. In fact, we almost couldn’t fit everything in there. But we just did. We had like a foot left.
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