Auctioneer to sell rare Revolutionary War medal
— Are you a falerist? If so, you might be interested in the holy grail of military medals that a county-based auctioneer plans to put on the block this weekend.
Bill Panagopulos, of Alexander Historical Auctions in Chesapeake City, recently received an exceedingly rare Society of the Cincinnati medal, of which only 180 were made in the late 18th century for the heroes of the Revolutionary War. Further, he believes this medal once belonged to Maj. Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the German officer who trained and organized the Continental Army and created the fighting force which would finally defeat the British at Yorktown. Panagopulos called the discovery of the medal a “tale straight out of Antiques Roadshow.”
The auctioneer believes the medal, along with von Steuben’s English-German dictionary, his copy of the army regulations he drafted, and his ornate shoe buckles, cane and vest were passed down to Mina von Steuben, nearly two centuries later. Upon her passing in 1963, Panagopulos
thinks the items were given to another family member who never looked through the items, deciding instead to sell all of her effects at auction.
Then in 1989, a New York auction picker found the items mixed in with costume jewelry at a country auction in Fogelsville, Pa., a mere 15 minutes from where Mina von Steuben lived. Not quite sure what he had discovered, the picker bought the lot of von Steuben items just to be safe. He later sold the items to a collector of German-American militaria and now after 30 years in private hands, the incredible find may net six figures, Panagopulos estimates.
While the medal was found with the personal effects of the von Steuben family and his research finds a likely connection to the famous military general’s family, it lacks the definitive authenticity of being directly connected through a family member, which could affect its value at auction, Panagopulos admitted.
“George Washington’s medal, which was presented to his adopted son and had tracked lineage, sold for $5.5 million at auction,” he said, noting this item doesn’t have quite the same pedigree.
Regardless, the Society of the Cincinnati, which does not legally authenticate, told him that they are comfortable that it is a medal issued following the revolution even if its lineage cannot be definitively determined. Its design also makes it more valuable than others issued in the same period, Panagopulos said.
“Pierre L’Enfant made 140 medals of one version and 40 of another, and interestingly enough, more of the smaller lot are still around today,” he said. “This medal is one of the more rare larger lot.”
Only four other Society of the Cincinnati medals of this type are known to exist, two of which were sold at auction in the past decade to private collectors. Even the society itself, which continues to serve as a service organization today, does not own such a medal.
While he expects the medal to attract attention from collectors of Revolutionary War artifacts, he also believes falerists, or collectors of medals, or even an institution like the Society of the Cincinnati will be interested in this exceedingly rare piece. Bidding will open Sunday in Wilmington, Del., at $75,000, but Panagopulos said he expects it to fetch between $150,000 and $250,000, with bids coming in person and by phone and online.
The auction also includes over 300 additional items representing America’s colonial history, including a letter sent by Massachusetts Reps. Joseph Warren, Artemas Ward and Moses Gill begging the New York Congress to supply them with desperatelyneeded gunpowder. None came, and two weeks later Warren and fellow patriots would be killed at Bunker Hill — when they ran out of gunpowder.
Panagopulos’ auction house, which typically holds five to six auctions a year, has found a successful home in small town Chesapeake City. His shop doesn’t shy away from controversy and often trades in Nazi Germany items, but it also specializes in early American military and political items, such as those seen in the December auction.
While his auctions often feature pieces worth 10 times the average county resident’s salary, Panagopulos said that auctions aren’t immune from the ebb and flow of the economy.
“It’s been an up-and-down year, probably due to the political uncertainty,” he said, noting buyers don’t always spend as often in such times. “With a new government going in, it will either be boom or bust. No one really knows.”
“The lower end of the market tends to be chiefly affected as it fluctuates wildly with the economy and people’s sentiments. The top of the market always goes up because it’s rare and desirable — and it always will be.”
This Society of the Cincinnati medal from the Revolutionary War is estimated to fetch up to $250,000 at auction this weekend.