Alexander Hamilton’s powder horn up for auction

He’s on the face of the $10 bill.  His name is part of my collegiate alma mater.  There’s a Broadway musical about his life, a musical that will most likely sweep the Tony Awards.

And now there’s a chance for one lucky bidder to claim one of Alexander Hamilton’s personal items.

His powder horn.

Alexander Hamilton's original powder horn. Image courtesy Sterling Associates.
Alexander Hamilton’s original powder horn. Image courtesy Sterling Associates.

Bear in mind that any artifacts that can be traced back to Alexander Hamilton are extremely rare.  After his death in 1804 in a duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s estate sold off his possessions to pay off his debts.  Only the dueling pistols from that fateful day, which are currently in the possession of JPMorgan Chase (and which were only recently displayed at the New York Historical Society) have been traced back to Hamilton’s possession.

Until now.

On January 11, Sterling Associates will offer a 60-lot auction of historic memorabilia.  Lot #60 is the centerpiece of the event – a powder horn owned by Alexander Hamilton, with plenty of paperwork to prove its provenance.  Powder horns were often filled with gunpowder and were used for loading rifles and muskets; the horns were often decorated with carvings and symbolic artwork.

“It’s one of the most amazing pieces of history I’ve ever touched,” said Stephen D’Atri, owner of Sterling Associates, the company chosen to auction the relic. “This is not a household decoration or an award. This is a very personal item that Hamilton would have kept close and viewed on a daily basis. He engraved it with inspirational words and symbols that were personally meaningful to him.”

D’Atri likens the powder horn to “a traveling mission statement. Hamilton was a follower of the writings of Machiavelli and Sir Francis Bacon. The carved symbols, some of which referred to the two men’s doctrines, were what motivated him in life, so it’s reasonable to assume that Hamilton carried the powder horn with him everywhere he went. Remember, these were not times when there were Tony Robbins videos or Dale Carnegie books.”

Among the images on the horn are:

  • A large unicorn, symbolizing fortune and also Scotland, enhanced with a cinquefoil (five-petal flower) from the Hamilton coat-of-arms
  • An estate with fenced-in land and streams, symbolizing wealth and means
  • A roundel of fasces (sticks tied with rope), an Ancient Roman token for civil authority
  • A roundel with cinquefoil, representing honor and a nod to Hamilton’s noble Scottish roots

It is also boldly carved “Alexander Hamilton 1773” and “First When When [sic.] Came To Ohio,” a phrase made in reference to American settlement.

“Based on the words and art Hamilton carved on the horn, there can be no question that he was highly principled and driven to succeed,” said D’Atri.

Many successive generations of Hamilton descendants believed that all of their famous ancestor’s belongings had been disseminated to parts unknown at the 1804 estate auction. But the powder horn, which turned up fifty years ago in a long-forgotten trunk stored in a New Jersey residence, rekindled historians’ hopes that a significant personal possession of Hamilton’s – other than his dueling gun – had survived.  The powder horn’s present owner has consigned the treasure to Sterling Associates for their auction, and has spent several years documenting and authenticating the powder horn.

The Alexander Hamilton Powder Horn is the centerpiece and closing lot of Sterling Associates’ Jan. 11, 2016 Historical Americana Auction. All bidding will be conducted remotely [phone, absentee or online], but the company is a brick-and-mortar establishment where anyone can inspect the goods. Internet and pre-auction absentee bidding is available through LiveAuctioneers.com at this link.

The auction will commence at 5 p.m. Eastern Time. The live gallery preview is from 10-3 on Wed.-Fri. 10-3 and Monday 10-3; or by appointment. The gallery is located at 70 Herbert Ave., Closter, NJ 07624. Bidding methods include phone, absentee or live online.

For additional information on any item in the auction or to reserve a phone line, call 201-768-1140 or e-mail info@antiquenj.com. Online: www.antiquenj.com. View the fully illustrated catalog online at www.LiveAuctioneers.com.

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