Feature in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer

A Philadelphia collection puts Washington's letters in context – and on the market.

By Edward Colimore

Inquirer Staff Writer

With the outcome of the American Revolution hanging in the balance in June 1780, Gen. George Washington was anxiously awaiting key intelligence from New Jersey that could change the course of the war.

Where were the French fleet and the troops under the Count de Rochambeau? How could the Continental Army conduct a campaign against the British that summer without them?

"I thank you for your promise of the earliest communication should any fleet appear . . .," wrote Washington to a New Jersey commander, then keeping watch for the French.

The previously unpublished letter – capturing Washington's apprehension at a crucial moment of the war – belonged to the same family for nearly a century before the Raab Collection in Philadelphia purchased it. It can now be yours for $38,500.

The letter, signed "G Washington," is for sale, along with dozens of other artifacts written by him or his contemporaries, including the Marquis de Lafayette, John Adams, and John Hancock.

Over the last week, thousands of collectors in several countries have been browsing through documents and images in the Raab Collection's catalog. Several have already been sold for prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to $100,000.

"They document the founding of the country, and it's appropriate that they should find their way to Philadelphia," said Nathan Raab, vice president of the collection and a member of the board of trustees of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. "A lot of great moments of the war and the early republic were here in our city."

Among the letters by Washington are one, priced at $88,000, written in 1780 and seeking information from a spy about the size and disposition of British forces in New Jersey and another, priced at $35,000, penned in 1783, when the Continental Army was disbanded after the war.

The Raab Collection acquired the artifacts from families and collectors over time. Raab then created the catalog – online at www.raabcollection.com/news.aspx – to chronicle Washington's life and place it in context.

"The key is that these artifacts . . . don't exist in a vacuum," Raab said. "Things happened before and after them. To think of them outside of their context is to remove their poignancy."

The sale of the artifacts "is not a bad thing," said Andrew Shankman, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in Camden. "It's a shame if it leads to them passing into private hands, where they can't be seen by scholars, but it's also quite possible that institutions can purchase them and make them available for first time."

One of the letters was penned by Lafayette in 1829, long after Washington's death, and describes the Frenchman's great affection for him.

"General Washington was like a father to me, and had an eminent place in the revolution of the United States in the war of independence," wrote Lafayette. A Center City collector bought the letter for $15,000.

A 1779 document penned by then-Gov. Thomas Jefferson focused on the raising of troops for the defense of Virginia. A Center City resident paid $30,000 for it.

Two 1776 artifacts were picked up by collectors in the Philadelphia suburbs. One outlines the reorganization of Washington's army, and the other, by Esek Hopkins, commander in chief of the Continental Navy, describes the distribution of British spoils taken during the first American naval and marine landing on a foreign shore, the Bahamas. They went for $13,500 and $7,000.

"The decision on where to price something comes from decades of experience and a knowledge of the market," Raab said. The items in the catalog "all have their own personalities."

The Washington letters, he said, "mean something. That's where his character shines more." Much of the collection is still unsold, including a 1793 letter from President Washington directing Secretary of State Jefferson to implement a neutrality policy during the war between Britain and France, and an 1811 letter from Adams to a friend in which he writes: "Upon honour! And in conscience! Which Nation is the greatest destroyer of mankind, the French, or the British?"

Washington's letter is going for $100,000 and Adams' for $52,000.

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