Auctions | May 15, 2012

Swann's Most Successful Book Auction Ever: Allyn Kellogg Ford Collection

New York—Swann Galleries’ Autograph and Revolutionary Americana auction on April 17 featured the collection of Allyn Kellogg Ford, sold to benefit the Minnesota Historical Society. The sale shattered numerous records and totaled more than $2 million with buyer’s premium, making it the most successful auction in the long history of the Swann book department. The phone bidding was so heavy that the morning session went an hour longer than expected, extending past the scheduled start of the afternoon session.

The top lot in the sale was a 1781 letter written by General Washington’s aide-de-camp Jonathan Trumbull, describing the British surrender at Yorktown. Estimated at $4,000 to $6,000, it was hotly contested between two bidders seated adjacently in the room. The two stared each other down with arms raised as the bidding rose rapidly. The letter was won by a private collector for a final price of $90,000*.

Multiple letters by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were highlights of the sale. On this day, at least, Jefferson proved slightly more popular, with the six Jeffersons averaging $34,200 each, and the seven Washingtons bringing an average of $25,714.

At least 14 items in the morning session broke records: The previous record for a Thomas Nelson letter was $18,750. Three Nelson letters in the sale passed that record, with the new record being $26,400 for Nelson’s 22 January 1778 letter discussing General Washington’s crude hut at Valley Forge.

Similarly, the previous record for a James McHenry letter was $5,100. Four McHenry letters in the Ford sale topped that price, with the highest fetching $9,600. The prior record for a Jonathan Trumbull Jr. letter was $2,640, now passed by two important letters that brought $90,000 and $8,400.

The sale also set records for letters by David Hume at $48,000, William Alexander at $3,600, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee at $15,600, and John P.G. Muhlenberg at $6,240.

While the $57,600 paid for Thomas Jefferson’s letter describing Arnold’s raid on Richmond was not a record for a Jefferson letter, it was easily the most ever paid for a letter written during his eventful term as Governor of Virginia.

Ford acquired much of his collection at auction in the 1930s and 1940s, and his investments have done well over the years. At least two of his letters were acquired at Swann Galleries, and were thus passing through our hands a second time. A John Sullivan letter was purchased at Swann in 1944 for $5, and sold in 2012 for $1,080. A 1781 letter by George Weedon was purchased at Swann in 1948 for $16, and sold for $1,800. Both items appreciated at more than ten times the rate of inflation.

While private collectors and dealers dominated the sale, a few significant lots were acquired by institutions, most notably a 1780 George Washington letter, $26,400; a 1781 letter by Declaration Signer Richard Henry Lee at $11,400; and two James McHenry letters, $8,400 and $5,520. The South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina acquired a dramatic 1781 letter by Governor John Rutledge for $2,160.

For complete results, an illustrated catalogue (with prices realized on request) is available for $35 from Swann Galleries, Inc., 104 East 25th Street, New York, NY 10010. Catalogue and prices are also available online at

For further information, and to propose consignments to upcoming Americana auctions, please contact Rick Stattler by telephone at (212) 254-4710, extension 27, or email:

*All prices include buyer’s premium.