SBU Libraries acquires second Washington letter

From Chris Filstrup, Dean & Director

Stony Brook arrived in force at Christie’s auction of American documents yesterday. Kristen Nyitray, Richie Feinberg, and I represented the library. We were joined by Barbara Russell, Suffolk County Historian, and Elizabeth Kaplan, Director of Education at the Three Village Historical Association. Both Barbara and Liz are members of the Historical Documents Advisory Board which oversees the library’s several activities related to the purchase of important historical documents. Also joining us was Steven Englebright, our Assemblyman and champion of local history.

The George Washington letter of interest to us was number 48 out of 51 lots. Most of the earlier lots went for amounts at the low end to middle of Christie’s estimates. Exceptions were a copy of the Declaration of Independence printed on vellum which sold for $580,000 and a plaster life caste of Lincoln which sold for $28,000. But the letters, mostly by Lincoln but also several by George Washington, were fetching low to middling amounts.

Bidding on our George Washington letter started at $14,000, and Kristen cooly kept the paddle in her lap. There was interest in the letter, and the price quickly went to $30,000, the top of the estimate, in $2000 increments. At $36,000, there was one bidder in house and one on the phone. There was a lull as the auctioneer waited for a bid at $38,000. Up went Kristen’s paddle. “There’s a new bidder in the house, first row,” announced the auctioneer. From that bid to the end, it was no contest. The in-house bidder quickly dropped out, and it was Kristen versus the phone. At $48,000 the remote bidder must have realized Stony Brook’s determination and went silent. The library is purchasing the letter with a combination of state funds provided by Assemblyman Steven Englebright and a donation by Henry Laufer.

The auction ended with the exciting sale of Lincoln’s manuscript of his 1864 election victory speech. Bidding started at $1.5 million and, in $100,000 increments, rose to $3 million, the final, hammered price. With Christie’s commission, the total price of $3.41 million set a record for an American document. Interestingly, the owner who put the Lincoln manuscript up for auction was a public library in Dryden, New York.

After the dust settled, we chatted with Christie’s staff, several of whom came from or live on Long Island. They were happy to see the letter repatriated and to a public institution. We plan to do this again.


See the Newsday coverage of the auction for further information

See a previous Screen Porch post about the first Washington letter acquired by the library in May 2006

Kristen Nyitray

Kristen Nyitray

Associate Librarian; Director, Special Collections and University Archives; and University Archivist at Stony Brook University Libraries
Contact her for research assistance with rare books, manuscript collections, historical maps, and SBU history. E-mail:
Kristen Nyitray
Posted in New and Notable, Special Collections & University Archives