Really grand, really old flags come to auction

Posted: April 26, 2012

Military historians call it an anomaly. American naval flags of this pedigree simply don’t exist — not after nearly two centuries. They’re shredded by heavy winds and rain at sea, cannibalized to patch other flags, and eventually lost to time.

But the colors that flew over the U.S.S. Constitution — like “Old Ironsides” itself — have survived, through long voyages across the globe, wars, and battles with pirates.

They were purchased by Virgil Parris of Maine at a government auction following the iconic vessel’s retirement from active service in 1855, and his grandson sold them to the late collector H. Richard Dietrich Jr. of Chester County in 1964.

Now, they’re for up for auction again — and expected to bring in from $1 million to $2 million.

A unique collection of 11 flags from the nation’s oldest still-commissioned naval vessel, along with a rare 13-star flag, will be sold at 6 p.m. Monday at Freeman’s Auctioneers & Appraisers in Center City.

“All are made of bunting, a thin, lightweight woven fabric that could be picked up by the slightest breeze,” said J. Craig Nannos, Freeman’s specialist for the sale. “They’re patched and show considerable wear.

“But I’m not aware of any other ships’ colors of this size and scope from the Civil War or an earlier period,” said the military historian and retired Army colonel. “Naval flags [from that time] don’t exist — that’s what makes these unique.”

The ensigns and pennants, from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, were stored in boxes or kept in a glass-top table display in the living room of Dietrich’s home in Chester Springs. Dietrich, who grew up in Villanova, was a businessman, philanthropist, preservationist, and collector.

“He would take them out and look at them, then put them safely back,” said his son, H. Richard Dietrich 3d of Chevy Chase, Md. “He loved to tell stories about the things he collected.”

The younger Dietrich said his father had a passion for “U.S. maritime history and the early history of the Navy. He didn’t serve in the Navy but was an avid sailor earlier in life, had a deep respect for mariners, and loved the sea,” he said.

While growing up, “I heard about the Constitution, saw paintings and prints of it” — and, of course, the flags, he said. “The long, slender pennants were always fascinating to me. … You could imagine them whipping in the wind from the ship’s mast.”

The Constitution — a three-masted, 44-gun frigate — was named by President George Washington and launched in 1797. It sailed under its own power for its 200th birthday and has been lauded during this year’s bicentennial of the War of 1812.

In its storied career, the warship captured the Niger, the Spencer, and the Sandwich in 1798 during the quasi-war with France. It next fought the Barbary pirates, taking the fight to them at Tripoli in 1804 and blockading the port.

During the War of 1812, the Constitution defeated the British warship Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia and received its nickname “Old Ironsides” when enemy cannonballs ricocheted off the hull. A few months later, it won another battle against the British ship Java.

The ship undertook a 30-month circumnavigation of the world before being taken out of active service in 1855 at the Portsmouth Naval Yard at Kittery, Me. There, it was to be reconditioned as a training vessel for the Naval Academy.

“Finished discharging and paying off the crew,” wrote Capt. John Singleton Rudd in his log. “Transferred the Marine guard to the Marine Barracks and the officers received their leaves of absence and were detached from the ship. Hauled down the colours and the ship was put out of Commission.”

That flag — with its 31 stars — was most likely her last ensign and is among those to be sold at the coming auction. Inscribed on its hoist is “Constitution No. 1,” which refers to the size of the color, measuring more than 11 by 15 feet.

Sometime between 1855 and 1860, that ensign and other colors — spanning more than a half-century of service — were removed from a locker on the ship and auctioned off, along with sails, rigging, spars, hull timbers and instruments.

Virgil Parris, a former state senator in Maine, was “Keeper of Stores” at the Portsmouth Naval Yard and obtained the colors.

His grandson, Ken Parris, sought a new caretaker for the flags about a century later. The collection came to the attention of antiques dealers in Villanova, who arranged the sale to H. Richard Dietrich Jr.

The collection includes four “very significant and extremely rare U.S. ensigns, the earliest believed to be the ship’s 19-star ensign with official usage from December 1816 to December 1817,” Nannos said.

“The next example is also a very rare 28-star ensign with modification, at sea, by the addition of two stars to continue her usage and life span as an updated ensign,” he said. Iowa had come into the union in 1847, followed by Wisconsin in 1848.

Also part of the group of flags is the oldest known example of a U.S. commodore’s broad pennant. It was likely used from 1837 to 1845, based on the 26 stars on its dark blue swallow-tailed color, Nannos said.

The earliest naval ensign from Dietrich’s collection is not from the Constitution. It is an eight-stripe, 13-star U.S. naval flag from the late 18th or early 19th centuries, and is made of wool bunting with appliquéd cotton stars.

Other items include a large commodore’s pennant, a commodore’s pennant for a small boat, a 19-star ensign, an English naval red ensign, an imperial Brazilian ensign, a French Republic naval commissioning pennant, and other flags. A three-pound cannonball from a small artillery gun, removed from the hull of the Constitution, also is being auctioned.

“There has been no grouping of naval colors from this early time to come up for auction,” Nannos said. “They are unique and historically priceless. ”

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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