Heritage Auctions, Dallas, Texas
Photos courtesy Heritage Auctions
One down, seven to go. “This was a very successful sale by any measure—number of views, number of new bidders, number of telephone bidders, you name it,” stated Tom Slater, director of Americana auctions for Heritage Auctions, in reference to the company’s Dallas, Texas, October 21, 2017, sale.
Slater’s understated comments cannot help but elicit a smile, knowing that he is referencing the selling of probably the largest and most comprehensive collection of political memorabilia of its kind ever assembled, namely the David and Janice Frent collection of presidential and political Americana. The October sale was the first of eight. Yes, seven more such auctions will be taking place via Heritage Auctions over the course of the next several years.
“The provenance and quality; that this is such a famous collection; that the collection had never been displayed publicly”—all of these factors contributed to “the great deal of interest we had in the items that sold at this first auction of David and Janice Frent’s collection,” Slater said.
Considered one of the very best Henry Clay flags, this Clay and Frelinghuysen 1844 campaign flag banner sold for $81,250 (est. $32,000/48,000). Heritage’s catalog listing explains the historical and political significance of the flag:
“The central device trades on memories of the successful Whig campaign of 1840; there is a large cider barrel, and in the distance, one sees William Henry Harrison’s trademark log cabin. A raccoon rests contentedly atop the barrel with the slogan ‘The same old coon’ above it. This slogan, widely used in 1844, came from the name of a Whig Party newspaper, That Same Old Coon, published from April through November 1844. One of Clay’s popular nicknames was ‘Ol’ Coon,’ seeking to project the same good-old-boy persona that had worked so effectively for Harrison four years earlier.
“Ironically, however, the Democrats managed to co-opt that theme effectively in 1844. Their candidate, James K. Polk, was promoted as ‘Young Hickory’ cast in the mold of ‘Old Hickory’ Andrew Jackson. In 1840, Harrison had the perfect foil in Martin Van Buren, who was lampooned for an aristocratic lifestyle and referred to as ‘His Pomposity’ or ‘Martin van Ruin.’ However, with the playing field more equal in 1844, the Democrats succeeded in thwarting Clay and reclaiming the presidency from the Whigs.”
This large (34½" x 47") Grant and Colfax campaign flag banner is, according to Heritage, “the largest known jugate political campaign flag” and is believed to be the only known example. It sold for $40,000 (est. $40,000/60,000).
Considered one of the rarest variants of a George Washington 1789 inaugural clothing button, this example with a liberty cap device above the initials “GW” sold for $37,500 (est. $4000/6000).
In a presale press release, Slater announced: “Presenting this monumental collection at auction will be quite a challenge. I have presided over the auction sale of some of the greatest political collections, including those of U.I. ‘Chick’ Harris and Merrill Berman. But the Frent Collection dwarfs even those legendary holdings. We anticipate a minimum of eight quarterly catalog auctions of 500-600 lots each, and those will just include the more important pieces in the collection. The Harris and Berman collections each realized over $2 million at auction, and the Frent Collection will unquestionably achieve multiples of that amount.” This first installment realized $911,538 in total sales with a 98% sell-through rate.
The sheer volume of the Frent collection is staggering. The political memorabilia collecting community had an inkling of what the Frents had amassed but only because a number of their items are illustrated in Running for President: The Candidates and Their Images(Simon & Schuster, 1994), a two-volume reference work by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. What wasn’t truly understood was the quality of the items in the Frents’ collection. Across the board, the condition of the pieces is stellar. Slater stated that the condition “was clearly a priority from day one for the Frents. Many of the pieces were the finest we have ever seen, and this did not go unnoticed by bidders.”
David Frent considered this jugate pair of ambrotype images of Buchanan and Breckinridge from the 1856 campaign to be the most important early photographic objects in his collection. The pair sold for $8750 (est. $6400/9600).
This 1905 Susan B. Anthony delegate badge from the New York State Woman Suffrage Association Convention includes the words “‘Perfect Equality of Rights for Women’ / Susan B. Anthony” on the reverse of the 1¾" celluloid that shows an image of Anthony. It sold for $4250 (est. $960/1440).
This previously unseen Lincoln and Johnson 1864 campaign flag banner sold for $15,000 (est. $19,200/28,000). The placement of the names and the different fonts made this flag banner different from any other similar examples.
The Frents began collecting nearly half a century ago soon after they were married. A chance encounter with a Mason jar filled with turn-of-the-century political buttons and their discovery of a mutual interest in American history set the couple on this collecting journey.
That initial Mason jar held a dated 1904 Theodore Roosevelt “The Rough Rider” button in choice condition. The 1½" button shows Roosevelt in his Rough Rider uniform, “which collectors love,” Slater pointed out. Roosevelt holds a scroll that reads, “His Policy / Equal Rights for All.” According to Heritage, only several of these buttons are known, and this example has a perfectly centered image. Estimated at $1600/2400, this button sold for $10,000 (with buyer’s premium).
So it began.
This initial auction to disperse the David and Janice Frent collection of presidential and political Americana highlighted several areas within this collecting genre, specifically campaign flag banners and clothing buttons.
“Flag banners are the elite of the political collecting categories,” Slater stated. The graphics are appealing, and they make great display pieces, but they are also very fragile by nature.
Having bold red overprinting, this Abraham Lincoln 1860 campaign ribbon is considered one of the very best by collectors. It sold for $16,250 (est. $4800/7200). “I feel the campaign ribbons is the strongest category of the Frent collection,” Slater said. “The condition of the ribbons is remarkable. They truly are the best ribbons of any collection I have ever seen.”
Issued in two sizes, this being a 1¾" diameter example (the other is 1¼"), this Theodore Roosevelt “Equality” button sold for $8125 (est. $4800/7200). The button came to be because Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. Many were in favor of the gesture, but just as many were opposed.
How delightful is this Theodore Roosevelt “googly eyes” dexterity game for the 1912 Bull Moose candidate? The box underneath Roosevelt’s chin reads “The Teddy sidewise glance makes the political bosses dance / To do this little stunt, make his eyes look straight in front / Then you vote and I’ll vote and with other votes galore / We’ll land the Bull Moose president within the White House door.” Heritage described the game as “made of heavy cardboard, with each side of his pince-nez a metal cup with thin glass cover. In the center is a depression in which the player would try to roll a small metal ball to complete the pupil of the eye. Getting one side in is a cinch but doing both sides, not so much.” This 8" x 6" game sold for $10,000 (est. $3200/4800). It was one of the favorites of the Frents.
The top lot of this sale was a Clay and Frelinghuysen 1844 campaign flag banner considered one of the very best Henry Clay flags. The Frents’ version was in fantastic condition. Heritage defined it as “essentially mint with the brightest imaginable blue and red hues” but then pointed out the presence of “a little very minor bleeding of the letters in ‘Henry Clay.’” The 27" x 30" flag banner sold for $81,250 (est. $32,000/48,000).
The largest-known jugate political campaign flag, 34½" x 47", fully 3" wider than the familiar 1876 Hayes and Wheeler design, a Grant and Colfax jugate campaign flag banner sold for $40,000 (est. $40,000/60,000). Also thought to be unique was a Lincoln and Johnson 1864 campaign flag banner, where placement of the names and different fonts were used for “Lincoln” and for “Johnson.” In excellent condition and measuring 8½" x 12¾", this banner sold for $15,000 (est. $19,200/28,800).
Hayes portrait textiles such as this 24" x 16" Hayes and Wheeler 1876 jugate cloth banner are not common, as its $10,625 (est. $9600/14,400) selling price would indicate. Heritage Auctions stated, “Two styles of jugate bandannas survive in limited numbers, and there are two flag format banners, of which a total of four examples are known.”
One of the buttons that became the catalyst of the David and Janice Frent collection of presidential and political Americana, this dated 1½" diameter 1904 Theodore Roosevelt “The Rough Rider” button in choice condition sold for $10,000 (est. $1600/2400).
Those who desire women’s suffrage items aggressively vied for this 46½" x 29½" poster featuring Rose O’Neill’s Kewpie figures. It is one of only two known examples. The National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company sought permission to use this signed O’Neill artwork on its poster. It sold for $12,500 (est. $8000/12,000).
The first four lots of the auction made it clear that campaign buttons are a very popular area of collecting. “Buttons are convenient to display and store, with many being collected as a series, which also is appealing,” Slater said.
One of the rarest variants of George Washington’s 1789 inaugural clothing buttons sold at the sale. With a liberty cap device above the initials “GW,” this copper 25 mm diameter button soared to $37,500 (est. $4000/6000).
The George Washington “dotted script” 1789 inaugural clothing button, considered by collectors to be one of the most desirable variants, was also presented for bids. The Frents’ example, very fine, with a smooth surface and light brass in color, sold for $17,500 (est. $4000/6000). Another George Washington 1789 inaugural clothing button, with its original gilded lettering and in the rare larger 20 mm size (there is a smaller version) and, as stated in the catalog, “in unimprovable choice condition,” sold for $15,000 (est. $4800/7200).
“We always tried to obtain the finest condition available,” David Frent explained to Heritage Auctions, adding, “and if we had the opportunity to upgrade, we always took it. We weren’t thinking in investment terms in those days. We just wanted the most appealing examples we could find.”
Women’s suffrage items are also in high demand. The Frents’ collection contained several pieces, the most noteworthy being a poster by Rose O’Neill with “Votes for Women” and Kewpie figures. One of only two known to exist and large in size at 46½" x 29½", this display piece sold for $12,500 (est. $8000/12,000). A Susan B. Anthony 1905 delegate’s badge from the New York State Woman Suffrage Association Convention with the words “‘Perfect Equality of Rights for Women’ / Susan B. Anthony” on the reverse, sold for $4250 (est. $960/1440).
Considering the sheer volume of items that sold and then realizing the volume of items that will make up the remaining auctions of the David and Janice Frent collection, it is staggering to consider that the Frents actually kept and displayed their collection at home. As Janice Frent explained to Heritage Auctions, “It’s hard to imagine living without the collection, but over time the burden of being its custodians has grown harder to bear; it’s a great responsibility. Now we find ourselves looking forward to sharing these much-loved treasures with a new generation of collectors.”
For more information, contact Heritage Auctions at 1-877-437-4824 or (www.historical.ha.com).
Originally published in the February 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest.