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FLY ME TO THE MOON: SPACE-FLOWN FLAGS

A flag signed by Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott, which he carried in his space suit when he walked on the moon’s surface, sold in September 2020 for $22,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of RR Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

We can’t all go to space, even if we desperately want to. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the governing body that defines space flight, states that as of July 2021, only 574 individuals from 41 countries have made it to outer space, which is defined as traveling higher than 100 miles or 62 kilometers. Of those 574, just 12 have walked on the moon.

The next-best thing to traveling in space is owning a souvenir that did. Flags might be the most iconic space-flown collectibles. They combine national identity, culture, community, ideals and history, all in one recognizable medium. And with the price of launching cargo into orbit still hovering around $10,000 per pound, flags have the merit of being flat, light and easy to roll up or fold. While space-flown flags are relatively abundant compared to other space-flown objects, they aren’t unlimited in number, and those from the early years of space exploration can be difficult to acquire.

In April 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to circle the Earth. It’s not known whether or not his tiny capsule contained personal souvenirs. In contrast, NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions routinely permitted souvenir items on spacecraft, the lunar landing craft and even the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) – what most of us would call the moon buggy. To conserve weight, American flags measuring no larger than 4 by 6 inches were allowed on board (larger flags were flown as well, just not as many). Individual astronauts carried these flags in a Personal Preference Kit, or PPK.

A flag flown on STS-1 Columbia, the first space shuttle mission, sold in May 2016 for $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NASA had its own Official Flight Kit, or OFK, in which flags and similar souvenirs were sent on behalf of the agency itself. Anything in the astronauts’ kits belonged to them; anything in the NASA kits were property of NASA. Collectors care about this distinction. Flags carried by American astronauts in PPKs have higher auction values overall than those that ventured to space in a NASA OFK.

Several hundred American flags went to space on the early NASA missions, and most of those were of the 4-by-6-inch variety, according to collectspace.com. Many more flags were brought into space during the NASA shuttle program. Tthe final shuttle mission, STS-135 Atlantis in 2011, listed 20,000 small US flags in its cargo manifest. Flags continue to make the extraterrestrial roundtrip as part of the inventory of the International Space Station.

Larger flags carried aboard the early NASA missions and on shuttle flights were usually earmarked for specific presentations at schools, nonprofit programs, government agencies and as gifts for international visitors. The website spaceflownartifacts.com states these examples rarely appear at auction.

Collectors consider four major factors when determining the value of

a space-flown flag: 

1 – which space mission took it to the stars and back

2 – whether it made the journey in a PPK or an OPK

3 – where it was stored during the voyage

4 – who owned the flag during the flight and after it returned to Earth.

A flag carried aboard the Apollo 11 mission and later signed by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin sold in November 2004 for $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Flags flown on Mercury and Gemini NASA missions are relatively scarce and highly desired because they rank among the earliest objects to orbit the planet. Flags from space shuttle missions and those taken aboard the International Space Station qualify as space-flown but are much more accessible and affordable, especially for new collectors.

Understandably, flags flown on any of the 12 Apollo lunar missions always have serious auction value. Even then, where the flag was stored during the lunar missions affects how ardently bidders pursue them at auction. Flags that stayed in the spacecraft are prized, but those that were carried onto the lunar surface in the space suits of the astronauts are worth even more.

Not all Apollo missions are equal, either. Flags flown aboard Apollo 11, the first mission whose astronauts walked on the moon; and Apollo 13, the mission that was aborted due to mechanical difficulty, command more than flags from the other four moon missions. And as with any realm of collectibles, historic firsts affect an object’s value. The spaceflownartifacts.com website notes:

“Apollo 8 being the first mission to the moon gives flags carried on that mission a certain cachet.”

Foreign national flags from early NASA flights are relatively rare. This signed Tunisian flag that flew aboard Gemini 4 sold in June 2019 for $1,153 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The entity the flag represents also plays a role. Collectors bid the most for American flags, followed by foreign national flags, state or territory flags, the flag of NASA or other agency flags, and those with the livery of a particular church, school, corporation or other entity that has sentimental value to the astronaut who stashed it in a PPK.

Provenance obviously matters, and is fairly easy to confirm for many space-flown flags. Some astronauts from early missions signed their names directly onto a flag along with mission-specific details, but this practice wasn’t consistent or standardized (other astronauts only added a serial number to the flag, which was accompanied by a signed certificate). Later on, an agreed procedure took shape: Space-flown flags were mounted on presentation certificates created by each individual astronaut. These certificates usually featured a signature, mission details, perhaps a mission patch and a date a format consistent enough to reliably establish provenance. NASA, too, also created specially-designed certificates of its own for its flag presentations.

Collectors should be wary of unmounted flags that are not signed or identified in any way. A story alone is not sufficient to prove a flag left the Earth and came back home again. Mounted flags that are accompanied by a handmade document or photocopy of a signed or unsigned certificate lack the power of better-established examples. 

A set of space-flown American and Russian flags commemorating the joint docking effort of the US space shuttle with the Russian space station Mir in 1995 sold in April 2005 for $600 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Aurora and LiveAuctioneers

Human beings will continue to venture into space and deeper into the solar system. Space tourists, who pay top dollar to experience thrills that were once limited to a professional elite, are making their own history. One thing is for sure: current and future space travelers will continue to take flags with them, and there will always be collectors who clamor for them. 

Rally ‘Round These American Flags

A 30-star American Flag with a charming scattered-star pattern sold for $1,600 plus the buyer’s premium at Cowan’s in June 2019. 
Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Many national flags are older than the flag of the United States, but no national flag has changed as often. From 1777, with the adoption of the 13-star design, to 1960, when it assumed the current 50-star pattern, the American Flag has officially changed no fewer than 27 times during the past 245 years.

The American Flag’s appearance is familiar, but unfixed. A new star is added to its canton the word for the blue field in the upper left for any new state on the following July 4th after its admittance to the Union. With Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico pursuing statehood, the look of the American flag could change at some point.

A flag that exists in more than two dozen iterations, interpreted by countless creators during more than two centuries, provides rich pickings for collectors. Naturally, some American Flags are more sought-after than others. Below are some of the most coveted styles and forms.

An early 19th century 13-star US flag made as a small boat flag for the US Navy sold for $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Dan Morphy Auctions in December 2019. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The 13-Star Flag

Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” That was the entire Congressional Resolution of June 14, 1777 that officially adopted the national flag of the new United States of America. There was no meaning attached to the colors, the shape of the stars, or whether the stripes were horizontal or vertical. The flag was only intended to identify the new country aboard Navy vessels when entering foreign ports.

Additional resolutions were adopted later specifying that new states beyond the first 13 would be recognized on the flag with their own stars. This ensured the American flag would routinely change as the country expanded westward.

The 13-star flag remained official until the admission of Vermont and Kentucky in 1795, yet there is no credible 13-star American Flag that has survived the 18th century.

American Flags found at auction that feature 13 stars were used primarily by the US Navy on smaller launch boats from the 1850s to 1916, when the national flag was substituted instead.

The Star Pattern

Until the advent of the commercial sewing machine around 1850 (which could only sew in a straight line), all American Flags were stitched by hand, and they were not routinely displayed at home. These facts makes any American Flag of this period the most coveted at auction.

American Flags made after 1850 but before the circa 1890 advent of the zig-zag sewing machine (which could sew stars in place) are the second most desired at auction. Flags manufactured after 1900 are less scarce.

It is important to note that the appearance of the American Flag was not regulated until 1912, when a canton with a 48-star box-like pattern was deemed the official flag design for government and military use. Prior to 1912, manufacturers and individuals created any star pattern they wanted, and some of them were exceptionally innovative and eye-catching. Unsurprisingly, the most unusual and creative star patterns have proven the most collectible at auction.

Once codified, the 48-star American Flag relied on all-wool bunting until World War II, when cotton was substituted to conserve the wool for uniforms. Wool flags, then, are generally about a third more valuable than cotton ones.

The 49-star American Flag, adopted when Alaska earned admission to the Union in 1959, was official for only one year, as Hawaii gained entrance in 1960. For this reason, it is the most collectible American Flag in any size or format. The 50-star American Flag is the longest-lived variation on the design, and is the most common.

Collectors who want to build an unusual collection seek American Flags with an unofficial number of stars, such as 14, 16 to 19, 22, 39 to 42, or 47, especially in hand-sewn wool bunting, as most examples are particularly scarce.

Civil War Flags

The three national flags of the Confederate States of America and the two national flags of the United States of this period one featuring 34 stars, and one 35 stars are extremely collectible and routinely auctioned with high reserves.

Apart from the national flags, individual regimental flags from both North and South were hand-sewn with great care. Any that appear to have been made in haste or seem unusually battle-worn are typically outed as fake.

An Apollo 10 American flag that flew to the lunar surface sold for $2,400 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2014. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Flags Flown in Space

Humans have flown in space only since Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union successfully completed one orbit around Earth in 1961. Since then, about 560 individuals have experienced true weightlessness in space, not counting the 242 visitors to the International Space Station (the structure is positioned in low Earth orbit, which sticklers don’t count as space travel).

Astronaut Alan Shepard was the first to carry an American Flag in space during his Mercury Freedom 7 capsule voyage in 1961, roughly three weeks after Gagarin’s flight. Since then, American astronauts have been allowed to pack a few personal belongings in a PPK (personal preference kit) that usually includes small American flags to distribute as souvenirs once they return home. Each of these space-flown flags routinely garner great interest at auction.

But flags flown to the moon are easily the most prized. The 18 astronauts chosen for the six Apollo missions collectively brought several hundred small American flags on their extraterrestrial journeys, leaving few for would-be owners to fight over.

Documentation proves this shredded 48-star wool American Flag flew over the US Capitol on April 6, 1917 – the day that war was declared against Germany. It sold at Dan Morphy Auctions in December 2020 for $1,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Historic or Special Event Flags

A tradition among those serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts calls for those on patrol to tuck small American Flags inside their uniforms. Once home, the flags are normally given to staff, family members, or institutions. Only occasionally have they sold at auction. Such flags fit the definition of “special event” flags, which can draw the interest of collectors.

An American Flag that flew over the White House or U.S. Capitol during historic or meaningful occasions tend to keep their value. Examples of events that can pique the interest of flag collectors are those flown during inaugurations; when a deceased president or legendary person lies in state; or when an act of war is declared.

Flags flown from a prominent location during a high-profile event such as the Olympics, the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the like can attract serious bidding at auction. Those that hovered over a gathering on a notable day of remembrance, such as a 9/11 anniversary, might be sought-after as well.

Still others that command attention are those bearing the signature of a president or someone of similar prominence; early campaign flags; folk art flags; flags sewn by prisoners of war; and those with a celebrity connection or a backstory that distinguishes its provenance.

More than a Collectible

Any American Flag that bears the official number of stars is never decommissioned even if it is rendered obsolete by an updated design. Whether it floated over a battlefield or traveled to the surface of the moon or never left the flagpole in the front yard, an American flag represents a compelling story of freedom, liberty, and national identity that makes it more than just a collectible.

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Collecting Old Glory

The American Flag is an object of admiration and empowerment. Songs have been written about it, poems reference it, it’s the subject of artwork and countless designs, and it is at the core of the patriotism felt by many generations of Americans. The American flag also symbolizes the character of a nation and its people.

That’s a lot for a piece of textile to live up to, but the American Flag has done so for 250 years, since its design first began to take shape. To examine the changes in American Flag design over the centuries and the appeal it holds to collectors, we turned to foremost flag expert Jeff R. Bridgman, principal of Jeff R. Bridgman Antiques, Inc. www.jeffbridgman.com.

As Bridgman explained in his researched writing The Evolution of the Design of the American National Flag, the Sons of Liberty played an integral role in the foundation of the flag and its design. This came about in 1767 as the group worked to muster support within the colonies against British tyranny. History references the adoption, by the Sons of Liberty, of a flag featuring nine vertical stripes, alternating between white and red, as a symbol of the nine colonies that opposed the Stamp Act of 1765. Reports also point to the presence of flags featuring variations of the stripes, and the color selection, with the occasional inclusion of blue, in the design of flags seen during the early years of the Revolutionary War, according to Bridgman’s research.

Depiction of the Grand Union Flag, aka Continental Colors, thirteen horizontal stripes in alternating red and white, with the British Union Jack in its canton. Artwork by Hoshie.

An example of this is the “Grand Union” flag, largely accepted as the first national flag of the United States. This flag featured 13 stripes of alternating red and white, with the image of the British Union Flag positioned in its canton, at the top left corner. This flag would remain the generally accepted flag of the United States until June 14, 1777, when Flag Day was established and the recognizable “Stars & Stripes” version stitched by Betsy Ross was officially adopted. The resolution of the Second Continental Congress accepted on June 14, 1777 states: “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.”

Bridgman spoke of two other moments in the history of the flag’s design as being especially significant.

“The next would be 1795, when the flag was officially updated to include two more stars and two more stripes. In 1818 it was updated again, adding five more stars, but the stripe count was returned to the original thirteen. At the same time, it was decided that the flag would be updated annually, on July 4th, if any new states were added over the course of the ‘flag year,’” he said.

“For the first 135 years of our flag’s existence, it actually had no official star pattern, no official shades of red and blue, and no official proportions. There was also no official number of points that the stars had to have. All of this was decreed in 1912 via an Executive Order of President William Howard Taft.”

Hand-sewn cotton 34-star Civil War flag, canton incorporating the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George, possibly made with Southern sympathies, 1861-63. The stars are double-appliqued – sewn to both sides. Measures 48¾ by 68½ inches. Price: $26,500, available from www.jeffbridgman.com.

Bridgman went on to say, “Those were the big years. Also important was 1861. Before this date, private citizens seldom flew the Stars and Stripes. The onset of the Civil War and some related events changed all that.”

Flag Fact: The current version of the American Flag, featuring 13 alternating red and white stripes, and 50 stars on a blue background, has been in place since 1960 with Hawaii’s admittance into the Union as the 50th state.

With such a robust and multilayered history, it’s little wonder that American Flags are so coveted by collectors. In terms of current interest for the American Flag market, Bridgman cites the particular appeal of flags with historical ties. This places Civil War flags, both Confederate and Union, squarely in the arena of greatest popularity. Also influencing today’s collecting trends is the recent controversy over the Confederate battle flag. The removal of Confederate monuments is actually fueling the market for legitimate historical materials, Bridgman said, adding that collectors have a heightened sense of awareness about how our nation’s history is preserved.

“We use history to teach our kids about how we have grown as a nation. Confederate flags are a part of that,” he said. “They are a part about how we struggled and evolved. The objects that the war produced – textiles and otherwise – are beautiful and fascinating in their own right.”

Another area receiving attention from collectors are political campaign flags. “(They) are achieving results at auction like never before,” Bridgman said.

Evidence of Market Interest: In more than a few instances, antique campaign flags entered an elevated level at auction in 2017. During its July 2017 auction, Hakes’ Americana & Collectibles presented a selection of campaign flags that prompted several well-publicized bidding battles. For example, an 1860 Lincoln and Hamlin campaign flag sold for $40,124; and a John Bell Constitutional Union Party flag rose to $13,700, nearly tripling its high estimate of $5,000, according to an article posted by Antique Trader. Yet, the example that made auction history was a campaign flag touting James Buchanan and John C. Breckinridge as the Democratic Party’s running mates in the U.S. presidential election of 1856. The flag sold for a record-setting $275,000 during a May 2017 auction conducted by Heritage Auctions. The winning bidder was none other than Bridgman, according to an article posted by LiveAuctioneers’ Auction Central News.

1860 campaign parade flag with 33 stars in a pentagon medallion configuration and with an uncommon abbreviation of President Lincoln’s first name. The flag’s provenance includes a period of time when it was sewn into a quilt consisting of several rare political flags. Measures 11½ by 17 inches. Price: $48,000, available from www.jeffbridgman.com.

In addition to activity at auction and direct sales through his company, Bridgman is also witnessing the appeal and interest in American Flags first hand at the many shows he attends each year.

“(Shows) usually provide a ton of education for both collectors and dealers alike. Sometimes we learn as much or more from clients as we teach them. Shows are often full of educated, interested historians and collectors of all kinds,” said Bridgman. “They are a great place to actually see and touch material first hand and ask all of the questions necessary and get answers straight from the horse’s mouth, if you will.”

Attendance at shows helps with the overall education of a collector, which is something they will draw on for a lifetime. This is particularly important when people are purchasing flags from sellers via the Internet. The virtual world can provide unimaginable opportunity, but it also can be an overwhelming and confusing place for collectors just getting started, according to Bridgman. This speaks to the importance of educating oneself and becoming familiar with the history of both flags and textiles.

Tips From the Top: Bridgman’s Advice About Starting a Flag Collection

  • Buy from experts who have handled many flags. Don’t be drawn to the temptation of saving a dollar. If you do, you’ll more often lose dollars than win them. This goes for all categories of antiques and is in no way unique to flags. Whether it is silver, paintings, tramp art, decoys, porcelain, guns, or quilts, go to someone who knows their materials backwards and forwards and can be positively trusted to identify authenticity. A good deal will also tell you when they don’t know something.
  • After you’ve selected an expert and chosen some objects that you like, go with your gut. You’ll usually be happiest when you pick something you love.
  • Protect your investment by getting it mounted and framed by an expert in conservation of early textiles. Use U.V. protective glass or Plexiglas, change your lighting to LED, and minimize ambient light exposure when you are not using the space occupied by the textile.

With more than 25 years in the business of acquiring and selling flags, Bridgman’s appreciation for flags, their history and meaning runs deep.

“I love flags because they are not only an objectification of my love for America, its history and all it was intended by our forefathers to stand for, but also what America offers to people with the wherewithal follow to their dreams,” he said. “I also love the flag for the artistic achievement of the people who made it in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people had the liberty to design it as they chose.”

Thirteen-star American Navy jack with a diamond configuration that is unique among 13-star flags, likely made for a Hudson River paddle wheel steamer, circa 1880-1895. The jack flag is flown at the bow (front) of a military ship when at anchor or moored. Measures 23¾ by 35¼ inches, mounted and framed by Bridgman Antiques, Inc., conservation department. Price: $9,800, available from www.jeffbridgman.com.

At any given time, Bridgman has about 2,500 flags in stock, with the majority dating to the 19th century, some from the 20th century. Interestingly, recently he re-acquired a flag he had sold years ago. His in-depth explanation about the flag’s provenance demonstrates the type of appreciation Bridgman has for flags, and his intention to help others cultivate that appreciation for themselves.

The flag he re-acquired, Bridgman explained, is “a Liberation flag, made in France to celebrate the arrival of American troops following the Normandy invasion. Specifically, it was given to the 3rd Squad of the 8th Infantry Regiment (Motorized), which served under the 4th Infantry Division during the June 6 attack.”

He went on to say, “On the following day, the unit relived the famous 82nd Airborne Division at Ste. Mere/Eglise, battling German tanks and Panzer Regiments. Members of the French resistance movement presented the flag to the 3rd squadron while passing through French territory, and the squad proceeded to carry it through the balance of the war.”

“It has a beautiful, light blue, silk canton and wide red stripes that are a deep scarlet,” Bridgman said, describing the flag. “Like many of the flags I love best, it’s beautiful and unusual as well as historical.”

Finally, when asked about the valuable lessons that can be learned from exploring the American Flag’s long design evolution, Bridgman offered the following thoughts:

“[An appreciation for] quality hard work and a job well done, caringly delivered, value in handcrafted construction and thoughtful design; pride in patriotic love for our country, its people, and the men and women of our military who, with their own will and that of many great presidents and leaders, have afforded us all of the things we have today.”

He continued: “Many of these we take for granted, wanting more and more, and demanding special attention at every turn. A historic flag reminds me of a simpler time, when men and women made their own happiness from their own sweat and endeavors, and thanked God for what this great nation made available.”

To learn more about American flags, visit www.jeffbridgman.com.

 

Links to sources mentioned:

“Evolution of the Design of the American National Flag”:
http://www.jeffbridgman.com/pdf/2017-THE%20EVOLUTION%20OF%20THE%20DESIGN%20OF%20THE%20AMERICAN%20NATIONAL%20FLAG%20FROM%201767%20-%201912,%20AS%20IT%20RELATES%20TO%20COLLECTING%20ANTIQUE%20EXAMPLES.pdf

Flag Fact:
http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/flagfact.html

Sale of Lincoln and Hamlin flag through Hake’s:
http://www.antiquetrader.com/antiques/collectibles/1860-campaign-flag-sets-world-record/

Sale of Buchanan flag through Heritage:
https://www.liveauctioneers.com/news/auctions/auction-results/james-buchanan-1856-campaign-flag-posts-world-record-heritage-auctions/