Three ‘very important’ 1759 war letters bring $53K at auction

By Jesse Robitaille

Realizations include 17 per cent buyer’s premium.

With an estimate of $5,000, what auctioneers describe as a “very important trio of letters in very fine condition” crossed the block for $53,820 during Sparks Auctions’ latest sale.

Hosted by the Ottawa-based auction house on Jan. 30-Feb. 1, the five-session sale was “another huge success,” according to Stéphane Cloutier, Sparks’ director of lotting and consignments. The top-earning lot – the aforementioned trio of folded war letters dating back to the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham – came as a bit of a surprise to auctioneers.

“We had no idea it would go so high,” said Cloutier. “In this case, there were two people who desperately wanted to have those letters, but several others left the bidding earlier.”

The winning bidder is “not necessarily a stamp collector but a collector of Canadian historical documents,” Cloutier added.

“The reason why it went so high is these letters are very rare. The contents of the letters are also important. As soon as you start talking about actual events – not just, ‘I can’t wait to see you,’ or, ‘Little Johnny hasn’t been sleeping’ – it becomes very interesting.”

Crossing the block as Lot 1102, all three letters were written to Capt. Boughey Skey, of the 43rd Regiment of Foot (Kennedy’s Grenadiers), who was the commander of the guard at the bridges over the St. Charles River.

“There’s something to the effect they had to leave the next morning,” said Cloutier. “It was right in the heat of the action.”

Written in ‘the heat of the action,’ the three war-time letters offered as Lot 1102 are ‘very rare,’ according to auctioneers.

The first letter is datelined “Camp Point Lévis 28th July 1759 / 10 at Night” and was written by Brigade Major John Spital, who was later wounded during the battle on Sept. 13, 1759. Spital wrote to inform Skey “… by orders of the General … you march to the Encampment of the Grenadiers … and put yourself under Major Morris’s Orders … your men are only to carry their blankets with them.”

The general refers to General James Wolfe, who was commanding British troops in the battle against French troops and Canadian militia working under General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm.

Only a few days later, on July 31, 1759, the Battle of Montmorency was fought in what was the first attempt by British troops to land on the northern shore of the Montmorency River.

The second letter is datelined “Québec October the 21st 1759” and was written by Brigade Major Richard Maitland, who was later wounded on Aug. 8, 1759. Maitland informed Skey about Wolfe’s intelligence reports, suggesting there were enemies “on your side, and that they intend to surprise you … he desires that you be very alert.”

The third letter is datelined “Québec 22 (October) 1759 / 6 oclock” and was written by Thomas Mills, who was later wounded in spring 1760. Mills informed Skey he would be sending “40 men out to the Country, they will come near your post at night.”

“None of the letters have any postal indications and would have been carried ‘post haste’ by army officers in this tumultuous time in Québec,” said Cloutier, who added the St. Charles River, where Skey and his troops were posted, “is the principal river within Québec City and played a prominent role during the Québec Campaign of 1759-60.”

A 1929 flown registered cover featuring five first-day-of-issue airmail stamps brought $3,744 on an estimate of $2,000 as Lot 1564.

PONT COLLECTION

The recent auction also offered the first part of the Leon Victor Pont Collection of early India, New Zealand and worldwide pioneer flight covers.

Realizations “went through the roof,” Cloutier said, adding the interest in this collection is owed to it being available for the first time in nearly a century.

“The Pont Collection is one that had not seen the light of day since the 1930s, when Pont left India to move back to England,” said Cloutier, who added Pont returned in 1937 “much to the chagrin of his good friend Stephen Smith.”

“There’s a very interesting story between him and Mr. Smith.”

A co-founder of the Indian Air Mail Society, Smith ran out of money to finance his first flight and rocket endeavours after Pont left India. Smith would often write Pont for help and eventually sold him his best worldwide first flight covers, Cloutier said.

Among these highlights is Lot 1564, a 1929 flown registered cover featuring five first-day-of-issue airmail stamps.

“It’s fairly representative of the rest of the collection,” Cloutier said, adding this lot sold for $3,744 on an estimate of $2,000.

Mailed on Nov. 4, 1929, from Park Street, a famous thoroughfare in Calcutta, to Pont in London, England, the cover was carried “by Imperial Airways / India – Great Britain.” It also features four different airmail labels plus a boxed handstamp reading “FIRST DAY / OF ISSUE OF / AIR MAIL STAMPS.” The cover is signed on the back by G. Grant, the stamps’ designer, as well as Stephen H. Smith.

“This is new material that’s never been on the market before, and as with anything in philately, that’s interesting to collectors,” said Cloutier, who added it’s “especially interesting when it’s postal history” compared to stamps.

Part two of the Pont Collection will be offered in May and include Pont’s personal India collection, which is believed to be the most extensive to ever go to auction.

A used 1962 $3 Lei Lanfang souvenir sheet crossed the block for $5,850 as Lot 922.

CHINA MATERIAL

The auction’s China material also saw strong realizations, with Lot 922 leading the way.

“China often sells for a high percentage of catalogue value while with other countries you can expect maybe 10 per cent of the catalogue,” said Cloutier, who added Chinese citizens were prohibited from collecting in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. “All these collections were hidden away or snuck out of the country, but now, a lot of people there have money and are repatriating collections. Any time there’s China (philatelic material) anywhere in the world it’s very popular.”

With a Scott catalogue value of $6,250 US, a used 1962 $3 Lei Lanfang souvenir sheet crossed the block for $5,850.

“For a used item, that’s quite scarce – even for the People’s Republic of China.”

The China material offered in the recent Sparks sale was from an extensive collection assembled by a man who only collected mint and used Chinese stamps. The second part of this offering is set to cross the block in September.

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