Yesterday was Trafalgar Day, the 204th anniversary of the and patriotic fervor was in the air at Charles Miller Auctions when the last Union Jack flag to survive the Battle of Trafalgar sold for £384,000 ($638,000), 21 times its highest estimate.
I can see why.
Gorgeous, isn’t it? It’s riddled with bullet holes and splinters from its final battle. It’s 7’4″ by 11’7″, and was actually sewn together from 31 panels by the crew of the HMS Spartiate.
The 540-man crew lowered the flag from the Spartiate jackstaff after the victory over Napoleon and presented it to Scottish Lieutenant James Clephan for his valorous performance. Being presented the flag was a rare honor, almost an unheard-of honor for a junior officer.
Lieutenant Clephan was highly respected by his men. He was one of only 16 of 300,000 press ganged sailors to rise through the ranks to ultimately become a captain, a remarkable ascent for a Scottish apprentice weaver forced to join the Royal Navy against his will.
The casualty numbers suggest the Spartiate was very well-commanded indeed. The HMS Spartiate suffered 3 men killed, 22 wounded (a 4% casualty rate), while Admiral Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory lost 57 killed (including Admiral Nelson himself), 102 wounded (a 19% casualty rate).
James Clephan’s descendants kept the flag in a dark drawer for the 150 years after his death, so not only are the colors preserved, but it still actually smells of gunpowder from the Battle of Trafalgar. The owner has moved to Australia now and doesn’t have the wherewithal to conserve it properly, so he decided to sell it. He was thrilled with the reserve price of £10,000 ($16,600) — chump change in hindsight — and even the top estimate was a mere £15,000 ($25,000).
The bidding was fierce. A hundred people packed the small room, and all 12 phones were used to take long-distance bids. The winning bid came from an anonymous US buyer over the phone.
He’s not likely to get his hands on it any time soon, though. According to the auctioneers, the buyer plans to contact the British government to arrange for the flag to be displayed in the UK. He’d better get on that, because the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport is likely to put a three month export ban on the flag if the buyer tries to take it out of the country, so he won’t have a ton of options.
British institutions will then be allowed to match the winning bid, possibly using lottery grants to supplement their relatively meager offerings. The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, for instance, topped out at £40,000 ($66,000). It’s going to need a lot of help to match the final selling price.