by Mike Kroll

It was a weekend in mid-January that auction history was made in New York City as a pair of 18th century pistols sold for a record $1.99 million at Christie’s–the same pistols had previously been purchased at a Paris auction in 1983 for $37,715 by Galesburg firearms collector and dealer Robert Simpson. Few investments appreciate quite so much is less than 20 years, but unfortunately for Simpson, he was two owners removed from the nearly $2 million.

Just what is so special about a pair of old flintlock pistols to make someone pay such an extra ordinate sum?

"It’s not the guns themselves that establish the value, it is their history of ownership by George Washington that is most important," explained Simpson from his store on South Seminary Street. "Had these pistols not passed through Washington’s hands they wouldn’t have been worth what I originally paid for them in 1983. The historical significance of these guns is just too great for them not to be on public display."

The two 18 inch saddle pistols were made by a German names Jacob Walster who carved them from walnut and added elaborately engraved barrels featuring gold inlays. They were first sold to the Marqui de Lafayette in either 1775 or 76 as he served in the French army. The pistols were hardly collectors’ items but rather working pistols Lafayette carried into battle first in Europe, later in America. Lafayette, a member of the French aristocracy related through marriage to Kind Louis XVI crossed the Atlantic to fight against the British in the American Revolutionary War.

Once here Lafayette fought beside Washington during early battles at Brandywine, Penn. and Monmouth, NJ before spending an arduous winter with American troops at Valley Forge. It was there in 1778 that Lafayette presented the set of pistols to Washington as a sign of respect and admiration. Soon thereafter Lafayette returned to France and ardent supporter of the American revolutionary cause. In 1779 Lafayette named his son after his American mentor — George Washington Lafayette — returning to America the very next year to once again fight the British at Newport and Yorktown.

It was 204 years later that a tired American tourist in Paris was desperately seeking public accommodations wandered into a French hotel. As a relieved Simpson was walking out of the hotel he spied a typical rack of brochures near the hotel’s entryway, including one that pictured old firearms. "I immediately grabbed a copy of the brochure and took it to one of the hotel staff. I neither spoke nor read French and I wanted to know what the paper was describing." Once informed that it was notice of a large estate auction featuring a huge firearms collection Simpson was hooked.

"I went and hired an interpreter from a temporary agency. The lady, a former GE employee, helped me translate and research the materials surrounding this auction." An extremely wealthy French printer named Charles Dresser, who was also a major European firearms collector, privately purchased the pair of pistols from the Lafayette family in 1958. Dresser died in 1977 but his family, none of whom shared his affection for guns, did not decide to auction off the huge collection until 1983. This was the auction Simpson stumbled upon.

The first task confronting Simpson once he found his interpreter was to research the pedigree of the guns included in the auction. He quickly latched onto the two pistols boasting the Washington heritage. "I’m not really a hunter or shooter. My interest in guns is more for their history or role in history. I had two weeks until the auction in which to convince myself that these pistols were authentic." In the vernacular of the collectables world, Simpson set about establishing the "provenance" of the guns. "It was really the research I began then and continued after I owned the pistols that really helped establish the current value of the guns."

Like Lafayette before him, Washington carried these pistols into battle throughout the Revolutionary War. Throughout the remainder of Washington’s life the story of Lafayette’s gift was tightly held within the Washington family. Washington died on the eve of the nineteenth century but the pistols did not publicly reappear for 25 years when a Washington heir by marriage, William Robinson, gave the guns to Andrew Jackson amidst an elaborate ceremony commemorating Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans during America’s second war with the British.

A year after receiving the pistols Jackson was visited at his home the Hermitage near Nashville, Tenn. by none other than Lafayette himself who acknowledged that they were the same pistols he had given to Washington. For years until his death Jackson kept the pistols in a place of honor on his fireplace mantel at the Hermitage. Upon Jackson death 1845 the pistols were bequeathed to Lafayette’s son, George Washington Lafayette. The pistols remained in the Lafayette family until purchased by Dresser in 1958.

Convinced that these were not only the genuine article but also an unbelievable opportunity for an American collector Simpson showed up at the French auction held at the Hotel Drouot ready to bid "five figures." The conduct of the auction was left largely to his hired interpreter. "I gave her basic instructions and the most I was willing to spend on the guns. She handled all of the actual bidding. I was quite fortunate that none of the documentation accompanying the pistols at the auction identified them as formerly belonging to Lafayette, otherwise the French authorities would never have let me remove them from France."

Simpson brought his new prized possessions back to the U.S. and the relative anonymity of Galesburg. For years he continued his investigation into the historical provenance of his pistols even authoring two magazine articles with his wife Carol that shared the history of these pistols. "I was very proud to own these guns but I couldn’t see them merely sitting in a safe so I lent them to the Hermitage where they were displayed for years. I always hoped that the museum at Washington’s former Mt. Vernon estate in Virginia would buy the pistols from me to publicly display them."

Late last year Carol Borchert, curator of Mt. Vernon, told a New York Times writer "The pistols are incredibly significant and we would be very pleased to welcome them back home. But our gate attendance is down 45 percent since September 11th, and the estimated price is just beyond our means." When Borchert was interviewed Christie’s was estimating that the pistols would sell for as much as $1.5 million.

In recent years Simpson admits he would like to have sold the guns. He had purchased them as an investment after all. But his being based in Galesburg made such a sale damn difficult. "To properly sell such pieces you really need a lot of help from the press to foster interest and help establish the true collectable value. Despite great efforts by my wife and I that simply wasn’t happening for a little known collector from unknown Galesburg. Few would even listen when I tried to tell them that I owned pistols that were once the property of George Washington."

Last year Simpson sold the two pistols to a friend "out east" for a hefty amount both agreed to keep private, but which did not approach the seven-digit point. That friend was apparently better positioned than Simpson as he subsequently arranged to sell the two guns privately through Christie’s. His unnamed New York buyer was described in the New York Times as "an under-40 stock-market investor and New York collector of books and manuscripts on American history" who paid "about $1 million late last summer." Then came September 11th and that investor was back at Christie’s to sell them.

Here was one investor whose uncertainty about the arts and collectables market led to a big wins for both he and Christie’s. The pistols were featured in a huge auction of Americana that sold for a total of $12.5 million including the pistols. Simpson believe the unnamed buyer is actually a museum located near Louisville, Kentucky but there is no way to verify that at this point. He hopes that whoever bought the pistols plans to put them on public display "where they truly belong."