Described as "the most significant and symbolic artefact recovered from the Little Bighorn Battlefield", an American flag flown by General George Custer's Battalion sold at auction at Sotheby's on Friday (December 10) for a World Record price of $2.2m.
The silk flag, known as the Culbertson Cavalry Guidon, was the only one of three not captured by Indian combatants during the battle. Measuring 33 inches by 27 inches and featuring 34 gold stars, the flag was recovered from beneath the body of a fallen soldier by Sergeant Ferdinand Culbertson who was assigned to a burial party.
"This immortal battle flag represents the spirit, the bravery and the tragedy of one of the most dramatic moments in American history," commented David Redden, Vice Chairman of Sotheby's. "Battle-worn and bullet-torn, the Culbertson Guidon conjures the ferocity of that terrible battle."
Its survival was all the more remarkable as the battlefield had been almost stripped clean of any salvageable goods by the Indians, looking for trophies of their victory and items of any practical value.
Since 1895, the fragile silk flag had been preserved at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The guidon had been given by Culbertson to Charles and Rose Fowler of Detroit in approximately 1880.
The flag was then purchased in 1895 by a public contribution for a mere $54, and had remained in storage at a National Park facility in West Virginia for many decades before the sale.
The flag is a stunning piece of American history and a symbol that captures the vivid yet sombre spirit of the age perfectly: a time when the pioneering spirit of the Old West caused a violent collision of cultures, resulting in widespread bloodshed in the name of progress. Within a dozen years of the battle, Sioux warriors who had fought the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn were recreating the battle for Eastern audiences in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show.
Although Custer's supposed 'heroics' in the field have been widely re-evaluated in recent times, the battle remains an important piece of American mythology and the flag symbolises not only the countless numbers who died on the battlefield that day, but also the birth of a nation that rose up from its consequences.
As items of collectible Americana go, it is one of the most important pieces to have been sold in recent years and shows how the market can restore historical artefacts to their rightful place in the public consciousness.
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