Editor’s note: The following appeared in the July/August 1990 edition of BLADE magazine. Note that the record-setting price is now outdated. Read more from the archives with this collection.
The value of a sword owned by a United States president depends first on whether the item’s provenance can be confirmed. Popularity of the president can also play a role. The more popular, or at least well known, the president, the higher the price. The significance of the sword in history matters as well. The materials used in the sword can be important, but context matters most.
Here’s one example.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Sword Sells for $330,000
A jeweled sword originally presented to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant recently set a world record for auctioned American swords when it sold for $330,000 at the San Francisco gallery of Butterfield & Butterfield Auctioneers and Appraisers.
As much as the sword fetched, however, the dollar amount does not approach the world auction record for all swords of $51.2 million for a sword that belonged to the Duke of Windsor, according to Greg Martin, one of the organizers of the San Francisco event.
Part of a Larger Antique Sword Auction
The Grant piece was but one of 210 swords – which Martin said may be a record for the number of swords bought at one auction – sold in San Francisco. All told the sale brought about $900,000 in bids and included pieces from the Revolutionary War period up to the turn of the century.
“It was a historic sale because it involved three sword collections in one,” Martin explained. Those collections included 30 pieces that one belonged to Jay Altmayer of Mobile, Alabama, presentation pieces every one, including the Grant sword; 70 eagle head swords from the collection of E. Andrew Mowbray, who has written a book on eagle head swords; and 110 swords – including a sword presented to Col. Charles C. De Rudio of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry that sold for $42,500 (plus 10 percent) at auction – from the collection of Peter Buxtun, a sword-collecting veteran of 30 years.
Origins of Grant Sword
But it is the Grant sword that grabbed the headlines. The sword’s ornate silver handle is fashioned in the shape of the winged Goddess of Victory, a laurel chaplet held in place by her left hand, over her head a spread American eagle. Medallion-like counter guards form at the goddess’ feet, where a gold-mounted amethyst sets atop a gold plaque that reads: “Presented to Lieut. General Ulysses S. Grant by his Friends in Kentucky in Recognition of their great Faith in Leadership and Appointment as General in Chief of the Armies of the United States.”
Made by Canfield & Co. of Baltimore, the piece’s hilt and scabbard are in excellent condition, while the blade has some small pitted areas and overall light rust. According to the auction program, the inscription on the presentation plaque was possible freshened at one time.
The Civil War and Grant’s Sword
Grant’s Kentucky connection is significant. Educated in Maysville and having relatives that settled in the Bluegrass State, Grant was determined to keep Kentucky in the Union. On Sept. 5, 1861, he learned of a Confederate plan to invade Paducah, Kentucky, located at the juncture of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers near the mouth of the Cumberland River.
That evening, he assembled an expedition that landed federal troops the next day at Paducah before the Rebel invasion. On Sept. 7, the Kentucky Legislature voted to keep the state in the Union. Grant had prevented the South from claiming Kentucky and establishing the Confederate northern border on the Ohio River. It was his first major victory.