Friday, February 23, 2001

Family learns letter signed by Washington a real steal

Heirloom's checkered past is revolutionary finding

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For more than 40 years, a letter signed by George Washington hung in the Amberley Village home of Constance Rollman's in-laws.

        No one suspected that the treasured family heirloom, passed from relative to relative, was “hot” — stolen from the Massachusetts Archives between 1938 and 1946.

[photo] Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin on Thursday displays a letter signed by George Washington that for more than 40 years hung in an Amberley Village home.
(Associated Press photo)
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        “We were shocked to learn that it was stolen,” Mrs. Rollman, 67, said Thursday from her Indian Hill home.

        The letter was returned to the Massachusetts Secretary of State's Office two weeks ago. News of the recovery was released Thursday, on the first president's birthday.

        Mrs. Rollman said her son, Henry Rollman III, was curious to find out how much the letter was worth. It had passed from his grandfather to his father and then to him. In December, he sent the letter to Sotheby's of New York for appraisal.

        Sometime later, Mrs. Rollman said, Sotheby's quoted a value, but told him the letter was stolen.

        Mrs. Rollman said it was part of a collection of letters by Washington and other Colonial figures that hung for decades on a paneled wall in a breakfast room at her husband's family home.

        “When things were boring, we all read them,” Mrs. Rollman said.

        Mrs. Rollman said the letter may have been purchased sometime in the 1950s by her father-in-law from a now-defunct local bookstore. “It was a reputable bookstore, and they thought it was the kind of thing that anybody could buy,” she said.

        “This is a fluke, really,” she added. “We didn't know and we never would have known if (her son) hadn't wanted to know how much it was worth.”

        Massachusetts investigators said Mrs. Rollman's father-in-law had no way of knowing the letter was stolen.

        The 220-year-old framed letter is worth an estimated $15,000 to $20,000, according to Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin.

        Dated June 8, 1781, when Washington was commander of the Continental Army, it urges General William Heath to make sure the soldiers are adequately outfitted with salt-preserved food, coats, hats, and one other important provision.

        “Not a drop of rum has yet come on,” Washington wrote. “The physicians report that the officers (who work exceedingly hard) are falling sick for want of it — besides you must be sensible, that it is extremely necessary for other purposes.”

        In it, Washington orders that 1,000 uniforms recently arrived from Spain be sent to his Revolutionary War soldiers — “with the same number of hats.”

        Steve Kenney, an archivist and researcher with the Massachusetts Archives, said such attention to the finer points shows that Washington wasn't merely a figurehead, as some have perceived.

        “It gives a different picture of him,” said Mr. Kenney. “It shows not only his leadership, but also that he was very detail-oriented.”

        The Massachusetts Archives has about 1,000 letters signed by Washington. About 50 others remain missing.

        Auction houses such as Sotheby's have been notified of the missing letters and are asked to alert authorities when they encounter them, officials said.

       The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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