Update: The 18-karat gold Commodore Stephen Decatur freedom box sold for $70,000.
What you see: A 18-karat gold freedom box awarded to Commodore Stephen Decatur by the City of New York in 1812. The James D. Julia auction house estimates it at $125,000 to $175,000.
Who was Stephen Decatur? Born to a seagoing American family, Decatur became the young country’s first great naval hero by fighting the Barbary states–Mediterranean countries whose pirates had a nasty habit of capturing American vessels and ransoming their crews. (Do you remember the line from the U.S. Marines hymn, ‘From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli’? Tripoli is a reference to the Barbary Wars.) Decatur also distinguished himself in the War of 1812. He died in 1820 from a gunshot wound suffered in a duel with Commodore James Barron. Decatur was 41.
How did the custom of giving heroic people a gold freedom box get started? “The way it originated was the gold or silver box held the key to the city,” says John Sexton, senior consultant and sales representative in James D. Julia’s firearms division. “The ‘freedom box’ terminology comes from giving them ‘the freedom of the city.’ By this time , they were just giving them the boxes.”
Why did the City of New York give Decatur this gold freedom box? During an October 1812 battle, he captured the HMS Macedonian, a 38-gun British frigate, saved it from sinking, and towed it to New York to be refitted and made part of America’s naval fleet. “It was the most important naval battle ever fought to that point,” he says. “Decatur was a household name in 1812. He was such a hero.”
How often do gold freedom boxes come up at auction? “The last one I could find was one awarded to John Jay and sold at Sotheby’s in 1991,” he says. “They’re beautiful boxes, exceptionally ornate. There’s another one in the sale from the Civil War that’s just as elaborate. They quit using the term ‘freedom box’ in the mid-19th century.”
Were the boxes meant to be used to hold anything, such as snuff? Or were they just meant to be beautiful boxes? “It was just the box, but they were snuff box-size,” he says.
The Decatur gold freedom box also has its red leather presentation case. Is that unusual? “It’s probably unique,” he says.
And the box is entirely made of gold? “It’s all gold, including the hinge,” he says. “There’s not a part that’s not.”
How does it feel to hold the box in your hand? “It’s quite heavy! It weighs 100 grams. It’s a nice, heavy little box,” he says. “Whoever did the engraving had a lot of skill. The engraving style is fantastic, beautiful–a lost art.”
How did you put an estimate on the Decatur box? “We made a conservative estimate,” he says. “We expect it to bring several hundred thousand dollars. Compared to John Jay, Stephen Decatur is probably more of a household name. But I don’t know what it will bring at auction.”
Decatur’s descendants have passed the box from generation to generation. Why are they consigning it now? “There are about 80 lots from the same family,” Sexton says, noting that the lots include the carnelian and gold signet ring that the Bey of Tunis surrendered to Decatur in 1805. It appears the current owner within the family thought it wiser to consign the material rather than try to split it among seven or eight heirs. “Decatur was a very important person in his day. The treasures he had were phenomenal,” he says. “It’s amazing that the family retained them.”
Why will this gold freedom box stick in your memory? “There are so few objects associated with someone as important as Stephen Decatur. There are 25 states that have cities named after him,” he says. “This is a piece of history. You just know it’s a gem. It’s something so unique and wonderful.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Photograph courtesy of James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, Maine, USA, www.jamesdjulia.com.
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