On January 17, 2006, Ben Franklin would have turned 300 years old. The oldest of America’s founding fathers, he had retired from his printing profession by the time Thomas Jefferson was four years old. He was old enough to have been father to George Washington and John Adams and grandfather to James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.
Unlike the estates of most historical figures, for collectors of Frankliniana, there is no Monticello or Mt. Vernon to view a collective grouping of Franklin artifacts. The Philadelphia house Franklin shared with his wife Deborah was torn down by Franklin’s grandson in 1812 to construct residential property. The hotel in Passy, near Paris, where Franklin lived for nine years is no longer standing. And, while the home at 36 Craven Street in London in which Franklin lived for 16 years remains, it contains no pieces from the period. (It opened to the public on January 17, 2006 but focuses on high-tech demonstrations of Franklin’s inventions and comes across as a drama theatre museum.)
All hope is not lost, however, for the true and patient collectors of Frankliniana. 2006 is host to an international traveling exhibit called Benjamin Franklin in Search of a Better World. Organized by the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, the largest exhibit of Franklin material ever started at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and will rotate to St. Louis, Houston, Denver, and Atlanta before its grand finale in Paris in 2008. The exhibit features Franklin’s traveling chess set and his sterling silver tankard, Other highlights include Franklin’s own copy of the US Constitution, more than 250 artifacts, including many owned by Franklin’s family, and more than 40 interactive devices featuring special effects and hands-on opportunities.
Ben Franklin’s pocket watch by Thomas Wagstaff was estimated to fetch $30,000–$50,000 when it was sold in June, 2006.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is joining in on the 300th anniversary celebration with an exhibit of busts entitled Jean-Antoine Houdon and the Sculpted Portrait of Benjamin Franklin. And The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. has had a successful six-month exhibit on Benjamin Franklin which began on December 23, 2005. Items on display include his glasses and several books, articles, and manuscripts written by Franklin.
It is possible that Franklin enjoyed more international attention than any other North American public figure of his era. For the collector, there are numerous medallions, busts, prints, and other objects commemorating Franklin that were created during his lifetime. He was well known for sending both tokens and images with his profile to his friends and admirers. In England and France his portraits and prints were created in mass quantity for his European devotees.
Franklin was a good friend of Josiah Wedgwood, known for his Wedgwood pottery in England. He produced numerous pieces with Franklin’s image. While the Revolutionary War naturally forced Wedgwood to scale back it resulted in the French porcelain factory at Sevres increasing its production of busts and medallions to even more vast quantities.
About the Author:
Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. Article research by Joe Moran.
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