Flags: collectibles that are keys to art and politics

When seven-year-old Tom Carrier watched the 1963 televised funeral of the assassinated President John Fitzgerald Kennedy what caught young Carrier’s eye was not the black-draped caisson or the rider-less horse, boots inserted backwards in the stirrups, or the color guard – it was the solider marching behind the coffin with the Presidential flag. “I’m not sure what it was about the flag that fascinated me, but that’s what I remember and I’ve been interested in them ever since,” said Carrier, who today is Worthpoint’s specialist on flags as collectibles and antiques.

“And it turns out,” Carrier says, “that except for the rare and antique specimens, flags are easy and relatively inexpensive to collect. They also serve as a window on geography, government, politics, history, art, language, culture and design. If you can decipher a flag, you can understand the community that created it.”

Flags trace their origins to the vellixum – a type of banner held aloft by a long pole used by the Roman Legions. “It was a way for generals to know where their troops were,” Carrier said. The word for the study of flags “vexillology” comes from the vellixum. Tom has been a Board member of the North American Vexillological Association or NAVA and founding president of the Chesapeake Bay Flag Association. For the NAVA Website see: http://www.nava.org/

“The history of the flag, as we know it, really dates from the period of the Crusades, beginning in the 12th century,” Carrier said. “The flags were still a way of telling who was on the battlefield, but heraldry began to establish precise rules as to color and design at about this time.”

“Some of the basic rules of heraldry still apply when designing a flag,” Carrier says. “First and foremost, flags should not have more than three colors. They shouldn’t have writing or seals on them and they should have a simple design, one that can be easily recognizable from a distance.” The Virginia and New Hampshire state flags, for example, both have seals on a dark blue background so from a distance they are hard to tell apart. “On the other hand, the state flags of Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico and Texas, in contrast, are considered “perfect flags” — with bold colors and a distinctive design,” Carrier says. To look at state flags see http://www.50states.com/flag/.

There are many ways to collect flags. Some American flags are valued by their different star-patterns, for the placement was only made official in 1912 by President William Howard Taft with the 48 star flag. Serious collectors focus on early 19th Century and Civil War flags where it costs “several thousand dollars just to get started, because the star patterns varied widely throughout the 19th century.” Although the star pattern of the 48 star flag was consistent after 1912, the ones made with wool bunting before World War II have about a third higher collector value than the ones made of cotton or nylon when wool was used instead for uniforms.

An easier quarry is city, state and county flags, Carrier says, which tend to cost about $35 to $60 new. The goal of collectors pursuing national flags is getting ones that are made in the country they represent. “It used to be very difficult to get a flag of the Soviet Union.” Carrier said. “An individual in the Soviet Union couldn’t own or display a flag, because they were all the property of the state. Now, with its demise, they are flooding the market with a value of about $20 to $60.”

Then there is, of course, Carrier’s first vexilollogical interest, flags of heads of state. “Just about every head of state has a distinctive flag — from Uganda, to Tunisia, to Sri Lanka, even the United States,” Carrier says. So one thing Edward Fenech-Adami, the president of Malta, and England’s Queen Elizabeth have in common are flags – though not the same flag. In fact in addition to a personal flag Queen Elizabeth has 16 other flags of her own across British Commonwealth countries. For the presidential flag of Malta see http://www.doi.gov.mt/EN/state/symbols.asp and for Queen Elizabeth’s personal flag see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_Flag_of_Queen_Elizabeth_II. Carrier has led tours at the White House with the U.S. Secret Service and the White House Curator to tell the history of the flag and seal of the president of the United States so they could better inform the visitors during the public tours.

But you don’t have to be a head of state to wave your own flag, Carrier advises. “A flag store will make-up a personal flag for you to your own design,” he said, “and then you can fly it whenever you want. Just remember the basic rules of flag design. My personal flag consists of my favorite colors, dark blue and gold, with my favorite design element, the star, one for each letter of my last name.”