Stan Chancellor has sold a lot of nice pieces of history over the years as a professional auctioneer. But he said he can’t remember a time where so many interesting artifacts were being sold in a single lot.
During the annual New Year’s Day auction his firm, Hawkinsville Auctions, will conduct Friday, Chancellor will attempt to sell items belonging to the late Col. Almon Libby Varney, a veteran of the Civil War. His descendants have consigned a trunk full of his mementos to Chancellor for auction.
Among the items belonging to the late Union officer: his military sabre, various uniform components and several documents — many of them promotion papers — that bear the signatures of U.S. presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Johnson.
In addition, there’s also an 1873 Colt single-action pistol that’s never been fired. Even more unique is a Deringer musket, believed to be one of only 50 ever made.
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“(Lots like this) are few and far between,” Chancellor said. “I’ve sold a lot of stuff over the years, but the uniqueness and all of this coming from one person makes this very unique.”
According to information that Chancellor discovered in his research, Varney was born in Maine in 1839 and was appointed a first lieutenant with the 13th Maine Regiment when the Civil War began in 1861, while still a student at Bowdoin College. Varney fought at battlefields in Louisiana and Texas before heading north to Virginia.
Varney was a career military officer who retired from active service in 1903. He died on Christmas Day in 1922 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery with his wife, Hannah.
In addition to his military career, Varney created two patents for the improvement of projectiles fired from guns.
Most of Varney’s possessions were kept in a storage trunk that was passed down through the generations of his family.
Many of the documents in the trunk — various military commissions and promotions — were rolled up or stored in envelopes and had not been opened until recently.
Some of Varney’s descendants who live in Georgia took the trunk to Hawkinsville Auctions to have the items sold.
Chancellor opened the documents and found signatures from six different presidents — Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, William Howard Taft, Benjamin Harrison and Theodore Roosevelt.
Howard Zerwitz, a member of the American History Guild and a dealer in old papers, appraised the various documents.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had someone who had signatures from six presidents,” Zerwitz said.
“It’s not unusual to have officers who have had a number of different commissions to have had documents from more than one president, but six is a lot, that’s for sure.”
Zerwitz said all the Varney documents are in good condition. The value of each one is often based on which president signed it and if there is any unusual history behind the document, he said.
Zerwitz said he thinks the Grant and Roosevelt documents will fetch a slightly higher price because those two presidents are more sought-after by collectors. He valued each of the documents in the $500 to $700 range.
“All of them look to be in pretty nice condition,” he said. “The documents have held up pretty well. They’ve been well taken care of over the years.”
Zerwitz said once the 20th century began, military documents began to be pre-printed with a copy of the president’s signature so having the handwritten signatures makes them collector’s items.
Still, arguably the prize pick of the lot is the Deringer musket. Henry Deringer was a well-known 19th century gunmaker who is most famous for his miniature single-shot pistol.
A second ‘r’ was added to the name, and the Derringer became a generic term synonymous with small pistols.
The musket is a U.S. Model 1817 54-caliber rifle with an octagon barrel. Chancellor said he thinks only 51 were made. The gun will be sold in one lot along with the sabre and Colt pistol. All the auction’s items will have written authentication, he said.
Chancellor remembered what his reaction was when he first laid eyes on the contents of the trunk.
“It’s breathtaking,” he said. “It really was. The contents are in pristine condition.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.