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April 25, 2004

Three hundred pounds of history? Priceless.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Squeals of excitement erupted when each new treasure was uncovered as a cadre of volunteers unwrapped books and documents stored in three 100-pound boxes recently delivered to the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Hard-won, dearly priced, and more than 200 years in coming to U-M, the Eyre Coote Papers record in full detail an entire 35-year military career in one of the most formative periods in modern American and European history.

Captain Eyre Coote of the 37th Regiment was a junior British officer in the American Revolution. His complete collection includes a series of 14 diary-like Revolutionary War Order Books, and countless letters of autograph value, commissions signed by King George III, beautiful manuscript maps and watercolors and a variety of unique printed materials. The Revolutionary War order books are oblong volumes, bound in vellum with brass clasps, that appear pretty much as they were when they left the United States in 1782.

In all, the collection contains 77 order books, 35 letter books, 15 diaries and more than 2,000 letters and papers.

“Had we not intervened and purchased the collection, it and all the personal history it represents unquestionably would have been irreparably fragmented,” said John Dann, director of the Clements Library. Breaking up this rare collection and selling the individual parts would be worth more at auction than the complete set, he explained. “That would have been a terrible loss to scholars everywhere.”

These unique source materials will be available for research at the Clements Library in April 2006 after careful conservation work, arrangement and cataloging has been completed.

This is one of the most extensive official records of the Revolutionary War to come back to America. But the collection also includes Coote's total military service elsewhere in the world. Coote, who would become a British Major General in 1798, had a long and colorful career in the wars against Napoleon. He served England and Ireland when they were threatened by French invasion and was involved in expeditions and campaigns against the French on the Continent, in Egypt and in the West Indies.

“Too often, we tend to view history exclusively in nationalistic terms,” Dann said. “It would have been a shame to lose that international context so rarely documented in the record of a single professional career.” Sotheby's described the Eyre Coote Papers as “the most extensive collection of papers of any general of the period.”

An interesting footnote to the Coote record is the suggestion that Gen. Colin Powell, recently retired U.S. Secretary of State and former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, may be a descendant of the British general. Gen. Powell has indicated in his autobiography that his mother was descended from a child of the governor of Jamaica and a Black servant. Eyre Coote was governor of the island from 1805-1808.

“Such liaisons, commonplace in Jamaica of that era, are not easily documented,” Dann said. The collection even includes receipts for payments made to unnamed Black servants in the governor's household.

Just getting the collection to Ann Arbor in one piece was a 15-year saga in itself.

It began in 1990 when Dann got a phone call from Mary Jo Kline, then the Americana expert at Sotheby's in New York. Kline said the Eyre Coote Papers had failed to sell at Sotheby’s London auction in 1988 and were going to be broken up into numerous lots and sold piecemeal. “Couldn't the Clements Library possibly intervene and save the collection?” Kline asked.

“Well, why not give it a shot,“ replied Dann, quickly booking a bargain flight to London. He spent a week examining the manuscripts in the basement of Sotheby's.

The collection had apparently been sitting in the vaults of the auction house since 1979, when it was first offered at public sale. It had sold for 30,000 pounds then but seemed never to have been removed from the gallery. Was it purchased by a speculator, or had it possibly become the property of Sotheby's by default? “These are questions of a sort one never gets answers to in the upper echelons of the international auction trade,” Dann said.

Sotheby’s put the collection up at public sale again in 1988 with an “estimated price” of 60,000-80,000 pounds. Again, it did not sell.

As Dann continued his examination of the archive in 1990, the historical importance of the collection became increasingly obvious. He felt it was imperative that the Eyre Coote Papers be saved as a complete archive.

“This was a classic case where the whole, from an historical point of view, is worth several times the sum of the individual parts—but where monetarily the collection is far more saleable in parts rather than as a single entity,” Dann said. “With a large manuscript collection such as this, with many valuable individual pieces and willing purchasers, market forces sadly work against preservation. Archivists and librarians can bemoan this reality,” he said, “but resentment does not save history.”

Finally Dann was able to negotiate a price of 44,000 pounds. (With added expenses, it came out to about $90,000 U.S.) The acquisition was made possible by a timely bequest to the Clements Library.

“In retrospect,” said Dann, “I cut too good a deal with Sotheby’s!” A British museum, that had declined to purchase the collection directly from the Coote family some years earlier and had not bid on the papers at either auction, now expressed interest.

The British Review Committee of Exportation of Historical Manuscripts postponed export of the collection until a British purchaser was found, and the museum that formerly showed no interest was able to match the Clements’ 44,000-pound purchase price. But that museum then declined to pay approximately 2,000 pounds of additional incidental expenses.

Their offer was declined, and the Eyre Coote Papers were sent to a warehouse for a dozen more years. Based upon 2004 market value of 350,000 pounds, ($680,000 U.S.) the Clements Library reapplied for export last year. No British buyer came forward this time, and an export license was issued. The papers arrived in Ann Arbor in February.

“The important thing,” Dann said, “is that the collection will be preserved in its entirety and at a responsible public institution where it will be available to scholars. I would have been almost as pleased if the papers had been acquired by a British institution.”

The Clements Library was founded at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1923, the first separate special collections library at a public institution in the country. It has a long history of saving and sharing notable private historical archives, a number of them of British origin. For the American Revolution alone, the Library houses the papers of British Commanding Generals Gage and Clinton and Prime Ministers Charles Townshend and Lord Shelburne, all of them purchased directly from British descendants. American collections at the Clements include papers of such notable figures as Nathanael Greene, Anthony Wayne and Oliver Hazard Perry, also acquired from private families.

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Contact: Joanne Nesbit
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