A Surviving Flag From Custer’s Last Stand
Graham W.J. Beale, Director
The announcement that we were going to sell one of the two surviving flags from “Custer’s Last Stand” caused, dare I say so, something of a flap. We received–as expected–a number of letters, most civil and “against,” with many of these suggesting we not sell the flag but give it to another museum. The flag was acquired by the museum in a previous incarnation when, in spite of being named the Detroit Museum of Art (DMA), we also collected objects significant in history, natural history, and science. The museum paid $54: four of it coming from a public subscription campaign, $50 from a single check written by a DMA board member. Although there was considerable (ghoulish) press, it seemed, even then, that the flag did not engender material support from the general public. The flag hung in the old building on Jefferson but was never put on view at our current location.
Sometime in the 1950s, the flag was lent to the National Park Service (NPS) for display at the Little Big Horn Battle Monument, but when, in 1982, we asked where it was, we were told it had been in the NPS’s storage facility at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, for well over a decade. Efforts back then to negotiate a sale came to naught for lack of funds. Back in Detroit, DIA’s skilled conservators and technicians devised a case for the fragile textile whereby the various fragments rest in a shallow depression exactly the same size as the flag and are held in place by the pressure of the Plexiglas alone. This allowed the flag to be shown without further deterioration of the delicate silk fabric. Except for two brief expeditions to exhibitions elsewhere in the 1980s and ’90s, the flag in its case rested in museum storage. A few specialists have visited specifically to see it.
We’re selling it and not giving it away because it is the DIA’s legal property, and we are not in the business of giving away valuable items. It would, in fact, be something of a fiduciary failure not to sell it, using the proceeds to enhance the DIA’s art collection. It is true that the flag’s high price makes it likely that a private collector will acquire it, but history demonstrates that such objects are very ofteneither loaned or given to a suitable institution. Sometimes, as happened recently with the Gilbert Stuart painting of a standing George Washington, known as the “Lansdowne” portrait, a consortium of patrons buys it for the nation. Yes, it’s too bad that something indirectly associated with Monroe, Michigan, which treats Custer like a native son, is leaving the region but, to me, it’s ironic that something hardly anyone knew was here caused such a stir. A few suggested reasonably that we exhibit the flag here “one more time” before it leaves forever. Like many things that sound simple, putting it up on an easel without interpretation in, say Prentis Court, is not the way we do things. And, at the time the recent newspaper stories appeared, the flag was already being prepared for shipping to Sotheby’s in New York, where it will be offered for sale in October.
By selling the flag, the DIA is furthering its own mission to collect, care for, and interpret great art. We are also releasing a historically significant object that has long been out of place and unseen to find a more appropriate home.