Museums rally to save 19th century banners

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PORTLAND, Maine – On Aug. 26, 16 Maine museums, historical organizations, and their supporters came together in an unprecedented collaboration to save an important collection of Maine artifacts. The 17 rare, 19th-century hand-painted banners commissioned by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association  were purchased for $125,350 and will be housed at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.

At the end of July, Maine museums and historical organizations learned that these banners were to be consigned for sale to James D. Julia Inc. auction house in Fairfield, Maine.

Knowing the significance of these works and their value in keeping them in the public domain for future generations, Maine museums and historical organizations rallied together to raise funds to purchase them. The following organizations were involved: Maine Historical Society, Portland Museum of Art, Maine State Museum, Maine Maritime Museum, the Maine State Historian, Bates College Museum of Art, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, and Colby College Museum of Art. Corporate and individual support was provided by: James Julia, L.L. Bean, Diana and Linda Bean, Chris Livesay, Elsie Viles, Libra Foundation, and an anonymous Boston foundation. Harry Rubenstein, chair of the Division of Political History from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, was also in attendance at the auction.

“The focus, hard work, and unselfish generosity of the cooperating museums was unprecedented in my experience,” said Richard D’Abate, Executive Director of the Maine Historical Society. “I think we owe that to our common recognition that the banners were one of the state’s true artistic and historical treasures. They had to be saved.”
“These banners are important symbols of community and it was key that we keep them together and in Maine,” said Portland Museum of Art Chief Curator Thomas Denenberg.
“The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History was glad to support the effort to keep together this important collection of artisan banners. The beautifully illustrated banners recall the ideals of a community based on values of productive citizenship and industry. They are a true national treasure,” said Harry Rubenstein, chair of the museum’s Division of Political History. “I can think of no better result than having them preserved and remain in the state. We look forward to future collaboration with the Maine Historical Society and other consortium partners.”

The Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, located in downtown Portland, created this series of linen banners in the early 1800s to promote skilled trades. The majority of the banners were painted by decorative painter William Capen and many have fringe and were attached to wooden arms for hanging or carrying in parades. According to the auctioneer, together the banners were worth between $100,000 and $200,000. The Maine Charitable Mechanic Association decided to sell them for financial reasons.

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