Civil War collector Ray Richey plays no favorites when it comes to ferreting out rare artifacts connected to common soldiers or top brass from both sides of the conflict.
Guns, swords, uniforms, personal items, letters, photographs and battle flags, not to mention a battery of artillery: If it’s an article connected to the Civil War, Richey likely owns one or is looking for it.
The Fort Worth oilman has well over 5,000 items in his Civil War treasure trove that experts say is the finest private collection in existence.
But in 28 years of collecting, Richey has never come close to getting his hands on anything connected directly to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
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Last year, Richey unveiled the simple sack coat Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is believed to have worn when Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House in 1865. As part of an eye-popping $2 million-plus “bundle,” Richey also got the sword carried by Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.
Those are the kind of collecting coups that only a handful of even the most well-heeled of artifact aficionados can even dream about. But for Richey, a dyed-in-the-gray-wool son of the South, the holy grail has always been the unobtainable: Lee.
“After the war, everybody from the South wanted something from Lee; all that stuff has been scooped up,” Richey said.
“Basically, if it’s a thread from Robert E. Lee, you take it,” he said. “Gen. Grant is one thing, but Robert E. Lee’s a couple of steps above that in my opinion.”
Last week, Richey finally hit his collecting jackpot. He took possession of the hard-worn penknife that Lee carried throughout the war, a lock of his gray hair, and a letter and note the famed general wrote.
‘Who gets to have that?’
“The knife’s a little-bitty thing, but it is pretty special. I didn’t think I would ever have the possibility of buying anything like that,” said Richey, who keeps his massive collection on display at his nonprofit Texas Civil War Museum in northwest Fort Worth.
“Rarely does someone get to own something from Robert E. Lee,” Quinn said. “It just doesn’t come to market.
“This is a knife that Lee carried around during the war. Come on, that’s amazing. Who gets to have that?” he said.
Compared with Grant’s ornate, jewel-encrusted presentation sword that Richey bought for $1.6 million in 2009, Lee’s penknife is a broken-down everyday tool that has seen such hard duty that its blades have been broken off, essentially leaving a knife housing.
Richey doesn’t care: That’s part of what makes it special. He can imagine Lee using it to carve an apple, whittle a stick or clean his nails.
“He wrote a note apologizing for the condition, saying it was his companion during the war. All four blades were broken – he used it,” he said.
‘A perfect storm’
In 1867, Lee donated the items to help out an orphanage in Baltimore, Quinn said.
The items were eventually bought by Civil War collector William Beverly Bristor Jr. of Baltimore, who died in 1999. That year, his heirs loaned the items to the National Park Service’s Arlington House, Lee’s former family home that became the Arlington National Cemetery.
But an illness in the owners’ family owners forced them to put the items up for auction.
When Kathy Huxhold of Muncie, Ind., first contacted Quinn about selling the items collected by her uncle, he told her they held enormous potential.
“It was Robert E. Lee and we had museum provenance – this had the power to create a perfect storm at auction,” Quinn said, noting that 1,500 bidders signed up for the bidding.
“We had estimated it at about $20,000 but the bidding started at $25,000. When it ended at $55,000, it was a tear-jerking moment to do something for a client,” he said.
Huxhold said the money will be used to help pay for care for her older sister, who is battling a brain tumor.
“This is just a god send. But I am so happy to know that it’s going to be on display,” she said.
“We thought it had great value, just knowing the penknife had been carried around during the war and how many times it had been used and the places it had been,” Huxhold said.
She was also struck that Lee had donated the items to help an orphanage.
“The letter was pretty neat, it showed that he wanted to give back to society,” Huxhold said.
Delivering the goods gave Quinn the chance to check out Richey’s museum.
“I’ve never seen a Civil War collection that comes close to it. It’s great that the knife ended up in the hands of Ray Richey. He has set the standard when it comes to making a private collection available to the public,” Quinn said.
“To think that Robert E. Lee gave this stuff as a philanthropic donation, the family that had it before had it displayed at a public museum and now it is going to a guy who promises it will be on display forever.
“It’s how things should be.”
LEE’S DONATION LETTER
“Lexington, VA 28 Jan 1867
Mrs. J. C. Thompson
I recd today your letter of the 24th inst: and send the article you request. Your generous efforts to relieve the wants of the infant orphans will I am sure be successful, for a cause so benevolent cannot fail to receive support in a city so distinguished for it’s charity & liberality as Baltimore.
Very respty your obtservt
Note accompanying the letter:
“I must apologize for the condition of this knife by stating that it was my companion during the war.