By Mandi Cheesman
“I have never seen anything of that concentration, of that value or of that significance in all my years in the business,” Chang said. “Not even in a museum.”
What he saw was a whole lot of red, white and blue – and stars and stripes.
Adorning the walls of the front window display at COTAM, 33 W. Main St., is an American flag collection valued at more than $70,000. It is owned by retired Carmel High School teacher Mark Sutton.
“And perhaps what’s most significant about the collection is that it is for sale,” said Chang, who has been in the antiques business for more than 20 years and has operated COTAM for 11 years. “I’ve simply never seen anything like this from one person’s personal collection.”
And what a collection it is. Gathered from more than 40 years of wandering antique malls, flea markets, garage sales and anywhere else he thought he might find a flag for sale, the valuable collection all started from some simple advice: Always count the stars. When Sutton first noticed a large collection of flags at another dealer’s booth, he asked why he never noticed valuable flags for sale. The man told him he was looking right at them and just never knew it.
“He told me to make sure I always counted the stars, and the next time I was out looking, I saw a flag that was labeled as a 50-star flag, and it was for sale for $6, but I noticed the way the stars were laid out it couldn’t possibly have 50 stars, so I counted the stars,” he said. “When I was done counting, I practically ran to the cash register.”
It turns out his $6 flag was an 1889 40-star flag worth several hundred dollars.
But Sutton’s days of counting the stars are winding down, and that is why he is parting with his dearly loved collection. He is 67 years old and wants to stop collecting because he doesn’t want to leave his kids with the burden of handling the assemblage when he is gone. However, he says that it probably will be a hard habit to break, adding that if he stumbled across a really rare one, he probably would have to buy it.
“I’m a little sad seeing them go, but I always knew that they are history, and I was only their custodian for a little while,” Sutton said. “Hopefully they’ll all find homes where they’ll be treasured as much as I have cherished them.”
Sutton said his favorite flag in the collection is one that was waved when Abraham Lincoln was nominated for the presidency in Chicago on May 18, 1860.
“Back then, it was not at all uncommon to advertise on flags, and each delegation at the convention would wave their flags with their advertisements on them,” Sutton said. “I have one with ‘Georgia’ printed on it in the display and it is my favorite, the one I’m most proud of – I had to trade a guy a rare 43-star flag to get it.”
Although adults with enough disposable income to rebuy their youth usually fuel the antiques market, Sutton understands there will be very few people alive who were young in the 1800s, but he hopes an appreciation for the American flag’s history will power the sale of his collection. And what a history that has been.
“No other flag in history has gone through more transformations than the American flag,” Sutton said. “Until 1912, you could put the stars on the American flag in any configuration you wanted. The government never mandated the position, but only allocated an additional star with each new state.”
Congress did establish in 1818 that the 13 stripes honoring the 13 original colonies remain constant and that only the stars would change after deciding that constantly changing the stripes would make the flag to hard to discern from a distance. According to Sutton, the 48-star flag was the longest running in the country’s history with 47 years passing before Alaska joined the Union in 1959; at that point, a 49th star was added. In 1960, Hawaii’s admission brought the 50th star.
And, if a 51st state ever joins the union, the July 4th holiday would mark its appearance on the flag. Sutton explained that the 1818 Congress also decided that each new star would be incorporated into the design of the flag effective on the July 4th following the new state’s admission.