1852 Harvard Trophy Oars up for Auction

The multi-million dollar oars that are up for auction at Sotheby’s in May.

23 April 2022

By Göran R Buckhorn

Two 170-year-old trophy oars from the first Harvard-Yale Race are going up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York City. The auction house estimates that they will fetch between $3-to-$5 million in online bidding on 17-24 May. Göran Buckhorn is skeptical.

News spread fast mid-week in the American rowing community that Sotheby’s in Manhattan had two old oars up for action on 17-24 May – and they were not just any old oars. They were so-called trophy oars given to the winning Harvard crew at the inaugural Harvard-Yale Regatta on 3 August 1852. Sotheby’s experts estimate that the trophy oars, which are made of black walnut and have engraved silver plaques, will fetch $3-to-$5 million in online bidding.

“It’s about Harvard and Yale on the surface, but what I think is truly interesting is it’s the real beginning and genesis of the rivalries in college sports that we sort of take for granted today,” Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts Richard Austin told media. “It’s just part of America’s cultural fabric.”

Franklin Pierce

The inaugural race between Yale and Harvard was held on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. It was Yale’s James Whiton, who grew up on a farm in Holderness, New Hampshire, who managed to strike a deal with a regional railroad line which was looking to boost it passengers on the line. The trophy oars were presented to Harvard by New Hampshire Senator Franklin Pierce, who seven months later would become the 14th president of the United States, serving between March 1853 and March 1857.

To put a perspective on the history of American sports: the Harvard-Yale Race was 17 years before the first intercollegiate football game and 43 years before the first intercollegiate basketball game. And Yale founded the first collegiate rowing team already in 1843, which was followed by Harvard a year later.

These old oars were, according to the many articles that have been written about the auction, “discovered decades ago by a family cleaning out the basement of a Medford, Massachusetts, rooming house they had purchased.” The articles also say that they have never been auctioned before.

Lake Winnipesaukee today.

“They’ve been with the family for the last 40 years,” Sotheby’s Richard Austin said. “How they ended up in that building and where they were in the interim is sort of a mystery lost to the ages, but I think it is great that they were rediscovered.”

This sounds like something taken from a fairytale book, or something equivalent to Howard Carter discovering King Tut’s tomb, which actually happened 70 years after the first Harvard-Yale Race.

So, let’s put the brakes on for a while. Can these trophy oars really have a value of US$3-US$5 million as Sotheby’s claims?

To find out, I did what any reputable rowing history buff would do – and Sotheby’s should have done – I contacted esteemed American rowing historians Bill Miller and Tom Weil. Both Bill and Tom revealed that they knew that these oars existed, and they could also correct one or two errors in the storyline of the trophy oars.

Tom wrote to me:

A number of years ago, sometime in the period 2008-2014, an individual who renovated old houses in unfashionable suburbs of Boston contacted some combination of Hart Perry, Bill Miller and myself, and said he wanted to meet with us regarding the future of a set of historic oars he had discovered in the course of a renovation.

As he told it, he and some of his 17 children were cleaning out a house, and he sent a couple of the kids to empty the basement. The easiest way to get rid of unwanted materials was to pass them out a basement window, and, for convenience, they propped the window open with an old oar they found in the cellar. At some point, they discovered a companion oar, and they noticed silver labels on the oars which suggested they might be significant antiques. With some research, they determined that the pair of oars were the trophies that had been awarded to the winner of the first U.S. intercollegiate athletic contest of any kind, a race between crews from Yale and Harvard, won by Harvard.

The oars had been taken back to, and kept at, Harvard for some period, but at some point they apparently had gone astray, and had presumably sat in Boston area homes or basements for a century and a half or so. And now the home renovator wanted to sell them.

Assuming that the rich alumni of Yale and Harvard would prize them as extraordinary relics of a historic past – which, indeed, they are – he told us that he had contacted both schools. He thought that they might be worth $30 million. He was shocked that his sense of their value was not shared by the people to whom he spoke.

When the contractor met with Hart and Bill and myself, he suggested that, as some of the keepers of rowing history [as members of the National Rowing Foundation, NRF], we might want to organize an effort to raise the money to buy the oars for the NRF rowing history collection. His pride in the antique items was evident; he had printed up sheets of U.S. postage stamps showing the oars to celebrate the find. We agreed with his view of the historic significance of the items, but made it clear that it was highly unlikely that any rowing collector would consider offering any amount higher than six figures, and that the NRF was certainly not in a place where it could compete for funds to purchase the oars that might otherwise go for national team purposes.

Tom could verify that the oars have, indeed, been up for auction prior to ended up at Sotheby’s in New York City this spring. Tom wrote:

The next thing we heard was that the 1852 oars were to be auctioned on eBay. I gathered some Yale rowing alumni who were willing to fund a purchase, and spoke to Harry Parker, who did the same, and we discussed the terms on which we would share ownership if we were successful in combining our funds to bid on a collaborative basis, either by rotating the pair between the schools, or each taking one of them to hold permanently. I got on the phone with a Harvard alumn, and we coordinated on the bidding process. 

But when the eBay auction ended, it had not met the reserve, so the oars did not sell.

And so, the oars remained out of sight for a decade or so, until the recent Sotheby’s auction announcement. How much will they sell for (will they even meet whatever reserve may have been set)? Who will buy them?  Will it be a rowing aficionado (perhaps even from Yale or Harvard), or just someone with silly money to spend on a unique set of sporting antiques?

Do these belong in a museum? They certainly belong in a museum where they would be appropriately appreciated, but since the rowing community has not seen fit to establish and maintain such a repository for its sacred artifacts, perhaps they are, after all, better off on the wall, or hung from the ceiling, of someone who wants to display these “trophy oars” (and indeed they are) more than anyone else, and rowing history be damned … until they turn up on the market once again.   

To this can only be added: hear, hear!

Sotheby’s website is saying this about the trophy oars.

The 155th Harvard-Yale Regatta will be held on 11 June on the Thames River in New London and will be the first regatta since 2019; both the 2020 and 2021 regattas were cancelled due to COVID-19.

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