KC collector to sell Franklin letter

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —A Kansas City area collector has announced plans to sell a letter from the 1760s in which Benjamin Franklin writes about a possible revolt in the colonies years before the American Revolution.

Heritage Auction Galleries is auctioning "The Disputes With America" letter as the centerpiece of its manuscript sale in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Oct. 14. Heritage estimates the letter will bring $300,000 to $500,000.

"This is a really important letter," said Carla Mulford, a Penn State University associate professor who specializes in Franklin. "It's very important because he's writing to somebody who might be able to help him convince influential members of Parliament to relax their oppressive measures against the colonies."

Claude Harkins, a retired suburban Kansas City businessman, bought the letter from a dealer on the West Coast about a decade ago, but would not say how much he paid. In 1995, Christie's sold it at auction in London for about $58,000, according to the Christie's website.

Sandra Palomino, director of historical manuscripts at Heritage, said pre-Internet prices for pieces like the Franklin letter are not a good indication of expected auction price, in part because potential audiences now are so much bigger.

"Material of this caliber is so scarce that the competition for it becomes very, very fierce when it becomes available. So the price it previously sold for is irrelevant," Palomino said. "The quality of this particular letter, material of this type doesn't become available very often."

Harkins is selling the letter, as he does other pieces of his multimillion dollar Americana collection, partly to raise capital. But he and his wife, Inez, also hope the sale will spur interest in collecting Americana, which Harkins has done since his youth in Alabama.

"We're hoping to bring someone else into the market that has money that would love to pick up the same passion that I have," Harkins said. "We'd like to pass it along."

In the six-page letter, Franklin tells Lord Kames, a Scottish lawyer, that Americans are chafing under British control.

America "must become a great Country... and will in a less time than is generally conceiv'd be able to shake off any Shackles that may be impos'd on her, and perhaps place them on the Imposers," Franklin writes.

"In the mean time, every Act of Oppression will sour their Tempers, lessen greatly if not annihilate the Profits of your Commerce with them, and hasten their final Revolt; For the Seeds of Liberty are universally sown there, and nothing can eradicate them."

Franklin's apparent prescience about the war is what makes the letter so important, said Harkins, who founded a health-care telemarketing company.

"He is predicting the American Revolution eight years before 1775 at Lexington and Concord when shots were heard around the world," Harkins said. Franklin is telling the British "this is what's going to happen.... You can't turn it around. You can't turn it around."

Kenneth Rendell, a New York dealer in historical letters and documents, said while the current market for Americana has fluctuated, Franklin letters have an appeal.

"Franklin would certainly write fiery letters with lots of sound bites," he said. "He's got all these sayings that people still quote whether they know Ben Franklin said them or not.... He appeals to people from so many different standpoints."

Harkins' collection, much of which was on display recently at his home in suburban Kansas City, also includes such things as a lock of George Washington's hair, jewelry worn by Martha Washington, 18th century 13-star U.S. flags and a piece of Washington's presidential china.

Harkins said the uneasy economy has likely eroded some of the Franklin letter's value, but he's intent on selling.

"Three years ago this would have been a million-dollar letter," Harkins said. "I'm a little bit nervous about selling now.... Run of the mill pieces don't sell very well.

"But the great things still sell."