A coalition of Maine museums, corporations, foundations and individuals raised enough money to ensure that a collection of rare 19th-century, hand-painted labor banners will stay in Maine.

The cultural organizations and their supporters paid $125,350 for 17 banners commissioned by the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, a Portland trade group founded in the early 1800s and still active today. They were offered late last week by the James D. Julia Inc. auction house in Fairfield.

The banners were created in the mid-1800s to extol the virtues and good work of local tradesmen, including shipbuilders, shoemakers and draftsmen. A janitor in the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association building at 519 Congress St. discovered the banners in a basement storage area in the early 1980s.

The association said it decided to sell the collection because it needed the money to maintain its building.

Thomas Denenberg, chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art, called the sale “a great success” because it means the banners will stay in Portland.

Although the banners were purchased collectively, the Maine Historical Society in Portland will own and house them, said Richard D’Abate, executive director of the historical society.

They are made of silk and painted with elaborate, decorative designs and slogans. Many are outlined in fringe and attached to wooden arms for use in parades and labor fairs.

“Our original idea was that one institution ought to own and administer these things. But everybody ultimately is interested in seeing them displayed in their museum,” D’Abate said. “The next big question is to determine a plan and funding for an approach to supporting the banners. That means conservation, exhibition and perhaps a publication.”

The core group involved in the purchase began with the historical society, the Portland Museum of Art, the Maine State Museum in Augusta and the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath.

Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges also supported the purchase, as did various corporations, foundations and individuals, including L.L. Bean, the Libra Foundation, Diana and Linda Bean, Elsie Viles and Chris Livesay and an anonymous Boston foundation.

“It was a hair-raising and nerve-wracking effort to build backing,” D’Abate said. “Having this sort of unprecedented kind of cooperation with all these groups working together toward the same end convinced a lot of donors that we were serious and that this was an important thing to do.”

In addition to being beautiful and fragile artifacts, the banners are important culturally because they represent a labor-oriented way of life that was common in New England in the 1800s, said Harry Rubenstein, chairman of the division of political history at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“They are wonderfully expressive of the ideals of a community, and some of the last tangible remnants of what was an active part of American life,” Rubenstein said. “There is a sense of pride with them that says, ‘We are American. We are industry. American thrives because of us.’“

Had the coalition of Maine organizations lacked the money to make the purchase, Rubenstein said, the Smithsonian likely would have gotten involved in the bidding. The institution was most interested in keeping the 17 banners together.

Several were sold separately, requiring bidding on a banner-by-banner basis. Many were combined into one lot.

The combined purchase price of $125,350 was within the auction house’s preliminary estimate of $100,000 to $200,000.

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]