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Article originally published on Kovels On Antiques & Collectibles, July 2018 Issue. Not a subscriber? The digital version of Kovels On Antiques & Collectibles is part of the Kovels.com Premium subscriptions. Save 15% during this week with the code "America." 

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More than 100,000 visitors annually journey to the U.S. Naval Academy on the shores of Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Maryland. They visit the Academy Museum and experience history first-hand in the artifacts from America’s naval history.

A recent discovery has made the museum even more of a destination. In December, curators uncovered 46 flags, many captured by the Navy in 19th-century conflicts. The battle flags were concealed since 1920 under boxes with plate-glass lids used to exhibit British flags from the War of 1812. These perfectly preserved bits of history – colors still vibrant – included a flag taken from a Chinese pirate fort off Macau in 1854, Revolutionary War-era replica flags, a banner captured in Korea in 1871, and flags from battles in Asia and from the Spanish-American War. The collection had been sealed for nearly a century.

Charles Swift, the museum’s managing director and supervisory curator, is the architect behind the uncovering. “In 1913, Amelia Fowler supervised a team who preserved 171 United States Navy trophy flags,” Swift said. “Most were put into display cases at the Naval Academy and photographed. A catalog of flags was published, using those photographs with captions. Some flags were hung in Mahan Hall from the ceiling. These were large War of 1812 flags - 8 by 12 feet to 25 by 30 feet – that could not be displayed in cases. By 1920, the staff realized hanging those large flags was doing harm and they were taken down, folded, placed on wood frames, and installed over the flag displays, almost completely hiding the existing flags. The cases were then re-sealed with plate glass.

“I chose the five display cases with more flags added to them around 1920. Forty-six flags were unaccounted for,” Swift said.

Since the rediscovery, each flag is being checked to see if restoration is needed. The discoveries will join the 800 flags in the museum – about 250 of them trophy flags seized in battle.

“Treating war trophies with respect is an important part of what we do,” said Swift.

If you go: The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free. 

Photos provided by the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, Preble Hall, 118 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, MD 21402.

The 35-foot by 25-foot Royal Standard on display dwarfs visitors. The banner denotes the presence of royalty and sometimes the presence of the English crown’s authority. This flag was captured by joint Navy and Army forces in York (present day Toronto), Canada on April 27, 1813, during the War of 1812.

The Royal Standard, before it was moved for conservation.

Detailed stitching is still in place on the back of a flag captured by the U.S. Navy from a Chinese pirate fort off Macau in 1854. It bears the mark of the preservation efforts in 1913 by conservationist Amelia Fowler. It is decorated with the yin-yang symbol. The yin (the dark swirl) is associated with shadows, femininity and the trough of a wave; the yang (the light swirl) represents brightness, passion and growth.


Uncovered Korean flags illustrate exquisite attention to detail. The colorful flags were captured by the U.S. Navy in Korea in 1871 and have been out of sight since 1920. Dragons in Korean mythology are benevolent beings related to water and agriculture, often considered the providers of rain and clouds.



Article originally printed on Kovels On Antiques & Collectibles, July 2018 Issue.

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