Home > History of Wine > “[I]mported expressly for President Jefferson”: Historic Lots of Thomas Jefferson’s Madeira at Auction

“[I]mported expressly for President Jefferson”: Historic Lots of Thomas Jefferson’s Madeira at Auction

This and the related posts about historic auctions of Thomas Jefferson’s Madeira would not be possible without the help of Mannie Berk, Founder of the Rare Wine Co., Anna Berkes, Research Librarian at The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and Meg Kennedy, Director of Museum Programs at The Montpelier Foundation. 

Thomas Jefferson from St. Memin collection of portraits. 1805. LOC.

Thomas Jefferson from St. Memin collection of portraits. 1805. LOC.

In May 1997, Sotheby’s auctioned off two partially filled and one empty bottles of Madeira once “belonging to President Thomas Jefferson”.  These bottles were previously owned by Douglas H. Thomas who bought them in 1890 at an estate sale in Maryland.  The bottles bore their provenance on paper labels which stated they were of the “Vintage 1800” and had been “Purchased at the Sale of the Effects of President Jefferson. 1843”.  Douglas H. Thomas was a prominent Madeira connoisseur who possessed a significant Madeira collection.  As such he would have been attracted to the Thomas Jefferson connection.  Provenance is of prime concern when it comes to purchasing rare and old wines.  In today’s market it can indicate proper storage and more importantly, authenticity.  Provenance is not a new concern for it was commonly tracked on bottles and demijohns of Madeira dating back to the 18th century.

Parcels of Madeira became known by the ships they were imported on or the families that purchased them.  They often bore papers labels or tags indicating their names and a succession of dates indicating when they were imported, drawn from cask in to demijohn, and eventually bottled.  They could even indicate the chain of ownership.  Period advertisements and auction catalogs are full of these names and dates.  When great Madeira cellars came up for auction the names of the collector, such as the “celebrated old” Madeira of James Cox, commanded both attention and price.

There are many examples of Madeira bottles dating back to the 1810s that have surviving paper labels.  It is not surprising, then, that the Madeira bottles of Douglas H. Thomas detailed their provenance on attached labels.  Douglas H. Thomas had purchased approximately 20 bottles worth of Jefferson Madeira.  As one of the greatest 19th century Madeira collectors, Douglas H. Thomas prized the Thomas Jefferson provenance.  He proudly served these rare bottles at public dinners and even gave one to President Grover Cleveland.  Accounts of these dinners appear in several newspaper articles and there is surviving correspondence with President Cleveland as well.  From these articles we know he served the Madeira for toasts to Jeffersonian Democracy.  Several articles even describe the bottles that were served at one of the dinners.  These descriptions almost exactly match the labels on the three bottles auctioned off by Sotheby’s in 1997.  There would seem to be little need to doubt the authenticity.  Perhaps as a result there was very little press about this auction with absolutely no mention in The New York Times.

Twelve years prior to the Sotheby’s auction a cache of more than one dozen bottles of Bordeaux wine claimed to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson was found.    This cache contained such bottles as 1784 and 1787 Chateau d’Yquem as well as 1787 from Chateau Lafite, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Brane Mouton.  These bottles came into the possession of Hardy Rodenstock who boasted of them and subsequently sold them off.  A bottle bearing “1787 Lafitte Th. J.” was auctioned off by Christie’s on December 5, 1987.  At the time Cinder Goodwin, a researcher at Monticello, doubted the authenticity of the parcel based on the initials and lack of documentary evidence.  Reports on the auctions and tasting of these Thomas Jefferson bottles appear in The New York Times over the years.  Doubts about authenticity continued until 2005 when Bill Koch began investigating both the bottles and Hardy Rodenstock.  Thanks to these efforts we now know that these bottles were fakes.

There was, perhaps, no need to doubt the provenance of the 1800 Jefferson Madeira at the time of the Sotheby’s auction in 1997.  With labels that matched century old newspaper descriptions they were unlike Hardy Rodenstock’s cache of mysterious 18th century Bordeaux.  These Bordeaux bottles were purportedly purchased from an unnamed source who found them walled up in a cellar at an unspecified Paris address. While the Jefferson Madeira was undoubtedly old they were not above questioning.  These bottles remain somewhat controversial for there is yet no proof to Sotheby’s claim that they were owned by President Thomas Jefferson.

This undocumented connection to Thomas Jefferson is described in Benjamin Thomas’ The Billionaires Vinegar (2008) and the second edition of Noel Cossart’s Madeira The Island Vineyard (2011).  The three Madeira bottles and Rodenstock’s cache are not the first bottles of wine attributed to Thomas Jefferson to appear at auction.  Some 160 to 170 years ago lots of Thomas Jefferson’s Madeira appeared in the auctions of both John Gadsby’s and Josiah Lee’s wine cellars.  Like the Douglas H. Thomas bottles there is no documentary evidence linking these older lots to Thomas Jefferson.

John Gadsby ran Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia and later the National Hotel, also known as Gadsby’s Hotel, in Washington, DC.  Over the years John Gadsby’s establishments entertained such distinguished guests as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.  Upon retirement John Gadsby purchased Decatur House, located within sight of the President’s House, where he lived until his death in 1844.  Very little is known about John Gadsby’s preference for Madeira let alone wine in general.  What we do know is that he put together a tremendous collection of wine over a period of 30 to 40 years.  During his retirement in 1839, he put up for auction an incredible “10,000 bottles of choice wine”.  Included was a parcel of “MADEIRA – imported in 1807, to order, for Mr. Jefferson”.  That John Gadsby owned wine imported for President Thomas Jefferson was clearly revealed when the remainder of his cellar was auctioned upon his death in 1844.

Mark on Cork, O. M. Y. W. – Superior old Madeira, from Newton, Gordon, Murdock & Co., imported expressly for President Jefferson, in 1807, and bottled in 1811; bought by J. Gadsby in 1819.”

Mark on Cork, M Y. W. – Same as lot marked O. M. Y. W. but bottled in pint bottles.  The Jefferson Wine of 1807.”

The advertisements do not claim that Thomas Jefferson ever owned these specific parcels of Madeira but the implication of “The Jefferson Wine” is strong.  This leaves the possibility that Thomas Jefferson refused delivery of an order he placed.   There are no records that Thomas Jefferson imported any wine from Newton, Gordon, Murdock, & Co., let alone sold any wine to John Gadsby in 1819.  In fact Thomas Jefferson’s last recorded purchase of Madeira occurred in 1804 for his favorite Brazil quality.  To find the origins of this Madeira we must turn to other records.  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sometimes ordered wine together.   At times James Madison handled the correspondence for their joint orders but there are no records in this type of correspondence.  Madeira was the favorite drink of James Madison so he often ordered different types of Madeira separate from Thomas Jefferson.   It is in James Madison’s individual orders that a Madeira matches the description of the John Gadsby parcels.

Advertisement from September 11, 1844.

Advertisement from September 11, 1844.

Though the wine was attributed to Newton, Gordon, Murdock, & Co., the firm that was to become Cossart, Gordon, the key lies with the marked cork.  The mark of “O. M. Y. W.” stands for Old Murdoch Yuille Wardrop.  James Madison received two such pipes in 1807.  These pipes are described in several letters beginning with one received from Murdoch, Yuille, Wardrop, & Co. dated January 10, 1807.  This letter mentions that they had shipped “Two Pipe’s of our finest old wine” which were received several months later.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worked together, socialized together, and even lived near each other.  Unfortunately, there is a limit to the vinous details in their papers.  We do not know what specific bottles they drank when they were together or even if they shared the odd dozen bottles as a gift amongst friends.  James Madison, unlike Thomas Jefferson, did not detail when his pipes of Madeira were broached, bottled, and finished.  This prevents us from determining when he finished his Madeira so it is impossible to rule out James Madison as the source of John Gadsby’s bottles.

The second parcel of Thomas Jefferson Madeira is found amongst the wines of noted Baltimore collector Josiah Lee.  His cellar was described as the “largest private collection of rare and costly old wines.”  There was but one lot listed as “1 demijohn, 3 gallons, choice Old Jefferson Madeira”.  The sparse details yield no clues to how Josiah Lee acquired the wine.  This demijohn was purchased by Colonel John Edgar Howard after Josiah Lee’s death and remained in the family into the 1880s.  What happened to this demijohn remains a mystery.

The third and final parcel of Thomas Jefferson Madeira is that of the already mentioned Douglas H. Thomas.  He was considered Baltimore’s greatest Madeira connoisseur.  He purchased his Jefferson Madeira during April 1890, at the auction of the Wethered family estate Ashlyns in Maryland.  Historic accounts of this wine and contemporary images of the labels all reveal the same information: “Jefferson Madeira. Vintage 1800. Purchased at the Sale of the Effects of President Jefferson. 1843”.  That this Madeira was owned by Thomas Jefferson is cast into doubt for there is no record of his having ordered a vintage 1800 Madeira, there was no Madeira left at Monticello upon his death, and there was no sale of Thomas Jefferson’s effects in 1843.  It appears that the 1843 date might be a transcription mistake of 1834.  In 1896 both Charles Bellows, a Madeira expert and wine merchant, writing in Bonfort’s Circular and another journalist in The Washington Post state that this wine had laid in the cellar “until 1834”.  This is the date that Dr. Charles Barclay sold Monticello to Lieutenant Uriah Phillips Levy.

Description of Jefferson Madeira from October 11, 1904.

Description of Jefferson Madeira from October 11, 1904.

Charles Bellows specifically wrote that the Madeira “remained in the cellars of Thomas Jefferson, at Monticello, until 1834, when it was purchased”.  He does not state the Madeira was owned by Thomas Jefferson rather that it was in the cellars at Monticello.  Dr. Charles Barclay did drink wine but does not appear to have documented his purchases.  There is no mention of wine nor spirits in the Barclay papers nor in the depositions regarding the property included in the sale of Monticello.  Thus we cannot determine if Dr. Charles Barclay had Madeira in the Monticello cellars during 1834.  The Jefferson Madeira bottles contain labels created by Douglas H. Thomas so we do not know how the Madeira was identified when purchased in 1890.  Period advertisements indicate there was an auction catalog and Benjamin Wallace wrote of such catalog but there appears to be no surviving copies.  Thus we are left with no clues prior to 1890.

There is no documentary evidence that any of these bottles of Madeira were owned by Thomas Jefferson.  For now it is not possible determine if John Gadby’s Jefferson bottles were misattributed bottles of James Madison’s, bottles given to Thomas Jefferson from James Madison, or bottles sold to John Gadsby simply using the Thomas Jefferson name.  Josiah Lee’s demijohn has maddeningly little documentation surrounding it such that it stands out like a blip.  Finally, Douglas H. Thomas’ bottles could have come from Dr. Charles Barclay but that remains a suggestion until further documentation comes to light.  What is clear is that less than two decades after Thomas Jefferson passed away his name was associated with wine at auction.  That we know this is due in part to the American custom of naming Madeira.  As with the 20th century sales of Rodenstock’s and Thomas’s bottles, this association caught the attention of wine lovers and generated a series of newspaper articles.  I should note that James Madison made a rare purchase of Madeira from the 1800 vintage.  It would have been a sweet story if the Gadsby and Thomas parcels represented treasured wine shared amongst wine-loving friends.

You may have noticed that my normal array of endnotes is missing.  For the past year I have researched these three parcels of Madeira to the full extent possible.  Fearing that such details might detract from the general story I will be publishing my parcel specific research, full of endnotes, over the next three days.

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