A Lifelong Pledge
Ben Zaricor collects American history and identity, in fabric form. He owns one flag that has not just been to the moon—it was “postmarked” on the lunar surface with tire tracks. He owns two banners that flew on the presidential limousine on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Most impressive, he owns a stunning array of flags from the days when the 13 states were represented by that same number of stars. And each banner has rich meaning. Call it historical texture.
Over the course of more than 40 years, Zaricor has amassed the largest and deepest collection of American flags, and flag memorabilia, in the country, maybe in the world. David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby’s in New York, calls it nothing less than “one of the most extraordinary private collections ever put together.” Zaricor buys these swaths of emblematic fabric, and authenticates them, and exhibits them, for reasons more intense than the average collector’s motivation. While every flag tells a story, all of his American flags collectively tell the American story.
“They help us understand our country,” says Zaricor, 66, the former CEO of Good Earth Tea. “They contribute so much richness. We do have a very diverse culture, but at the end of the day, people don’t have to agree on any central point about the flag. It has such a commonality and meaning that individuals can tell their own stories. What I’m collecting is old pieces of cloth, but they’re stories, something meaningful to someone else.”
The core of the collection comprises Zaricor’s eight 13-star flags from the very earliest days of both the banner and the country—and by that he’s talking circa 1777. Many are homemade. As he has written, few Americans realize the flag has been from the outset a statement made by individuals, not the government, “something we use in our everyday lives to express ourselves and our political freedoms. Our flag tells a story of diverse ideas, cultures, personalities, races, and political persuasions,” he says. “It is a story of both differences and unity.”
Redden of Sotheby’s says flags are valuable and collectible for a number of reasons: “You have flags that have evolved over time, and you have flags that represent the early stage of the flag, but I’m more interested in flags that have a fantastic history, where the flag has true power and resonance, recognition that it was a significant part of a historical event—that’s when a flag is extremely valuable.”
“When you talk about provenance and so on, you’re really talking about a flag that tells a story,” Redden adds. “Stories are the best part of these kinds of historical objects. Ben has been very focused on his collection; he is one of these people who tries to get as much information as he can get. He works with academics and understands flags very well.”