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Wines Found at Liberty Hall Sold at Auction; Will Improve Access to Museum

Hand written tags and labels adorned the fine of ancient Madeira wine

A collection of rare Madeira wines uncovered at Liberty Hall recently went up for auction at the famed Christie’s auction house in New York and the proceeds will help improve visitor access at the museum on Kean’s campus.

The cache of wines discovered during a 2015 restoration project at Liberty Hall, some more than 200 years old, were put up for sale at the auction house on December 7. One bottle alone — a quart-sized bottle of The Lenox that was imported to Philadelphia in 1796 and originally bottled in 1798 — sold for nearly $16,000. Another, a five-gallon “demijohn” of Old Sercial Madeira, 1846, brought in $39,200.

Liberty Hall President John Kean Sr., who attended the sale with other Kean family members, said auction proceeds will go toward restoring a 1920s-era elevator in Liberty Hall, which can no longer be used because of safety concerns. The project will improve access to the landmark home.

“Our goal is to restore this elevator so those in wheelchairs can see the museum,” he said. “As both my sister and my mother ended their lives in a wheelchair, I have become very sensitized to the needs and requirements of those with limited mobility and the extreme difficulty they have in negotiating museums like Liberty Hall.”

Some of the wines were not sold, Kean said, and will be returned to the museum. Included are some of the five-gallon-size demijohns.

“I hope at a later date we may have an event here in New Jersey where the museum will raise funds by offering our visitors a chance to actually taste some of the wine,” he said.

During the auction, Kean said bids were coming in from around the world. He said he was surprised people were willing to pay high premiums for the Madeira. “Of course, it made a big difference that the Madeira expert at Christie’s was backing the quality of the wine,” he said.

The wines were found behind a wall in the Liberty Hall basement and in an attic. Kean, whose family owned the house for generations, said he had known there were wine bottles in the house but could not have imagined they constituted one of the most extensive early collections of Madeira in the world.

Hundreds of bottles and straw-wrapped demijohns were discovered. The most valuable, the Madeira, a Portuguese wine favored in colonial and early America because it was easy to import, dated back to 1796. Many bottles still had handwritten tags or labels.

“There were crates that were sealed that hadn’t been opened in 100 years,” said William Schroh Jr., Liberty Hall director of museum operations.

Kean said he initially thought the wine would be spoiled. In fact, he wanted to dump out the demijohns and use them as lamp bases. But after word got out of the discovery, Christie’s was brought in, and officials realized what they had.

“Bids were clearly related to the amount of wine remaining in the bottle,” Kean said. “Over the past 200 years, some had either leaked out of the bottle or evaporated.”

Liberty Hall officials do not yet have a final tally of the proceeds. The auction was billed as a Christie’s Finest Wines & Spirits auction, which included whiskeys and other rare vintages from other sources.