LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As Kentucky and U.S. statesman Henry Clay lay dying of consumption in Washington, D.C., in 1852, President Millard Fillmore and other dignitaries crowded into his rooms at the National Hotel for the presentation of a large and elaborate solid gold medal that paid tribute to Clay's nearly 50-year career in politics and public service.
That one-of-a-kind medal struck by the U.S. Mint -- and enclosed in a silver, pocket-watch-style case engraved with a picture of Clay's Ashland home in Lexington -- will be featured in a "Lincoln and His Times" auction Sept. 17 in Dallas that pays tribute to Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln.
It's the first time the nearly two-pound medal has been up for sale, and a minimum bid of $75,000 is required after it was passed along through generations of Clay's descendants.
As it happens, the only other medal of that type that's "remotely comparable" is one that sold within the past decade in the mid-six figures range that was presented to Zachary Taylor, the future president, after being authorized by an order of Congress, said Tom Slater, director of historical auctions for Heritage Auctions, which is handling the sale.
Taylor, who was being recognized for his victory in the Mexican War (1846-1848) as commander of the Army, grew up in Jefferson County and returned off and on to Louisville. He is buried in Zachary Taylor National Cemetery near his boyhood home.
Clay is memorialized in downtown Louisville with a marble statue in Metro Hall, the former Jefferson County Courthouse building on West Jefferson Street.
The medal is being consigned for auction by Henry "Hank" List, a fourth-generation grandson of Clay who was born in Lexington and lives in Kentucky. It was willed to him in 1985 by the widow of his grandfather's brother, Henry Clay Anderson, because they didn't have children, List said in an email.
"Prior to receiving the medal I had not seen or heard of it," wrote List, whose full name is Henry Clay Anderson List.
The Taylor medal had added value because of the Congressional authorization and Taylor's later status as president, but the Clay medal is considered "spectacular," too.
"It's extremely rare to see an artifact like this on the open auction market," Eric Bradley, a spokesman for Heritage said in an email. Clay ran for president three times but was not elected.
Lincoln was known to be an admirer of Clay's, and when Lincoln was elected to the presidency in 1860, the Whig political committee that had sponsored the Clay medal presentation gave Lincoln a bronze copy.
Lincoln is said to have declared that he felt "extreme gratification ... in possessing so beautiful a memento of him whom, during my whole political life, I have loved and revered as a teacher and leader," according to Heritage.
Clay, who was born in 1777 in Hanover County, Va., practiced law in Lexington and served as a member of the state House of Representatives and also as speaker.
He also served in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he also was speaker, and in the U.S. Senate and was secretary of state under John Quincy Adams. He died June 29, 1852, and his funeral services were held in the Senate Chamber. He's interred in Lexington Cemetery.
On the front of the Clay medal is a relief profile of Clay, and the reverse side lists his signal achievements, also related to the War of 1812, Missouri Compromise (1821) and Peace with France Preserved (1835) and other events. The U.S. Capitol is pictured on the other side of the case.
The auction, which has 869 lots, is being held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Rail Splitter, a publication for Lincoln enthusiasts. For more auction information, go to HA.com.
Follow Martha Elson on Twitter: @MarthaElson_cj