It's the kind of historic discovery that happens maybe twice a century.
A Civil War-era relic, in this case a flag that decorated Abraham Lincoln's theater box the night he was assassinated, turns up on a forgotten shelf in the bowels of a local museum.
So how does the Connecticut Historical Society forget about such an artifact - one that had been sitting in the basement since 1922?
"We have more than 265,000 artifacts and we display less than 1 percent,'' said Susan P. Schoelwer, the society's director of museum collections. "No one knows the details of every one.''
The Treasury Guard national flag - with 36 stars, one for each state - was rediscovered in 1998, but only recently authenticated after a painstaking process. Its unveiling Thursday in Hartford drew attention from around the country and from Europe.
The customized flag was typical of its time, when no official design had been established and the banners commonly displayed inscriptions identifying the military units that carried them.
Historians are particularly impressed, they say, by the society's scholarship, which leaves virtually no doubt the flag was one of the five placed in the box at Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.
"I'm very convinced by it," said Thomas Turner, a Lincoln assassination scholar at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass. "You can sometimes have a couple of claims on items, or you can have an item that not everybody is agreed to.''
In this case there is no dispute as to the flag's authenticity. "That's what's impressive about [this one],'' Turner said.
Just as interesting as the discovery and restoration of a flag that had dissolved into a pile of brittle silk rags is how it ended up in a museum on Hartford's west side, only to get lost for nearly 80 years.
Forgotten, But Not GoneWhen Dr. Robert M. Yergason donated the flag in 1922, it made the society's annual report for that year. Yergason had received it from his father, Civil War veteran and Hartford resident Edgar S. Yergason, who had received it in 1907 from an official at the U.S. Treasury Department.
But the flag, folded in a small wooden box with a glass cover, wasn't even 60 years old at the time, and museums then were more interested in 18th-century relics, experts said. So over the years the box got pushed deeper into back rooms as curators came and went and more relics piled up during an era of unsophisticated record keeping.
The flag briefly resurfaced about 20 years ago when Don Troiani, a Civil War collectibles expert, found it while looking for another item. Troiani said he can't remember whether he informed anyone at the society.
"The only thing I can say for sure is it was there,'' Troiani said Thursday from his Southbury home. "Flags weren't a priority for me.''
By the time Kelly Nolin, the society's former acting head librarian, started sifting through the archives in 1998 to prepare for a Civil War lecture, the flag had vanished from the historical radar screen and could have remained there for decades.
Nolin said she was puzzled when she first spotted the box on a shelf in a dim basement corner. She could read the words on the blue canton visible through the glass: "Presented to Treasury Guard Regt. by the Ladies of the Treasury Dept. 1864." But Nolin knew that a Treasury Guard flag, one that Booth had caught his spur on while fleeing, was already on display at Ford's Theatre.
She soon learned there was another, but the flag's authenticity didn't become known until months later when restoration workers at Textile Conservation Workshop in South Salem, N.Y., had begun piecing it together.
"It's almost like you feel when you go up into the attic and open an old trunk," said Mary Kaldany, who worked to restore the flag. "You know no one has unfolded it for 75 years, so there's that kind of thrill. But there's also trepidation."
The Jigsaw PuzzleSlowly, gently, carefully, Kaldany pulled open the flag, which measured more than 6 feet square. She laid it flat on a wash table and surveyed the damage. The dyed stripes had separated into strips; the canton remained attached only along the edges of the flag, its oil-painted center broken into cracked and curled shards.
"Initially, it seemed quite bad," Kaldany said. "I thought there was quite a lot missing. Then I found the missing paint chips in the bottom of the box."
The job would consume more than 550 hours over the next two years. Dirt and dust and grime were gently vacuumed and washed from the flag.
Now Kaldany had the pieces of her puzzle. She assembled the painting of an eagle, attaching the fragments with tiny sutures. She prepared the fabric-covered mount, choosing a beige that approximates the color of the formerly white stripes, then laid the stripes on top, taking care to place the many loose pieces in their appropriate locations.
The back of the flag, with its distinctive canton displaying an eagle and shield, is the featured side. Because the flag had to be mounted, only one side could be displayed. A window in the opaque back of the plexiglass case allows viewing of the front of the canton, which includes a painting of Liberty.
"You're working so close to it all the time, it's not until you step back that you can see how beautiful it really is," Kaldany said.
As the Connecticut Historical Society prepares for its most ambitious building project ever, raising the money to build a new state history center to be designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the flag could be a potent asset.
State Rep. Jefferson B. Davis, a member of the board of the historical society, said the society hopes that the flag would be a draw for funding and attendance for the proposed history center, which would be built adjacent to Trinity College in Hartford.
"This is something that goes to the emotional heartstring of our nation's history," he said. "Without question the Lincoln assassination is in the top five memorable events in our history, tragic and memorable, and to be able to have that here and be able to wrap some other history around it would really help that come alive. I think people would go out of their way to see it.
"I'm delirious with excitement."
Many historians feel the same. Howard Michael Madaus, chief curator of the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa., said a Lincoln artifact with the resonance and significance of the flag might appear once every 50 years - "if you're lucky."
The Lincoln flag will be on display as the centerpiece of the Civil War Treasures exhibit through Jan. 6, 2002. Museum exhibition hours are Tuesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. The society is located at 1 Elizabeth St., Hartford.