Sledge flag

The flag from polar explorer Captain Henry Kellett. A UK buyer needs to raise £120,000 to keep it in the UK.

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The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has issued the temporary export block to give UK institutions the chance to raise the recommended price of £120,000 (plus VAT of £24,000 which can be reclaimed by an eligible institution) with a deadline of December 1.

One of the earliest known flags still in existence (dating to c.1851-52), the silk sledging flag passed by continuous descent through the Kellett family but its current owner is not known. 

Irishman Captain Henry Kellett was a famous arctic explorer involved in expeditions charting the Northwest Passage – the sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean – which had become a focus for science, trade and geographical exploration.

During the search for Sir John Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition, Captain Kellett’s voyages helped map out the northern extremes of North America for Britain. The sledge flag serves as an important reminder of the tragedy of Franklin’s failed voyage.

“Britain’s rich maritime history”

Arts minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said: “This flag serves as a reminder of Britain’s rich maritime history, helping to tell the story of sailors and their travels in search of new places. Its cultural and historical significance should be a driving force to keep it in the country.”

The minister’s decision follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest. The committee agreed that this is a fascinating example of a sledge flag and that the unique design of this flag, along with its importance within the context of British history, is of outstanding significance. It made its recommendation on the grounds that the departure of the sledge flag from the UK would be a misfortune owing to its close connection with British history and national life.

The chairman of the RCEWA, Sir Hayden Phillips, said: “The stories that surround this Sledge Flag make it come alive. Captain Kellett commanded HMS Resolute, one of many ships which, over at least three centuries, had sought to fulfil a British maritime obsession – finding the North West Passage. The flag and the ship were also linked to the constant late 19th century search for Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition. Like his ships, crushed by the ice, Resolute had to be abandoned but was recovered and restored by the US government and presented to Queen Victoria.

“She then ordered the crafting from its oak timbers an ornate desk which was presented to the President of the US. This sledge flag, of unique design, is redolent with our history and should live here.”

Sledge flags are popular with collectors. A sledge and flag from the first expedition to the Antarctic led by Ernest Shackleton sold at Bonhams’ Travel and Exploration sale on February 6, 2019 (ATG 2379).