Found in a sealed compartment in the wine cellar of the Liberty Hall Museum in New Jersey, almost three cases of Madeira wine from 1796 — and in the attic, buried beneath piles of straw, approximately 40 demijohns dating from the 1820s
In 2015, during a six-month renovation project at the Liberty Hall Museum in New Jersey, a decision was made to remove
a plywood and plaster wall in the wine cellar of the house. The
wall was likely to have been erected during the Prohibition era.
Liberty Hall, which is now part of the Kean University campus,
was built in 1772 and has been home to many notable figures
across its long history, including future Treasury Secretary Alexander
Hamilton; William Livingston, the first Governor of New Jersey
and a signatory of the American Constitution; Henry Brockholst
Livingston, United States Supreme Court Justice; and, from
1811, members of the Kean political dynasty, which has numbered
US senators and congressmen. Mary Alice Kean was the last
resident of the house, which she began transforming into
a museum in 1949.
As the wall in the cellar came down, the original wine
cellar cage was revealed behind. Covered in years of soot,
dust and cobwebs, its contents included almost three cases
of Madeira wine from 1796, and assorted cases of gin, whiskey
and other liquor. Approximately 40 demijohns — barrels or
large bottles — of Madeira from the 1820s were also found in the
attic wine closet of the house, buried beneath piles of straw.
‘We had no idea what we had until we began to do the background
research, and we realised we had something very rare for the
United States,’ explains Bill Schroh, Jr., Director of Museum
Operations at Liberty Hall Museum. He is right, for the discovery
represents one of the largest known early collections of
Madeira in the United States, and one of the most extensive
in the world.
According to historical accounts, America’s original 13 colonies
imported about 95 per cent of wine produced on the Portuguese islands of Madeira, which sit in the Atlantic Ocean some 520km west of the coast of North Africa. Madeira was a popular beverage in colonial America and the early United States, chiefly because it was
easy to ship and it lasted. George Washington and Thomas
Jefferson were noted collectors, as was Chief Justice John
Marshall, and Madeira was used to toast both the Declaration of
Independence and the inauguration of George Washington.
‘From demijohn number one on we were just flabbergasted by the quality of the wines’ — Edwin Vos, Christie’s Head of Wine
Much of the Madeira discovered at Liberty Hall is still labelled
with handwritten tags, and can be referenced in the thousands of documents relating to the house that date across more than 200 years.
The paperwork shows that some of the wine in question was
for the personal use of Robert Lenox, Esq., a banker and
financier who was known to import Madeira in demijohns, and
then bottle and label it once it arrived. From 1795, Lenox was the exclusive US importer for Newton, Gordon & Murdoch, then the largest shipper of quality Madeira.
John Kean Sr., Mary Alice Kean’s son and President of Liberty
Hall, reveals that at the time of the find he was unaware
that Madeira didn't spoil, and assumed instead that the hundreds
of bottles of wine in the hidden compartment were unfit to
drink. ‘Initially, we decided to leave it as it was and as
a prop for visitors to look at,’ he says. ‘Curiosity led
us to clean a few bottles, and the rest is history.’
The demijohns discovered in the attic, some containing up to five gallons of Madeira, had wicker around them
to protect the glass. ‘I was going to give them away to our employees because they liked to make lamps out of them,’ reveals Kean. ‘Fortunately that did not occur.’
‘To find those demijohns from the 1820s is unique,’ confirms
Christie’s Head of Wine, Edwin Vos, an expert on Madeira, and the man who put together the inventory of the Liberty
Hall Museum discovery in 2017.
On 7 December in New York, Christie’s will auction an offering
from this historic collection, highlighted by a selection
of demijohns that were re-corked in October this year in
partnership with APCOR, the Portuguese Cork Association,
and catalogued under the expertise of Francisco Albuquerque,
Winemaker for the Blandy's Madeira Wine Company, S.A., and
Edwin Vos. The auction also includes four demijohns
of American Bourbon from the late 19th century.
‘From demijohn number one on we were just flabbergasted by
the quality of the wines,’ reveals Vos of his first tasting
of the historic Madeira. ‘I was honestly expecting a few
small disappointments, but I was overwhelmed by their quality.’
At a recent lunch attended by leading wine writers at Christie’s
Rockefeller Center HQ, the reception for the wines was equally
‘This is a landmark moment,’ confirms Francisco Albuquerque.
‘This discovery not only represents one of the largest collections
of early Madeira in the United States, but also signifies
the timeless duration and lasting quality of Madeira wine. These vintages are approximately 200 years old and yet they
still retain the nuanced qualities and notes found only in
Madeira, coupled with the inimitable finish of time. This
auction offers a remarkable opportunity not only to own a
piece of history, but to taste it.’
The sale, Finest Wines and Spirits, Including The Liberty Hall Museum Collection of Historic Madeira and an Extraordinary Collection of Pre-Prohibition Whiskey, takes place on 7 December at Christie’s in New York.