Friends Helped Bring Seal Back to Washington

Posted February 8, 2005 at 3:00pm

To commemorate the first anniversary of the laying of the Capitol cornerstone in 1794, Chancellor Robert Livingston, who administered the oath of office to President George Washington, gave him a seal inscribed: “18th September 1794.”

Washington used the seal both as an accessory and stamp for his letters. In his will, Washington left the seal to his nephew William Augustine Washington, and since then the seal has been out of the limelight.

The seal was returned to the Capitol last month, when its recent owner, U.S. ambassador to Italy Mel Sembler, presented it to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Fine Arts Board. “Mrs. Sembler and me thought it should go back to the Capitol so all Americans can see [it],” the ambassador said of the seal.

A longtime friend united Sembler and the seal. David Lavender, owner of D. Lavender Antiques in London, came across the artifact and, once Lavender authenticated and discovered the historical significance of the piece, he called Sembler, whom he had sold other items to previously, to inquire if he and his wife might be interested in it.

Neither Sembler nor Lavender would disclose the price of the seal or from whom they bought it. Sembler said the most important issue is that the seal is back where it belongs, while Lavender said that if such an item was to come up for auction it would cost “a lot of money.”

The seal is slated to be housed along with other historical artifacts in the Capitol Visitor Center, which is set to open in the summer of 2006.

The seal is in the shape of a call bell and is made of carnelian, a reddish stone, and set in gold. It’s small in dimensions — just 1 inch by 1 inch by 2 inches — but its four sides display Masonic signs. Masonic symbols were commonly displayed on gifts given to members — as Washington was — because they were used to identify a person’s position in a lodge, said Dustin Smith, assistant curator of the George Washington National Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Va.

The four sides display a moon with a face, a sun with a face, the encompass of the Masonic fraternity and the Bible. Smith said the moon represents junior deacon, the sun a senior deacon — Washington’s Masonic rank — and the fraternity sign is one of reason and faith. Smith said the Bible is the “symbol of the divine will of God and is historic through most of freemasonry.”

All of the four main Masonic signs might have been used because Washington had just finished his tenure as head of lodge No. 22 in Alexandria, Va., and Livingston was at that time grand master for the state of New York.

Sembler said returning the historic seal to the Capitol Visitor Center seemed to be the logical thing to do. “It really does belong to all Americans,” he said.