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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 12/11/2012

Albert Small buys George Washington letter for $290,000 — but don’t tell his wife

Albert Small last year. (Courtesy George Washington University)
If you’re reading this and run into Albert Small’s wife, hide the newspaper. Mum’s the word, okay?

The local real estate developer just bought a letter written by George Washington for $290,000 — but he hasn’t mentioned the purchase to Shirley, his spouse of more than 60 years.

“I don’t tell my wife these things,” he told us Monday. “She doesn’t like to hear about it.”

Ah, collectors! Washington’s 1792 letter about Pierre L’Enfant was auctioned at Christie’s Friday, and Small couldn’t resist: “I don’t know why I’m still buying. It was just one of the definitive letters.”

The native Washingtonian decided he had to have the one-of-a-kind letter for his extensive history on the nation’s capital. His collection of 700 rare objects — including historical documents, maps, letters and, yes, this latest acquisition — is going to George Washington University for a museum scheduled to open on campus in 2014.

Small, 87, has been buying historical objects for six decades. His first find was a manuscript he unearthed in one of those musty New York bookstores: A scrapbook, of sorts, by a team of amateur D.C. historians who located every milestone of the District’s boundries. “I thought, ‘Isn’t that nifty?’” Small said. “It intrigued me so much I started buying Washingtonia.”
George Washington's 1792 letter. (CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2012)

Don’t even ask how much he’s spent over the years: “I can’t keep track.” His collections (and name) are everywhere — including a gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and a library at the University of Virginia (his alma mater). Three years ago, he received the National Humanities Medal for sharing American manuscripts with cultural and educational institutions.

Just one thing: The guy born, raised, and educated in D.C. , a man obsessed with Washington history, now lives in. . .Bethesda. “Yeah, but I’m a Washingtonian,” said Small. Who’s going to argue?

Read earlier: Christie’s to auction letter detailing George Washington’s impressions of L’Enfant, 12/6/12

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