It is well documented that among the many gifts bestowed on the French general during his celebratory tour of America in 1824-25 was a set of buttons fashioned in Carolina gold by the firm of Leavenmouth, Haydon & Scovill of Waterbury, Connecticut.
Each had a portrait medallion of Washington on the front and an inscription to Lafayette on the reverse. They were to be sewn onto a suit of blue woollen cloth, which had been made as a gift to Lafayette in Carolina.
Three further buttons were made, one each for the firm's partners, and, as recorded by the New York Gazette they were displayed at a Wall Street store as "examples of the skill of American artists". It is thought to be these which provided the pattern for the copies made for the Centennial in 1876.
Ten buttons from the original gold presentation set currently reside at the Lafayette Museum - and it appears they owe their survival to the diligence of an English maid working at the general's former home towards the end of the 19th century.
The story goes that Margaret Thornton, lady's maid to Mme de Lasteyrie at Château La Grange, near Paris, had been asked to clear clothing from the attics when she happened upon an old blue woollen coat with 'gilt' buttons. Bringing it to the attention of Mme de Lasteyrie, the loyal employee was given one of them as a "thank you".
The La Grange attics were later sealed and not reopened until the 1950s, while Margaret Thornton returned to England in 1890 as the bride of François Lacroix, the butler at La Grange. It is their descendants who have decided to offer the button (now mounted as a stick pin) for sale at Gildings of Market Harborough.
Mark Gilding - still basking in the glow of a rediscovered brooch by William Burges sold for £31,000 in August - said: "This is a small, but highly significant item and we expect there could be worldwide interest in it."
The estimate is £5000-8000.
By Roland Arkell