Golden Signatures (Mar, 1952)

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Golden Signatures

By E. R. Kurnik

Whenever great men take pen in hand, they create valuable historical documents, avidly sought after by America’s autograph collectors.

AT the National Antique Show held in . New York City recently, a New Jersey housewife presented a bundle of letters for evaluation. She had found them in her attic. Sigmund Rothschild, well-known appraiser, looked them over carefully.

“Madam,” he said excitedly, “these letters are a very important historical find.”

Six of them proved to have been written by Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary to Abram Wakeman. Rothschild valued them at more than $100,000.

Naturally, finds of such magnitude are quite rare. But smaller autograph discoveries are constantly being made. For America’s thousands of autograph collectors make it their business to find out all they can about autographs and thus spot valuable signatures, documents and letters. And even if they don’t come up with a $100,000 find, this rapidly growing hobby brings them vast enjoyment and mental stimulation.

Autograph prices range from 40 cents for a Betty Grable signature to $260,000 for a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps you never thought of that document as an autograph but among real collectors an autograph may refer to a handwritten letter, a signed manuscript or document, a signed photograph or just a signature.

Let’s start with low-priced autographs. Among signatures and signed photographs the following values are listed by a leading autograph dealer: General Douglas Mac-Arthur, $3.50; Ingrid Bergman, $1.50; Fred M. Vinson, $3.00; Enrico Caruso, $.50; Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, $1.50.

The above prices are partially determined by the nature of the autograph— whether it’s a plain signature, a greeting or a signed photograph. Other factors that determine the value are the popularity of the person who wrote it, the contents, the rarity, condition, time and circumstance of the writing.

What are the big-money autographs? Back in 1927 a Mamaroneck, N. Y., family cleaning out the barn, came across a letter signed by Button Gwinnett and two other signers of the Declaration of Independence. The lucky family received $51,000 for that piece of paper.

Why? Because Button Gwinnett’s signature is the second rarest among the signers of the Declaration. The rarest of all is Thomas Lynch, Jr.’s. Current prices for Lynch, Jr. or Gwinnett range from $2,000 to $10,000. If you have a complete set of signatures of the signers of the Declaration, count yourself fortunate. There are only 36 complete sets, valued at up to $200,000. So, count yourself wealthy, too.

Uncover any of the following autographs and you’ll be able to take it easy for a while: a letter written by William Henry Harrison during the 30 days that he was President of the United States; any writing of Captain John Smith; original manuscripts of Herman Melville or Edgar Allan Poe.

Skipping across to Europe, if you can dig up autographs of Moliere, Michelangelo, Luther or Beethoven you’re a lucky collector. Currently the National Arts Foundation of New York City is searching for Mozart manuscripts that were stolen during World War II from caskets stored near Salzburg, Austria. The Foundation is offering a reward for any information leading to their recovery and stands ready to purchase any of the missing material and to return the manuscripts to the Mozarteum, a museum. The chances of your discovering an original letter written by Shakespeare are slim, but if you do, you’ll be able to name your price and retire. So far his signature has been found only on legal documents.

If you come across something that looks as if it might really be valuable, what should you do? Well, contact any autograph dealer who specializes in the field. When there is big money at stake, consult with one of these experts rather than a dealer who handles other items such as antiques, as well. You can check the reliability of an autograph firm by consulting a university librarian or the head of your nearest historical society. If they cannot advise you, write to the Librarian of Congress in Washington. Then, when you have chosen your dealer, send your find to him by registered mail. Usually it isn’t too helpful to describe the autograph in a letter since a dealer can’t judge accurately without examining the original.

The National Society of Autograph Collectors at 285 Madison Ave., New York 17, N. Y., can also help you with your autographs. Annual membership in the Society is $5, which includes quarterly issues of the Autograph Collectors’ Journal. You may write to the Society concerning your finds and they will refer you to the dealer or collector whom they believe would be interested.

Sometimes letters of unknowns have considerable value simply because they shed light on certain periods of history. A baker from Atlanta, Ga., found some letters recently which had been written by his grandfather, a Confederate soldier. His ancestor was not a famous man but the letters painted a vivid, authentic picture of life at the front during the Civil War. They brought a tidy sum.

There is always a demand for new source material that sheds light on some phase of our country’s history. Perhaps one of your ancestors took part in a famous Indian fight or helped to explore western territory. If you have letters that describe such adventures and the territory in which they took place, you have material that may bring you handy cash. Since the N.S.A.C. keeps a record of the specialization of each member, it’s easy to contact fellow collectors if you want to sell or trade your finds.

Holographs-letters written entirely by hand—are usually worth more than typewritten ones or letters written by secretaries and signed by the individual. Ordinary holographs of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and President Truman might bring from $100 to $500 each, whereas signed, typed letters by these presidents may not be worth more than $10. President Truman’s letter calling the Marines “the Navy’s police force” with “a propaganda machine comparable to Stalin’s” was recently bought by a Chicago insurance man and enriched the Marine Corps League to the tune of $2,500. An equally high price was paid by a Connecticut man for President Truman’s letter to Paul Hume, the Washington music critic.

A George Washington letter of routine content is worth about $100 but one written while he was encamped at Valley Forge may bring between $200 and $1,000. If you can dig up some of his writing pertaining to either his inaugural or farewell address, you might ask between $2,500 and $5,000 for it In your search for valuable documents and letters, you should also be on the lookout for handwritten material that bears no signature. Before Washington decided on the inaugural address which he delivered, he wrote a much longer version of it in longhand. That draft of his planned address had 62 pages and so far only 16 pages and four fragments have been discovered. The manuscript was handed out, page by page, by historian Jared Sparks in answer to requests he received. So, if you should come across a 9-by-6-1/2 inch page in the handwriting of the first president, it might well be part of that valuable manuscript.

A signed photograph of Joseph Stalin was recently sold for $85. There are a great many Hitler autographs but they are worth little at present because of their abundance. Generally, a hero’s autograph is much more de- sirable than a villain’s although a letter of Benedict Arnold in which he gave a truthful account of his treason brought $2,850.

How do you go about acquiring a collection if you have no large amount of money to spend? Well, there’s a man in Baltimore, Md., who has an unusual and widespread collection, geographically speaking. For years he has been writing to kings and queens, statesmen and scientists all over the globe in an effort to acquire their autographs. He doesn’t just ask for their signatures—he compliments them for some achievement and asks their opinions on matters of political or scientific significance. And he has a very high percentage of replies. Because these celebrities often answer his comments or questions in detail, their autographs are of considerably more value than mere signatures.

It’s not a recommended practice, but some autographs can be acquired by trickery. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, used to ignore all requests for autographs. One fan didn’t give up so easily. Taking advantage of F. D. R.’s weakness for bargains in postage stamps, he wrote to the late president, offering him a choice collection for a nominal fee. Roosevelt promptly responded with a check for the stamps and the autograph fiend was able to cash the check for considerably more than its face value.

Sometimes city, state and federal government bureaus are seized with spring cleaning fever and rashly destroy papers and documents which would be priceless to posterity. Walter Fetter, a Philadelphia business man, attended the disposal sale of 40 tons of miscellaneous papers taken from the Philadelphia custom house. The papers had supposedly been examined for possible valuable material. But, though Fetter was only a neophyte collector, he knew that there might be real valuables lurking in the mass of doomed papers. So he bought a load of them cheaply and sure enough, after careful scrutiny, he came upon several letters and documents whose value was about ten times the purchase price of the whole lot.

How much should you pay for collector’s items? Well, you can familiarize yourself with current prices by asking some of the dealers for copies of their catalogs. Usually they are free or else there is only a nominal charge for them. Another source which you may find helpful is a yearly publication called American Book-Prices Current which lists the auction prices of books and autographs that were traded in the U. S. during the year. You can probably locate this book in your public library.

And watch out for forgeries. If someone offered you letters written by Cleopatra to Julius Caesar, by Lazarus to Saint Peter, by Alexander the Great to Aristotle, what would you think? In the middle of the nineteenth century a forger by name of Vrain Lucas produced more than 25,000 of such autographs and managed to sell many of them. Lucas took the trouble to mix special inks and to make the letters look very ancient but the paper he used came from local French mills and most surprising of all, they were written in modern French!

Experts give this advice: Don’t deal with strangers where big values are involved but do business with dealers whose reputations are established. Good forgeries can usually be spotted only by the experts but you may be able to detect facsimiles made by rubber stamps. A quick test is the application of one of the standard liquid ink eradicators to the tail of the signature. Usually you can also tell a rubber stamp from a good signature because the stamp leaves a uniformity of ink not left by a pen.

It sometimes happens that collectors have authentic articles and don’t realize it. A Virginia college boy recently bought an address by Thomas Jefferson, supposedly copied by a contemporary. After careful scrutiny, the boy discovered that the speech was actually in Jefferson’s own handwriting and thus worth considerably more than the original purchase price.

Not an autograph collector, but a shrewd student of the field was the late Bernard Shaw. Like all great and wealthy men, Shaw was constantly being bothered by requests for handouts from people whom he knew only slightly or not at all. Shaw was not noted for his philanthropy and managed to disregard these letters completely without a twinge of conscience. But he was far from hard-hearted.

For instance, one real friend, whom Shaw knew to be destitute, would never stoop to the level of begging for money from his friend. Shaw realized this and periodically, would drop him a simple innocuous note, asking after his health.

The shrewd Shaw, having checked on the market value of his letters, knew that his friend could sell them for a substantial sum of money. And best of all, it only cost Bernard Shaw a postage stamp!

So, don’t despair because you can’t afford to buy the Declaration of Independence or the British Magna Carta. There are other autograph treasures to be found. They may be filed away in your attic, in a trash pile or in some office cabinet. But rest assured that astute autograph collectors are already out hunting for these golden signatures. •

  1. Myles says: March 31, 200811:30 am

    I had to look up who Fred Vinson was. Of all the politicians I do not know why his signature was valued. Isn’t there only one signed copy of the Declaration of Independence?

  2. Blurgle says: March 31, 20083:57 pm

    Why did I think this was about guys writing their names in the snow with pee?

  3. Charlie says: March 31, 20084:26 pm

    Probably because you have a dirty mind, one of which I am now very jealous. I really wish I’d thought of that 🙂

  4. Shell Reinish says: August 4, 20095:54 pm

    I have several autographs from President reagan to Milton Berle and many stops along the way…….

  5. Firebrand38 says: August 4, 20097:11 pm

    Just checked eBay and Eisenhower autographs are anywhere from $300-$600.

    On a dollar that’s better than a 10% rate compounded daily for 57 years.

  6. Toronto says: August 4, 200911:39 pm

    Shell: I had to re-read that. At first I was wondering why Reagan was writing to Berle.

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