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The Paper Chase

For Autograph Collectors, the Search for Signatures Is Singularly Satisfying
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

Some men covet John F. Kennedy's rocking chair. Others pursue his golf clubs, books and letters. Then there are those who want a Camelot-era treasure with pure sex appeal, a historical item still powerful enough to evoke visions of 1960s Hollywood and JFK's smokin' good times with America's favorite heartthrob. To a growing number of autograph collectors and investors, that magical memento is any signed photo, personal check or letter from the sex goddess who enticingly epitomized Some Like It Hot: Marilyn Monroe.

The provocative figure with a compelling megawatt glow has outstripped all past and present movie stars to become the most sought-after Hollywood autograph in today's historical manuscript market. While revealing or interesting letters from the kings of the collecting world--Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington--continue to be five-figure blue chips, Monroe is the undisputed queen of the autograph market. With a photo signed by her commanding upwards of $6,000, she has spearheaded such a surge of interest in Hollywood material that, according to Beverly Hills dealer Max Rambod, "This area of collecting is very hot. If buyers go for Marilyn and other big names, there are still buys out there with great profit potential."

But much like Monroe's troubled life, collecting her autograph can be a trip to Heartbreak City. Her signature is forged so extensively that controversy often erupts over Monroe material, as dramatized by the recent flap over the alleged JFK "Cusack papers," which included a contract that Monroe purportedly signed agreeing to keep silent about her relationship with the president. So many doubts and suspicions hover over her pieces that Monroe now embodies the double-edged sword of collectible autographs--a seductive thrill ride that is ever beguiling and dangerous.

"Autographs are fascinating, rich with history, but since so much fraudulent, forged or secretarial [signed by an assistant] material is sold as authentic, they're also a very risky business," says collector and Philadelphia-area dealer Steven Raab. "While it's not very easy to forge an Abe Lincoln letter, there are so many fake Beatles, Geronimos and Hollywood autographs around, buyers must beware. There are lots of 'hot-shot' dealers who will financially rape investors."

Though trouble does await the unsuspecting, in this age of impersonal e-mail and faxes, when handwritten correspondence is growing increasingly scarce, collecting autographs and historical manuscripts is a link with the past--a "slice of history" that autograph aficionados insist is more intimate and revealing than coins or stamps. On engraved letterheads or even scraps of tattered paper, the genius and personal feelings of the world's greatest figures come alive. We can read tomes about artists, statesmen and scientists, yet here, right in our hands, are their pithy confessions, underscoring all the wit and wisdom that have made them immortal.

Exemplifying the rich and varied texture of these notes crackling with drama, love, hope and elation, there is cigardom's patron saint, Groucho Marx, wisecracking to a friend, "I would like to send you something personal but I'm afraid it wouldn't go through the mails. The best way, I think, to add to your collection is to buy all the books that I have written and if there is any money left, send me the change."

The signed missives of another cigar lover, Winston Churchill, also command increasing interest. One of his handwritten letters, particularly if it reveals something highly personal, can fetch $50,000, while even his autograph on a small card will go for $800. "Churchill's signature is extremely popular on both sides of the ocean," says Steve Koschal, a leading autograph dealer from Boyton Beach, Florida, who owns a tissue-wrapped Royal Jamaica cigar that the British leader gave to a U.S. senator in 1962. "The business card I have with Churchill's autograph has this squiggly line above it that makes it look remarkably like smoke is coming from his autograph."

There are also other whimsical treats. In a 1919 letter, Peter Rabbit author and illustrator Beatrix Potter wrote: "I have big brown Belgian rabbits.... Did you ever grunt to them? Try saying umph! umph! in a very small voice; sometimes I have coaxed wild rabbits to answer me."

The aged and troubled Thomas Jefferson, talking about leaving public service and trusting younger leaders, remarked in an 1819 letter: "There is a time for man to retire from the business of the world; when he should suspect his declining facilities....That time is come with me....I leave cheerfully to the existing generation measures which are to affect themselves alone."

Other powerful emotions are also conveyed by these illuminating time capsules. French Impressionists detailed the frustrations of struggling to find cultural acceptance for their work. There's the joy of scientists discussing their latest discoveries. We can also sense the passions of Teddy Roosevelt when he was embroiled in a New York State political battle and penned one of the most legendary phrases of the past century. "I have always been fond of the West African proverb: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far,'" wrote Roosevelt in this once-lost 1900 letter, which is now owned by Steven Raab and is said to be worth $1 million. "If I had not carried the big stick, the organization would not have gotten behind me, and if I had yelled and blustered...I would not have had 10 votes."

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