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Pinning Down the Candidates

The Collecting of Campaign Buttons Has Become "America's Last Great Treasure Hunt"

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"I don't understand this investing in futures," says auction expert Al Salter. "I don't remember any Bush, Reagan or Carter buttons reaching those heights the first year after their election." Bush items, he notes, still haven't increased that much in value.

Clinton supporters should not necessarily crow over the surge in prices for their candidate's buttons. It could prove to be an evil omen, since "investing in futures" for button collectors might mean they are indicating their preference for a potential loser. In a November 1992 auction, Bush items attracted more bidders than any other grouping--perhaps a harbinger of his eventual defeat.

Although buttons remain vitally important to political groupies and collectors, some observers fear that television attack ads, campaign videotapes, 800 numbers and other forms of electronic electioneering have shunted the pin-back button aside. This year, for the first time, presidential candidates have even gone on the Internet. Pioneering political memorabilia collector Ralph E. Becker, whose mammoth horde of campaign paraphernalia formed the core of the Smithsonian Institution's 100,000-item collection, lamented in Hail to the Candidate: "Posterity is the loser in this new game of political campaigning."

There are those at the University of Oklahoma who might disagree. There, the Political Commercial Archive was established in 1985 by Julian Kanter, a former general manager of television stations in New York and Florida, who began collecting political TV and radio ads in 1956. Today, the archive contains the tapes of more than 55,000 political commercials, all housed in a brick storeroom chilled to 55 degrees to help preserve them.

Yet no matter how hard-hitting, funny or effective a TV or radio spot may be, you cannot hold a sound bite in your hand. You cannot marvel at how it has escaped the ravages of time, wonder about whose lapel or blouse it once adorned or ponder the devotion it inspired. You can only do that with a button.

Neil Grauer is a Baltimore writer and the author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press). Pushing The Right Buttons


American Political Items Collectors (APIC), the national organization for fans of every sort of electioneering doodad, offers a broad range of advice about how to avoid being burned when button hunting. Among the tips:

* Take time to learn about the field, especially about the reproductions--dubbed "brummagem"--that are worth nothing but often pop up in flea markets, collectibles shops, antique shows and even auctions. Books about collecting political Americana are a good source of information, as are experienced collectors.

* Minor flaws (such as an off-center design) or damage (such as fading, nicks or cracks in the celluloid, or splotches of brownish discoloration called "foxing") can dramatically reduce the value of a button.

* Rarity also is a key to value. Some buttons, worth a great deal in a rare size, are worth far less in more common dimensions, even if the design is identical.

* To get a feel for the price range of various buttons, become familiar with useful indicators, such as advertisements for items in such publications as APIC's monthly newspaper, The Political Bandwagon; the prices put on items for sale at collectors' meetings; the prices obtained at APIC meetings and conventions; and the prices obtained in mail and phone auctions. Even among experienced collectors, price estimates vary. It can be a volatile hobby.

* Almost all fakes of antique celluloid buttons are actually acetate-covered. Acetate, developed in the late 1930s, has been used nearly exclusively by button makers since 1952. To check, use an incandescent light and tilt the button so the light is reflected off the surface to your eyes. Celluloid has an irregular surface and absorbs light; acetate is almost 100 percent light-reflective.

* New fakes rarely feature old pins. The difference between
an old pin and a new one is obvious.

* There were no presidential pin-back buttons prior to 1896, celluloid or lithograph.


* The problem of fakes should not be exaggerated. In 99 out of 100 cases, items have not been reproduced, and most reproductions that do exist are of commonplace buttons. High-profile, extremely valuable buttons are rarely faked, since experts would examine them too closely. Usually reproductions were made as commemorative items, often as an advertising gimmick, without any intention to deceive.


Mail auctions are a main source for political
Americana. Among the leading ones:

Al Anderson
P. O. Box 644, Troy, Ohio 45373
phone: 513/339-0850, fax: 513/339-8620
Subscription rate (U.S.): $20 for three issues of catalog,
$37.50 for six issues; overseas: $30 for three issues

Bob Coup
P.O. Box 348, Leola, Pennsylvania 17540
phone: 717/656-7780, fax: 717/656-8233

C. Wesley Cowan
747 Park Avenue, Terrace Park, Ohio 45174
phone: 513/248-8122, fax: 513/248-2566
Subscription rate: $30 for three catalogs; sample, $12

Tom French
P.O. Box 65360, Tucson, Arizona 85728
phone: 520/577-8302, fax: 520/577-8674
Auctions held as material becomes available. Fully illustrated
catalog for October 1996 auction, $7. Sales list of less expensive ($1 to $10) beginner items available for $1

David J. Frent
P.O. Box 455, Oakhurst, New Jersey 07755
phone: 908/922-0768, fax: 908/922-6488
Subscription rate: $12 for three catalogs; sample, $4

Theodore Hake, Hake's Americana
(Dept. 269), P.O. Box 1444, York, Pennsylvania 17405
phone: 717/848-1333, fax: 717/852-0344
$7.50 for catalog (contains items other than political pieces)

Tom Slater, The Political Gallery
5335 North Takoma Avenue, Indianapolis, Indiana 46220
phone: 317/257-0863
Subscription rate: $20 for four catalogs; sample, $5

Jack Wilson,
P.O. Box 49271, Austin, Texas 78765
phone: 512/451-8122, fax: 512/451-6973
Subscription rate: $12 for four catalogs; sample, $3


Collecting Political Americana
by Edmund Sullivan
(second edition, 1991) Christopher Publishing House,
24 Rockland Street, Hanover, Massachusetts 02339
Phone: 617/826-7474. $40 plus postage.

Hake's Guide to Presidential Campaign Collectibles:
An Illustrated Price Guide to Artifacts from 1789-1988
by Theodore Hake (1992)
Hake's Americana and Collectibles,
P.O. Box 1444, York, Pennsylvania 17405
Phone: 717/848-1333. $21 postpaid.

Hake's Encyclopedia of Political Buttons,
a three-volume set cataloguing more
than 15,000 items, is $96 postpaid; 1991 price guide
(admittedly outdated) comes with set.

Hail to the Candidate:
Presidential Campaigns from Banners to Broadcasts
by Keith E. Melder (1992)
Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
Phone: 1 800/782-4612. $24.95 (paperback)

Running for President: The Candidates and Their Images
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.,
editor; David Frent and Fred Israel, associate editors.
Two volumes, 1789-1992 (1993) Simon and Schuster.
Available from the LBJ Museum Store,
2313 Red River Street, Austin, Texas 78705
Phone: 1 800/874-6451. $195

Collector Organizations

American Political Items Collectors,
P.O. Box 340339, San Antonio, Texas 78234
(Joseph D. Hayes, secretary/treasurer.) $30 annual membershi dues includes subscription to monthly newspaper, The Political Bandwagon, and thrice-yearly magazine, The Keynoter. (If you have some buttons you wish to have appraised, APIC will do so for free if you send Xeroxed copies of the buttons and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Hayes.)

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