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Pinning Down the Candidates

The Collecting of Campaign Buttons Has Become "America's Last Great Treasure Hunt"
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 3)

As interest in antique political memorabilia grew, so did the appearances of what hobbyists call "brummagem," or reproductions of buttons and other items that are passed off as originals. APIC was instrumental in ensuring passage of the federal Hobby Protection Act of 1973, under which the Federal Trade Commission has issued regulations requiring that imitation political items, including buttons, posters, stickers, literature or advertisements, be marked with the year of manufacture. Imitation numismatic items, including any coin, token, commemorative medal or paper money, must be marked with the word "COPY."

Perhaps the most spectacular legal case to involve antique political buttons didn't deal with phony pin-backs but plain old mail fraud and a bogus insurance claim, with an especially rare, tell-tale button sealing the defendant's fate.

According to court records, Edward Sinker, a 39-year-old Syracuse, New York, attorney and button collector, claimed that his 2,200-item collection, valued at $76,097, had been stolen while he was at a political button show in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in July 1990. He filed a claim with Allstate Insurance Co. and was fully reimbursed. Among the items Sinker said he had lost was an extremely unusual 1916 Charles Evans Hughes button worth $5,000. It featured a photo of Hughes (the last major party presidential candidate to sport a beard), along with the words: "Undiluted Americanism, Hughes for president." Only three examples of this particular Hughes button are known to exist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles E. Roberts told the court.

Sinker might have gotten away with his scam had he not succumbed to a common penchant of button collectors: he liked to show off his treasures. In October 1992, at the height of the Bush-Clinton race, Sinker went on WKTV in Utica, New York, to display his splendid assortment of antique buttons--two years after he claimed they had been stolen.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation began an inquiry. FBI agents went to Sinker's home in December 1992 and recovered 3,700 buttons. Sinker contended that after his collection had been stolen, he had replaced it, button for button, by going to garage sales, antique dealers and a museum of Americana. Unfortunately for him, however, one of the items recovered by the FBI agents was that spectacular, one-of-only-three Hughes button. Scientific tests showed that it bore the marks and defects unique to the one Sinker claimed had been stolen, according to court evidence. Similar meticulous examinations of eight or nine other buttons showed them to be among those Sinker said he had lost to thieves. A jury convicted Sinker of mail fraud and U.S. District Court Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. sentenced him to four months in prison, four months of home detention and three years of supervised release. The judge also ordered restitution to Allstate of $76,097 and imposed an additional $15,000 fine and 250 hours of community service.

That a Charles Evans Hughes button should form the crux of amail fraud case--and be worth so much--merely emphasizes a special peculiarity of political memorabilia collectors: they love losers. In general, the artifacts of losing campaigns are less plentiful, since the campaigns themselves didn't have as much to spend on promotional items--and disappointed supporters tended to toss what had been made into the post-election day trash.

The chief exception to the losers-as-winners rule is Harry Truman, whose come-from-behind 1948 victory over New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey is considered the political upset of all time. Today, Truman buttons remain more popular, harder to find and more expensive than Dewey buttons. In 1991, a rare button featuring the names of Truman, his running mate, Kentucky Sen. Alben Barkley, and a cartoon Democratic donkey sold for $787; its identically designed "mate," featuring the names of Dewey, his vice presidential pick, then-California Gov. Earl Warren, and a Republican elephant, sold for just $20.

"Truman didn't have much money to spend in 1948, and what money he did have he spent on that whistle-stop campaign," says Geary Vlk (pronounced Velk), a Chicago computer programmer and former president of APIC. "There are some 10 to 12 common Truman buttons, but the rest are extremely rare. And there are a lot of people out there who really love Harry Truman."

In addition to having a preference for Truman, today's campaign button collectors seem to fall into three distinct groups, says Salter, basing his assessment on the auctions he follows and the gatherings he attends.

"First there are the elite, one-piece-at-a-time heavy investor," says Salter. "Then there are the experienced collectors who specialize in a particular candidate or category and are willing to pay a good, but not astronomical, price to enrich their collections; finally there are the newer, often younger collectors, interested in those campaigns and issues that are part of their own time."

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