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
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Salter notes that Al Anderson of Troy, Ohio, who manages one of the hobby's most popular mail-order auction operations, has observed an intensification of interest in post-Second World War campaign memorabilia:
"A whole new generation has moved into the hobby," Salter says. "Those of us who started, say, 25 or 30 years ago may think of [Jimmy] Carter and [suddenly realize], my God, it was 20 years ago that Carter was running. And, all of a sudden, our older generation wakes up to the fact that you go back to 1960, and a person has to be approaching 40 to remember Kennedy. Those things, I think, are starting to grab hold. In other words, the earliest memory I may have, because I'm 70 years old, is of Hoover or Roosevelt, so those [items] will still be attractive to me because it's part of my memory. But from Kennedy on, you've got a whole new generation of collectors."
Anderson and others who detect this trend have concluded that campaigns since the Second World War are part of the memory of many collectors who became interested in politics at an early age. When one considers the depressed prices of pre-1896 political items, that theory seems to hold water. Another reason for the sharp increases in later material may be that collectors, sensing the bull market in early twentieth century pieces, may be doing some purchasing of recent material as an investment for the next generation. "Today it's difficult to sort collectors from investors," Anderson notes. "More and more, buyers wear both hats."
With respect to the much lower price tags on many pre-1896 political items, David J. Frent, an auctioneer, collector and authority on campaign memorabilia, is astonished at how "undervalued" such pieces of "pure Americana" are. "When you can purchase something from the William Henry Harrison campaign of 1840--something more than 150 years old--for under $150, it's amazing," Frent says. A fine 1864 ferrotype featuring photos of Abraham Lincoln and his vice president and successor, Andrew Johnson, fetched just $880 at a 1994 auction. At an auction this past February, a George Washington clothing button bearing his initials and the original shank sold for just $950, plus a 10 percent buyer's fee.
"All pre-1896 pieces, before the celluloid era, are not pricey at all compared to other fields, such as autographs, which have gone up tremendously in the past 10 years," Frent adds. "I think the key is that the earlier pieces require a lot of study, understanding, sophistication and dedication. Buttons are more graphic--and easier to store."
Frent cautions new or would-be collectors not to look upon campaign buttons as a way to make big bucks. "If you are looking at this strictly as an investment, it isn't," he says. "It doesn't have a lot of liquidity. A $50,000 coin you can sell in minutes; a valuable button you can't." He suggests collecting for the joy of it. "If you collect what you like, with taste and from reputable dealers, the chances are it will increase in value over time."
In the past few years, major collections, such as those of Steve Forbes' vanquisher, Joseph Jacobs (who died in December 1995), have been put on the auction block. In 1987, the one-of-a-kind Cox/Roosevelt button over which both men had battled was sold along with Jacobs' other 1920 Cox/Roosevelt jugates to Cox Enterprises, the now-mighty multimedia firm to which Cox devoted his energies after he was drubbed at the polls by Warren G. Harding. (Robert Fratkin, who arranged the sale to Cox Enterprises, says the company got the buttons for an undisclosed "bargain price," considering the subsequent rise in their value. The buttons are kept at Cox's corporate headquarters in Atlanta and are not on public display.)
The dispersal of mammoth collections that took years to assemble has meant that remarkable items suddenly became available to hobbyists. This has helped to fuel the frenzy over buttons and drive up their prices. According to Salter, although other significant collections will continue to appear in auction catalogs, he believes that a plateau has been reached for celluloid items and therefore prices may not rise as rapidly in the future.
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