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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 7)

"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.

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