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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

(continued from page 1)

Words and more words. From a poet's heartfelt musings to the haunting letters of Civil War soldiers, from the exploits of Wild West characters to compelling statements by Freud or Einstein, autograph and manuscript collecting is a broad and vivid tapestry, a magnificent paper chase.

"There's nothing like this hunt for important rarities, tracking down 200-year-old pieces with fascinating content, such as a Washington or Jefferson item with a large, strong signature, and having that living part of American history sitting in front of you," raves one collector, who, like most of his brethren, insists on anonymity. "Unlike stamps or assorted antiques, letters have a personality, a pulse, and since a collector has to have a certain savvy to outsmart the scam artists, acquiring these gems is all the more fulfilling."

In the early 1990s, New York politico Lew Lehrman, the Malcolm Forbes family and Wall Street's Richard Gilder changed the face of the autograph-collecting world. Eager to acquire the highest-quality Lincolns, Washingtons and Civil War pieces, they engaged in a mano a mano bidding war (which one dealer now calls "an egotistical 'my thing is bigger than yours' contest") and drove the prices of those cachet items to stratospheric heights. Though Microsoft's Bill Gates would later purchase the voluminous Leonardo da Vinci Codex Hammer (a collection of manuscripts devoted to the principles of hydrodynamics) for $30.8 million, the record for a single-document purchase was set, in 1991, by an anonymous buyer who paid $748,000 for a Lincoln letter at a Christie's auction. During this giddy time, the value of the 1819 Jefferson letter vaulted from around $50,000 to about $75,000, and even "ordinary" Lincoln-signed documents (handwritten letters are this market's "caviar" items, while such documents as property deeds, military commissions and receipts are traditionally less valuable) soared from $2,000 to $7,000.

"Civil War items and American Revolutionary War pieces climbed so high, so quickly, back then, all kinds of unscrupulous people wanted to enjoy the ride," recalls Raab, the executive vice president of the Professional Autograph Dealers Association, an organization that tries to protect consumers by giving its imprimatur only to dealers who offer unconditional guarantees of authenticity with no time limit. "That dizzying bull market is over, as buyers are no longer getting $4,000 for something which cost them $100," Raab adds. "While prices have certainly retreated, many areas, particularly the expensive historical items, have stabilized, and that means this is a great time to buy interesting, undervalued material. Today, if new collectors aren't fooled by all the glitzy catalogues and fast-talking sharks in the market, there's a terrific upside in autographs."

The promise of an edifying hobby that traditionally registers 10-percent-a-year appreciation is appealing. Yet investing in autographs is no cakewalk to the bank. In addition to proliferating forgeries, a growing number of genuine items are being stolen from museums or libraries and sold to unsuspecting buyers. Getting caught with one of these pieces can lead to embarrassing and costly legal battles, so Raab warns new historical-autograph seekers that "rushing into this market with an open checkbook is crazy. Beginners must do a little work. Or else they'll make mistakes that will mean financial suicide."

How does one avoid such a fate?

In a world where stealth and guile are far more abundant than accurate price guides or how-to books, the novice must be prepared for at least six months of hard-nosed investigation. At times, beginners might feel as if they're taking a crash course in historical figures and events. But by joining the Manuscript Society (a worldwide organization of collectors, dealers and other professionals), networking with other collectors and attending shows or auctions, autograph seekers will get a feel for what pieces are available as well as for marketplace trends.

Those basic steps are also a prerequisite to choosing a specialty. While it might be tempting to "cover the entire waterfront" the way Raab does--there are hundreds of distinct collecting categories--most collectors gravitate toward a few specific areas. The most popular of these are presidents, Revolutionary War figures, Hollywood icons and Civil War luminaries, as well as artists, writers and composers.

"Lincolns, Jeffersons, Declaration of Independence figures--they remain the kings, for even when the market goes down, the top names always generate a steady appeal," says West Palm Beach, Florida, dealer Joseph Rubinfine, a laconic 30-year veteran of the trade, who has been called "impeccably honest," even by his rivals. Sitting in his office overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, Rubinfine shuffles a stack of those five-figure gems and adds, "The blue chips are fun and, because of their inherent value, are a good, conservative strategy. They're a lot better bet than heavily faked Wild West items or trendy material [such as Civil War pieces, which became popular after the critically acclaimed Ken Burns series aired on PBS in 1990] that gets so hot, it can't sustain itself." Yet, as Rubinfine points out, although these highly popular pieces are easier to liquidate than such esoteric items as a Czar Nicholas II or Samuel Pepys signature, the big names also have a downside: "Collectors will encounter far more competition for these Lincolns and Jeffersons, and probably won't be able to put together as comprehensive a collection as someone concentrating on arcane material. It's easier to dominate such a field, and part of the fun is to be recognized as an authority on Joe Esoterica."

No matter which route is taken, seasoned experts agree that collectors must be guided by true interest rather than profit potential. "The first priority for anyone getting into this world is to find something he or she really enjoys," says Rubinfine. "I've seen people change their mind about specialties, and that works to their financial detriment. For all too often they have to sell material back to a dealer, and that means taking a loss."

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