The Paper Chase

For Autograph Collectors, the Search for Signatures Is Singularly Satisfying

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As the collector fulfills his goals, or moves from one specialty to another, he can expect to do more selling than buying. Even if he is new to this world, the resourceful hobbyist/investor is always thinking of his future options; he has an exit strategy. But the neophyte will typically slip up by giving himself only one option for selling: either at auction or through a dealer. Oversimplifying by using only one sales outlet doesn't always make financial sense.

After appraising his pieces and determining whether they're significant, the collector should follow Raab's double-pronged strategy of selectively entrusting some autographs to an auction house and the rest to a dealer, depending on their value and market conditions. "It's always difficult to exit, and collectors must do it slowly, as the time to sell movie stars might not be the same for the disposing of presidents," Raab says. "Also try to avoid those periods when others are getting out and, above all, don't put all your eggs in one basket. Use the auction and dealer route."

Raab contends that less important pieces may fetch as much as or even more with a dealer than at an auction, since the interest, and hence the bidding, for such items may be low. Plus, a Christie's or Sotheby's will often set a low reserve price. "People really get hurt this way," he says. "So no matter what collectors give to an auction house, they should set a reasonable minimum price. If something's worth $10,000 and was originally bought for $7,000, the seller should put it in at $7,500 just to make sure no money is lost."

Important or very rare manuscripts may be expected to do better at auction houses, especially if they're promoted in catalogues and are likely to generate a fierce bidding war. Yet this may not always be the most lucrative route to pursue. Take a pricey Lincoln letter, for example. While it might go for $55,000 at auction, the better bet, arguably, is taking $46,000 from a dealer, since the auction house generally secures a 10 percent commission for sales over $20,000, and by the time it prepares for the sale, the market could change. "You just can't control what's going to happen at an auction," Raab says, "while the dealer route is immediate cash in hand."

If, however, a seller has put serious money into his collection, and all the pieces are showcase items, then he should opt for a dedicated auction. This is an auction that features only his material and that has been promoted in various publications that are linked to the seller's specialties (such as magazines devoted to the Civil War and American Revolution). "When you're dealing with very exciting pieces, rare material that's hard to put a presale price on, it's always best to work out an arrangement with an auction house," a collector of Civil War letters notes. "The seller just has to make sure that they're really going to advertise the sale and give you a stage with lots of hoopla."

An air of excitement certainly surrounded a Lincoln condolence letter ("in this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all: and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony..."), which Christie's put on sale in December 1997. Buyers waited expectantly to see if this comforting 1862 note to Fanny McCullough, the daughter of a slain Union soldier, would realize $600,000 at auction and signal an upward turn in the market. The pundits were not optimistic, insisting that this was a down time for usually popular Civil War artifacts. They turned out to be right: the letter sold at a hammer price of $400,000, or $442,500 with the premium.

Meanwhile, the experts were bullish about other collecting specialties, such as Hollywood, twentieth-century presidents (particularly Truman, FDR and Eisenhower) and Apollo space program heroes such as Neil Armstrong, which some say are undervalued and therefore sound investments.

"Hollywood is America's royalty," Max Rambod says emphatically. Bogart, Judy Garland, Groucho Marx and other cinematic icons "are all great buys. A collector doesn't have to go for an expensive Marilyn Monroe. Many Hollywood items with terrific investment potential are hot right now." (One word of caution about trends and passing fancies: nineteenth-century Swedish opera star Jenny Lind, the "Madonna" of her era, was also once a hot collectible, yet now sparks little interest.)

Raab is equally enthusiastic about Hollywood, saying, "It's a very undervalued market with some terrific pieces." Using Monroe as a metaphor, he adds, "Marilyn is Hollywood personified. We love her and her contemporaries. But beware! So do the forgers."

Florida-based writer Edward Kiersh is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado. Autograph Authorities

For further information on autograph collecting, consult the following sources:

Lion Heart Autographs
David Lowenherz
470 Park Avenue South, Penthouse
New York, New York 10016
(800) 969-1310 or (212) 779-7050
Lowenherz is the co-founder and past president of the Professional Autograph Dealers Association and specializes in autographs from the worlds of art, history, literature, music and science.

The Manuscript Society
350 North Niagara Street
Burbank, California 91505
An international group of collectors, dealers, librarians, archivists, curators and scholars who meet annually to discuss topics of interest. The society publishes a quarterly journal and newsletter.

Professional Autograph Dealers Association
P.O. Box 1729
Murray Hill Station
New York, New York 10156
(888) 338-4338
An organization that accepts only dealers who offer unconditional guarantees of authenticity. The association furnishes a free brochure and a membership directory.

Steven S. Raab
P.O. Box 471
Ardmore, Pennsylvania 19003
(800) 977-8333 or (610) 446-6193
Raab handles autographs, manuscripts and signed photos in all fields of interest.

Max Rambod
9903 Santa Monica Boulevard, Suite 371
Beverly Hills, California 90212
(310) 475-4535
Rambod is a specialist in historical and vintage Hollywood autographs.

Joseph Rubinfine
505 South Flagler Drive, Suite 1301
West Palm Beach, Florida 33401
(561) 659-7077
Rubinfine is a leading authority of early American history who has written 136 catalogues since opening his shop in 1967.

l) Don't go for the "hot investment" spiel. Reputable dealers are not investment counselors, so as Steve Raab says, "Watch out for anyone who says a certain piece is a sure-shot moneymaker."

2) Will it be a George Washington or a Milliard Fillmore? If that Washington isn't the highest quality or of rich content, and the Fillmore is, forget our founding father and go for the best quality you can afford.

3) Be patient. As David Lowenherz counsels, "Autograph collecting is a long-term labor of love. It's often better to go after what you really want and not settle for substitutes."

4) If you decide to frame an autograph, use acid-free backing and matting. Use UV Plexiglas. File folders should also be acid-free, and kept in an environment that's not subject to great fluctuations in temperature or humidity. They should not be exposed to direct sunlight.

5) To guard against forgeries, make sure the size and quality of the paper is contemporaneous with the time the document was supposedly written. Wood-pulp paper, for example, didn't come into use until 1870, so as Lowenherz advises, "If you're considering a document signed by King George III written on anything but parchment or rag paper, it's a forgery."

6) In the nineteenth century most people used brown ink, sometimes black. Blue ink is a twentieth-century phenomenon, so anything written in blue ink prior to the 1900s, or in ballpoint prior to the end of the Second World War, is immediately suspect.--EK

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