The Paper Chase
For Autograph Collectors, the Search for Signatures Is Singularly Satisfying
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99
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The provocative figure with a compelling megawatt glow has outstripped all past and present movie stars to become the most sought-after Hollywood autograph in today's historical manuscript market. While revealing or interesting letters from the kings of the collecting world--Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington--continue to be five-figure blue chips, Monroe is the undisputed queen of the autograph market. With a photo signed by her commanding upwards of $6,000, she has spearheaded such a surge of interest in Hollywood material that, according to Beverly Hills dealer Max Rambod, "This area of collecting is very hot. If buyers go for Marilyn and other big names, there are still buys out there with great profit potential."
But much like Monroe's troubled life, collecting her autograph can be a trip to Heartbreak City. Her signature is forged so extensively that controversy often erupts over Monroe material, as dramatized by the recent flap over the alleged JFK "Cusack papers," which included a contract that Monroe purportedly signed agreeing to keep silent about her relationship with the president. So many doubts and suspicions hover over her pieces that Monroe now embodies the double-edged sword of collectible autographs--a seductive thrill ride that is ever beguiling and dangerous.
"Autographs are fascinating, rich with history, but since so much fraudulent, forged or secretarial [signed by an assistant] material is sold as authentic, they're also a very risky business," says collector and Philadelphia-area dealer Steven Raab. "While it's not very easy to forge an Abe Lincoln letter, there are so many fake Beatles, Geronimos and Hollywood autographs around, buyers must beware. There are lots of 'hot-shot' dealers who will financially rape investors."
Though trouble does await the unsuspecting, in this age of impersonal e-mail and faxes, when handwritten correspondence is growing increasingly scarce, collecting autographs and historical manuscripts is a link with the past--a "slice of history" that autograph aficionados insist is more intimate and revealing than coins or stamps. On engraved letterheads or even scraps of tattered paper, the genius and personal feelings of the world's greatest figures come alive. We can read tomes about artists, statesmen and scientists, yet here, right in our hands, are their pithy confessions, underscoring all the wit and wisdom that have made them immortal.
Exemplifying the rich and varied texture of these notes crackling with drama, love, hope and elation, there is cigardom's patron saint, Groucho Marx, wisecracking to a friend, "I would like to send you something personal but I'm afraid it wouldn't go through the mails. The best way, I think, to add to your collection is to buy all the books that I have written and if there is any money left, send me the change."
The signed missives of another cigar lover, Winston Churchill, also command increasing interest. One of his handwritten letters, particularly if it reveals something highly personal, can fetch $50,000, while even his autograph on a small card will go for $800. "Churchill's signature is extremely popular on both sides of the ocean," says Steve Koschal, a leading autograph dealer from Boyton Beach, Florida, who owns a tissue-wrapped Royal Jamaica cigar that the British leader gave to a U.S. senator in 1962. "The business card I have with Churchill's autograph has this squiggly line above it that makes it look remarkably like smoke is coming from his autograph."
There are also other whimsical treats. In a 1919 letter, Peter Rabbit author and illustrator Beatrix Potter wrote: "I have big brown Belgian rabbits.... Did you ever grunt to them? Try saying umph! umph! in a very small voice; sometimes I have coaxed wild rabbits to answer me."
The aged and troubled Thomas Jefferson, talking about leaving public service and trusting younger leaders, remarked in an 1819 letter: "There is a time for man to retire from the business of the world; when he should suspect his declining facilities....That time is come with me....I leave cheerfully to the existing generation measures which are to affect themselves alone."
Other powerful emotions are also conveyed by these illuminating time capsules. French Impressionists detailed the frustrations of struggling to find cultural acceptance for their work. There's the joy of scientists discussing their latest discoveries. We can also sense the passions of Teddy Roosevelt when he was embroiled in a New York State political battle and penned one of the most legendary phrases of the past century. "I have always been fond of the West African proverb: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far,'" wrote Roosevelt in this once-lost 1900 letter, which is now owned by Steven Raab and is said to be worth $1 million. "If I had not carried the big stick, the organization would not have gotten behind me, and if I had yelled and blustered...I would not have had 10 votes."
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."
Another vexing decision presents the equivalent of choosing between a respectable Lexus and a pricier statement like a Rolls-Royce: does the newcomer focus on autographed documents, which could be typed, printed or generated by a secretary? Or does he pursue signed, handwritten letters, which are generally much more desirable and more valuable?
"There's nothing wrong with saying 'I want images,' signed photographs, or going for printed documents, which could have wonderful graphics, such as the passports issued by presidents authorizing ships to carry rum in the early 1800s," Raab says. "But since there are thousands of documents, all pretty much the same, they go down in price faster and harder in a bear market. I don't recommend them.
"Letters, though, are a much different story. Especially if they open people's eyes and gets them excited, like a letter from George Burns to Gracie Allen saying he's going to make Jack Benny laugh, or a Groucho Marx letter with a joke in it. Here there's real content, and in autograph collecting, revealing letters--those with rare and interesting content--are the absolute cream."
"Knowledge is critical, for once a buyer is prepared and not dependent on anyone, he gains a definite edge in price determinations," says David Lowenherz of New York's City's Lion Heart Autographs, who was the first president of the Professional Autograph Dealers Association. "A dealer might overstate an item's importance or, by not doing his homework, he could make an otherwise magical piece static, without personality. Yet if the buyer does his own research, there's no telling what kind of discoveries can be made."
Take, for example, Lowenherz's "big score," when he brushed up on a few George Washington facts and emerged from an auction as triumphantly as when Washington took Trenton. "How powerful is knowledge?" asks Lowenherz. "At this small sale, a 1782 George Washington letter was being offered, one simply addressed 'Sir.'" It was introducing this fellow named [John] Wheelock [then president of Dartmouth College], and while I initially didn't know who this was, or that 'Sir,' I did some research and was soon able to determine this 'Sir' was Benjamin Franklin. The auction house didn't know this, and so by my putting that wonderful association together, that letter was suddenly worth three times what I paid for it!"
So how does the beginner proceed? When that six-month trial period ends and the novice is ready to buy something, what's the best way to tackle such complex price factors as content, rarity and the always thorny authenticity issue?
With extreme caution and finesse.
Collectors can't continue on this journey alone. They must now select and work with dealers. Since these merchants are a varied lot, ranging from knowledgeable "hand-holders" to the outright corrupt who sell overpriced, forged and stolen material, the margins for error remain paper-thin. "Collecting is exciting, but unfortunately it's filled with stuff that's as bad as the people who are selling it," Raab says bitterly. "While there're certainly some reputable dealers, too many either don't know anything about what they're selling, charge too much or just look the other way if material is forged. Making all sorts of bullshit sales representations and promises, these phonies have given the industry a black eye."
Raab recalls an early run-in with a shady dealer: "I nearly got burned [10 years ago] when I bought Christy Mathewson and a few other baseball cards. [Signatures by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, especially if they are framed and mounted under a photo, are often forgeries.] I only later discovered that they all had the same ink and handwriting. While I did get my money back, even more importantly, I learned that novices can't be instant experts in autographs. They have to find dealers with certain bonafides, and in that search, there are no magic bullets."
New collectors, however, can follow an advantageous game plan, filled with strategies that will foil many thieves. "Beginners must read the journals, see what things have sold for and go to auctions and shows," Rubinfine advises. "By talking with other collectors, they'll soon discover which dealers have the best reputations." New collectors should also be wary of autograph "boutiques" with sexy salespeople, fancy addresses or glitzy catalogues. All these excesses usually result in overpriced material. In addition, if those catalogues have any spelling mistakes, historical inaccuracies or are just loaded with sales pitches, that too should sound the alarm. As Rubinfine notes, "Dealers are the last line of defense against forgeries, and so they must meticulously do their homework."
A vital issue is the extent of a dealer's guarantee that an item is genuine. Though many fakes are blatant and can be spotted quickly, buyers should insist that sellers provide guarantees of authenticity without time limits. (Buyers should also familiarize themselves with the intricacies of valued signatures, watching out for penciled signatures, which can't be dated easily, or shaky, small handwriting or blurriness, since modern ink will lose its sharpness when absorbed by old paper.)
"Too often you'll see dealers offering certificates that are only good for a year or two," Raab complains. "But then they put in such a complex mechanism that the burden is on the buyer to prove the autograph isn't authentic. That's not the case with PADA members [who must have proven authenticating skills and be willing to have their inventory scrutinized by the association]. We subscribe to the simple premise that an item is guaranteed without time limits, and if a buyer has any doubts after given a second or third opinion, he almost always gets his money back."
Still, these lifetime or unconditional guarantees are only pieces of paper, which mean little if the dealer goes out of business. That's why beginners must get dealer referrals from other collectors and talk to these agents, because as Raab says, "A seller's reputation, his years in the trade, how he comes across--that's more important than any certificates. What is it like to interact with him? Is this dealer just trying to sell something or is he explaining his material's fine points in a meaningful manner? Once a buyer does this kind of probing, he'll have some assurances that a dealer is legit, not into fakes or just sales dribble."
Rubinfine is worried about the growing number of manuscripts that are stolen from institutions, then sold to unsuspecting buyers. "While experts can spot fakes, some dealers don't know how to ask the right questions about an item's sales history, or just don't want to," Rubinfine says glumly. "A stolen letter might go to a collector for $20,000, and chances are it won't be discovered. But what happens when he wants to sell it, or puts it in an auction catalogue? Now the whole world sees it, and if the original owner takes legal action to get it back, this can easily leave the collector with a big loss."
Even though there are far more horror stories about neophytes getting overcharged for items than getting stiffed with stolen goods, Rubinfine is still concerned that dealers "are careless about checking bills of sale." His advice: "Avoid trouble! Ask the dealer to guarantee the title."
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.
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