Joe Rubinfine - American Historical Autographs
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An Introduction to Autographs

Autographs - does that word make one think of teenagers waiting for a rock singer or an athlete to emerge from their place of employment? Does the word manuscript carry a purely literary connotation? Actually manuscript is in a broad sense anything that is handwritten, and the collecting of manuscripts, or autographs, is a varied and serious pursuit. It is sufficiently serious to be engaged in by great museums and libraries that would seldom consider acquiring comparable collectables like stamps or coins, yet varied enough to allow a person of modest means to become a full-blooded collector. Writing has been so very important to our history it remains important today when more sophisticated methods are being used to record much of our activities and carry many of our messages. Collecting autographs thus is collecting history, not only political history, but the history of art, science, music, literature. There is considerable enjoyment and fascination connected with owning an actual part of this history.


As in other areas of collecting, a terminology must be learned. We will here consider the more common of the several forms autographs take. Because of their nature, because they carried most messages from the time man began to write until the advent of the telephone and telegraph, because of their possibilities for interesting content, LETTERS are at the pinnacle of collecting. The longer and more interesting, the better the letter. The letters of statesmen can shed light and, on occasion, re-write history. The letters of authors can be miniature literary works.

Messages lacking one or more of the components of the formal letter (the salutation, the complimentary close, etc.) are usually called NOTES, which might be considered a sub-classification of letters.

The second major autograph category is DOCUMENTS. This encompasses not only what are thought of as formal documents, such as a military commission or legal agreement, but also such things as bank checks, invoices; even a shopping list would qualify as a document! Sometimes quite decorative, documents are popular with collectors but almost invariably less likely to be so prized as a good letter; but they outrank SIGNATURES, usually the most inexpensive autographs. Signatures appear on album pages, cards, (sometimes with dates, places, and sentiments) or cut from letters or documents by misguided persons who by so doing sacrificed some value even if it was only a routine item they mutilated. The signatures of some noted persons, usually because their autographs are unavailable in the other forms would sell for far more than the few dollars most signatures bring.

SIGNED PHOTOGRAPHS have their followers. They generally begin with the carte-de-visite type of the Civil War era, ranging downward from the few signed by Lincoln that cost thousands of dollars. Photographs signed on the front are better than those signed on the back, and those without personal inscriptions naming the recipient are somewhat more desirable. SIGNED BOOKS also fall within the autograph collecting field. They can be signed, limited editions with special bindings, they can have witty inscriptions by the author, or be of value because of the signature of a previous owner, as is the case with books from the libraries of notable persons that come on the market from time to time.

The new collector will learn to distinguish between handwritten items by the person being considered, as opposed to things only signed, being otherwise in the hand of a secretary, typewritten, or printed. The entirely handwritten letter is termed an AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED, abbreviated ALS by dealers and collectors; if typed, or written by a secretary as was the case before the typewriter came into use, and only signed by the subject, it becomes a LETTER SIGNED, or LS. The same is true for documents, their abbreviation of course being D. Usually, the more handwriting the person has supplied in an item, the more it will appeal to collectors.

A cause of some confusion is the method used to indicate size. This has its origin with the large sheets used by printers folded to make four pages they became QUARTO, about 8 by 12 inches, about the size of most business letters today. Another fold to produce eight pages and the size is OCTAVO generally now about 6 by 8 inches (it can be seen that this is an imprecise way to measure), the size of most current hard cover books. Abbreviated in dealer catalogs to 4to and 8vo respectively, these are the most common sizes for letters. Through the years the popularity of these and a few other variant sizes has shifted in the early 19th century, for example, quartos were widely used, but octavos dominated letter writing fashions in the Victorian period.

While a few other abbreviations turn up, this fundamental knowledge will enable anyone to tackle a dealer's catalog. Some dealers defiantly hold to these traditional abbreviations but, like the entire subject of autographs, they are not so esoteric as they seem at first glance!

CONTENT is the principal factor in determining the value of autographs the better the content, the greater the desirability. What is stated in the autograph by whom, when, where, why and how this could all come under the general heading of content. A President's letters will usually be more valuable if dated while in office, other factors being equal. A President's political letter will be worth more than a social one. A general's war dated letter will fetch more than one written in peacetime, other factors again being equal. This bears repeating because the general's lengthy critique of strategy employed in a battle twenty years earlier will be higher in price than the same general's letter to his wife of war date merely asking how things are at home. CONDITION is important, too no collector wants something tattered and battered. Many people are under the false impression that old paper is ready to disintegrate at any moment. Actually, pristine American papers of the 18th and even 17th centuries are normal. Old paper was of excellent quality, much better, in fact, than that used today.

Soon the beginning collector will be able to put these terms into perspective as they relate to value. An Autograph Letter Signed by any particular person is the most valuable form of his autograph but again we must add other factors being equal. A routine ALS will be surpassed by an LS with good content, or even a DS if it were, say, an order written on a battlefield or a significant appointment. Or, content being about equal, the LS could be higher in price if the ALS were in poor condition. How an item is signed also affects value. Items in pencil (Florence Nightingale's habit) or signed with initials (she did this, too) are less desirable. Samuel L. Clemens is not as popular as Mark Twain. When W. F. Cody adds "Buffalo Bill," his autograph stock goes up. But many, if not most, persons in earlier days abbreviated their signatures in some way: Go. Washington, B. Franklin, R. E. Lee, H. Clay. It is expected that their letters will be signed with something less than a full signature, and they are not penalized for this. With experience, the collector becomes familiar with these ins and outs.


Whatever appeals to you? Yes, within reason, within the boundaries of availability that a dealer in autographs can mark out.

The Presidents of the United States are undoubtedly the most popular collecting area today. Presidential game is abundant almost all who held the office had long public careers, their writing was recognized and preserved, and the nature of the Presidency in earlier days added to the formidable pile of paperwork they produced. Some autograph material of most Presidents for this reason is still priced within the reach of the average budget. Only Washington, John Adams, Jefferson and Lincoln can be thought of as expensive; probably only Adams and Polk are more likely to be out of stock at any dealer's office. Starting with President Kennedy, the Presidential picture clouds. In fact, most autographs since the late 1950s are suspect, as a wave of mechanical and secretarial signings unburdened those who were (or thought they were) too busy to sign their names to anything. The authentication of this recent material is something very few persons seriously interested in autograph collecting care to become involved with.

The historical tides generated by America's wars have attracted many collectors. The Civil War has long had the most followers. Paperwork was very big during the Civil War and except for top Confederate material, the supply is excellent. Some collectors stick to one side or the other, but most are fairly neutral. There are CSA enthusiasts around New York City and Union buyers in Georgia!

For the American Revolution, being deeper in our history with far fewer and less literate participants than the Civil War, material is much scarcer and higher in price. Routine war documents still abound, however, and autographs of some major figures such as Robert Morris and Benjamin Lincoln are common. Speaking of Morris, the Signers of the Declaration of Independence remain collecting classics, though with several real rarities to contend with, completing a set is not the aim of most of the Signer collectors.

The French and Indian, 1812, Mexican and Spanish American Wars all have their partisans. Growing, too, is interest in the wars of the 20th century. The conflicts in American history just naturally draw greater interest than the more peaceable periods.

Another specialization is regional, state or local history, and many localities are rich in possibilities. Even some well endowed with history are comparatively under-collected. Upstate New York comes to mind; no doubt there are other and perhaps better opportunities. Many collections center on one individual, most often an author or composer, though soldiers and statesmen are also certainly collected in depth.

Literary collectors favor the same "content" letters as history specialists. The complete original manuscript is on the highest level of literary collecting, but signed quotations from a favorite author's work are a substitute pleasure. Some authors wrote thousands of letters annually (H. L. Mencken is reputed to have often produced in the neighborhood of one hundred per day), while some seem to actually have hated to write if the supply of their autographs is any indication. Some lived almost forever, some died young, others gained little or no recognition during their lifetimes, so that recipients of their letters rarely saw any reason to preserve them. These factors obviously affect availability.

While historical and literary collections predominate, this may be the very cue to send a beginning collector to other fields. The great painters and musicians have never been ignored, of course, and their autographs when available are expensive. But trying to spot an underrated name could be rewarding, or entering a less-collected field.

Let us dispel the idea that all collectors gather autographs of famous people. That is only half the game. Manuscripts of historical significance, written by anyone, are a very important part of collecting. They include manuscript journals, account books, etc., often vital to historical research. Often they are letters by Civil War soldiers, and much in demand if they describe battle action. So are letters sent back home from pioneers pushing westward, settling new territory, perhaps joining the gold rush. Whaling and the sea, exploration, photography, life in colonial America, early theatre and sports and other subjects, occasionally strange, have all been the themes of autograph collections. Finally, there is nothing wrong with collecting diverse things – a miscellany following no firm path but that which one simply likes – a large percentage of collectors start this way and some continue.



Once a decision to collect autographs is made and the prospective collector has perhaps chosen a subject or two about which he or she has already gained some knowledge, what are the mechanics of collecting?

A first step would be to contact a dealer who should in theory be helpful with advice on prices and availability. Dealers advertise in collector publications, belong to collecting organizations, and can be located on the internet. The most profound change in autograph collecting in recent years has unfortunately been that the quantity of dealers has escalated while the quality has plummeted. The "leveling" aspect of the internet has enabled dealers with tattered traditional avenue reputations to remain in business. Extravagant claims have become normal and almost invariably these should be taken as a warning. The same is generally true for other diversionary tactics such as large "staffs" of dubious existence, elaborate websites, etc. These do not necessarily signal dishonest intent but such is not uncommon, nor is inexperience or, worse, a combination of the two. There are only a few experienced general autograph dealers. Many gravitate to specialization. Sorting through the dealers (a term that often can be used interchangeably with auctions) is quite a challenge for beginning collectors. Reliable dealers have several common characteristics. Most guard their reputations for integrity tenaciously. They unconditionally guarantee the authenticity of the material they sell. Their experience has been gained, occasionally at considerable personal financial expense, as they worked with manuscripts every day. They stand between the collector and the forgery, the facsimile, the mistaken identity, and the stolen item using their knowledge of paper, ink, writing habits and the like. Often when collectors have been involved for a year or two, they begin to feel they can operate in some instances without the dealer's protection, and strike off on their own to flea markets, antique shops, stamp auctions, used book stores and other possible autographic hideouts. They should know that the persons they will meet at these places, however honest and well-intentioned, cannot possibly have the full time manuscript dealer's expertise in manuscripts, and their work will likely have the same quality as the manuscript dealer's would if he or she attempted to handle a stamp or a piece of furniture. A guarantee is only as good as the guarantor. If knowledge gained later draws an item into question, can the guarantor be located? That's a good question to ask first! This is not to say that a specializing collector's knowledge of a particular subject can't or shouldn't overtake and pass the manuscript dealer's knowledge of that subject. To become an expert on something is one of the by-product rewards of autograph collecting.

Some dealers have extensive online catalogs but an inquiry might produce a copy of a printed catalog (many still produce several each year), or some offerings by e-mail, fax, phone or postal service. The dealer will be increasingly observant to detect signs of life in you the collector beyond the initial catalog request. If you hear nothing from a dealer after some initial offerings, it usually does not mean that the dealer has gone out of business but that he thinks you have. If you inform one or more dealers of your specific serious interests and the things you desire are available from time to time, then direct quotations become an important source. Collectors can get ahead of the competition, working themselves to the point where they will most of the time receive first notice of the availability of something they might like.

What makes prices? Supply and demand, of course. The dealer draws on experience, knowledge of auction results, ideas of what is available or likely to be, in addition to the inherent properties of the item being considered, when deciding where to set the price not so high that no one will want it nor so low that he will not be repaid for an investment of time and money travel to corral it, books to research it, postage, office expense, and so on. Though in adequate supply, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Robert E. Lee are relatively high in price because they are probably the four most popular American autographs. In much demand, but not to the degree of those names are T. J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, Daniel Boone, and Abigail Adams, for example. Here scarcity helps buoy prices to the upper levels, caused by such things as an early demise, a brief period of notoriety, a disinclination to write, or perhaps institutional holdings. A collector diligently seeking an autograph example of an obscure figure whose autograph is very scarce might have a long wait mainly because few people preserved the obscure one's letters. But on the great day when one is finally found, the cost should be nominal because there is only one buyer interested.


So obvious it might be overlooked, collecting is a pleasant, relaxing diversion. We have already mentioned that the collector will become an expert in his field, however small. Certainly merely studying will enable one to know a subject, let's say John Adams or Irish literature. But owning a legal writ prepared by an ambitious young lawyer prior to the Revolution, or a letter about writing by James Joyce these are undeniably things that keep the fires of interest burning!

Here is the challenge to enter a somewhat more difficult avocation than most. Autographs are not the lazy collector's hobby. With almost every item being different, there can be no guide to mark the way as in stamps and coins the collector is left to find his or her own way, studying dealer offerings or often misleading auction records in lieu of the neat price guides of many fields of collecting. Taste is involved, and the courage of conviction. There is great satisfaction in this collecting by one's wits and in joining an elite group that includes a number of prominent and accomplished people.

Are autographs an investment vehicle? They have been in the past. They have been praised by financial columnists and acquired solely as an investment. And with ever increasing demand and a supply that has definite limits, the ingredients for a continued increase in value are present.

Still, we prefer to stress that the principal rewards to be derived from collecting are the pleasures of gathering, preserving, and learning. Especially learning in few other collecting hobbies are the opportunities for learning present to the extent that they are in autograph collecting.