Many factors contribute to an autograph’s value, among them rarity, condition, content, and association. Therefore, it is difficult to make generalizations about the value of letters. The fact that every autograph is unique is what makes autograph collecting so exciting and pricing so challenging. If you would like to learn more about autograph pricing and investment, please read the following excerpts from a recent speech David Lowenherz gave on investing in autographs:
“The title of my talk, Fabulous or Fake: Collecting and Investing in Autographs and Manuscripts, will acquaint you with a very small world that many, if not most of you, have never heard of. If you’re thinking, ‘Autograph collecting: sure, standing outside a theater and asking performers to sign a playbill, or visiting the ballpark and getting signatures on a baseball,’ then sit back and relax because I am going to re-focus your perspective and offer a primer on autograph collecting and investing for grown-ups.
You are probably unaware that Malcolm Forbes (senior and junior), J.P. Morgan, Bill Gates and I share something in common. You might think it’s the value of our stock portfolio or the size of our yachts. Sadly, that would not be correct…our common denominator is that we were, or still are, collectors of autographs and manuscripts. In the late 20th century, the Forbes family amassed one of the finest collections of American historical autographs and manuscripts ever assembled. This collection was also among the first to be dispersed in the 21st century, but has now been superseded by the enormous and breathtaking collection of two other wealthy individuals, Lou Lehrman whose wealth stems from the Rite-Aid drug store chain and Richard Gilder of Gilder, Gagnon & Howe. In less than 20 years, these two gentlemen have double-handedly accumulated more than 60,000 historical letters, manuscripts, books and pamphlets; it is a collection that would be the envy of many a historical society. In fact, their holdings are on indefinite loan at the New York Historical Society…
What 10 factors determine an autograph’s value as both a collectible and as an investment?
First and foremost, one must determine if the item under consideration is authentic, i.e., written and/or signed by the person whose autograph is under review. We are all familiar with this problem because forgeries abound in every field. Less common in the art world, however, are issues such as facsimiles, secretarially signed items, mistaken identities, etc. In other words, not every unauthentic autograph is the product of someone’s malevolent desire to deceive and profit by that deception – a fake isn’t necessarily a forgery. Let’s take a look at some real issues one might encounter when authenticating autographs. My reasons for explaining these issues is not to turn you off from collecting but to encourage you to expect the best from your dealer and begin to familiarize yourself with some of the pitfalls you could encounter along the way to building your collection.
Let’s begin with a common issue: changes in the appearance of a person’s handwriting. Here are two different writing styles of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Napoleon’s nemesis and the hero of the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. The handwriting at the top shows a note written by Nelson. In 1797, he was wounded in the elbow and his right arm had to be amputated. He taught himself to write with his left hand and the handwriting below is the form one most often encounters. In addition to differences in his handwriting, Nelson used several variant signatures during his right-handed period including one of the rarest, “Bronte Nelson of the Nile.”
The next handwriting example, in this case George Washington, illustrates the differences between a letter written by a famous person as a youth and as an adult. Letters from personalities written during their childhood are generally uncommon because no one (except the parents, perhaps) would think of preserving a child’s scrawl. An exception to the rule is monarchs who are famous the moment they are born. This example of George Washington’s script shows his writing style at age 19 compared with the far more familiar, so called “copper-plate” script as an adult.
Our next example shows the changing signatures of Marie Antoinette, Queen of the ill-fated King of France, Louis XVI.
As America acquired territory west of its original 13 states, land was given to former soldiers and private citizens. Up until about 1834, these land grants were signed by the president. However, after Andrew Jackson, 99% of such documents were signed by secretaries on behalf of the president. These documents turn up frequently and are often thought to bear the president’s signature. Secretarial signatures of presidents are common and nearly every commander-in-chief since Teddy Roosevelt has had someone sign his name at one time or another during his career. Another little known presidential autograph fact is that Andrew Johnson injured his wrist at the beginning of his presidency and many documents issued during his term bear a stamped signature. Below is an authentic signature followed by a series of six proxy signatures written on behalf of Franklin D. Roosevelt prior to his presidency.
Napoleon used several different signatures during his career; let’s take a moment to examine some early examples. Maret, an aide to the emperor, occasionally signed on Napoleon’s behalf and these secretarial signatures are often confused with authentic ones, but here is the way to tell them apart. Napoleon always placed a paraph under his name – in fact, the original purpose of the paraph was to discourage forgeries by incorporating an elaborate design as part of the signature that would make it more difficult to copy (image 1, below). Maret was probably instructed to sign without a paraph in order to make it easier for those in the know to distinguish Napoleon’s signature from his secretary’s (image 2, below). Another interesting example is the nearly identical signatures of two contemporaries named Guillotine (only one of which leant his name to the favorite instrument of terror implemented by the French revolutionaries). They can be distinguished from each other by the formation of the letter “n”.
The first president to use an autopen (a machine that engages a matrix made from an original signature to sign multiple copies of letters and photographs) was Dwight D. Eisenhower while president of New York’s Columbia University from 1949-1951. The first sitting president to use an autopen was President Kennedy, who already as Senator had installed a machine in his office in 1958. The examples below show seven Kennedy autopen patterns. He also used a printed signature as a congressman and had over a dozen secretaries sign for him during his presidency. To make matters worse his authentic and illegible signature often varied in appearance from day to day.
When determining authenticity it is a good idea to know something about paper and ink. Note that facsimiles have been around for hundreds of years, and that the paper they are printed on is now old and could fool one into thinking that a facsimile is actually an authentic document.
“Certificates of Authenticity” or COA’s as they are called are not worth the paper they are written on unless the issuer of such a certificate has an excellent reputation, is highly regarded in the trade and comes recommended by other collectors or institutions. In fact, reputable dealers in the autograph and manuscript business offer the gold standard of guarantees, out-distancing those proffered by some dealers in other fields and all the major auction houses: a professional autograph dealer must guarantee the authenticity of what he or she sells without any time limit. Period.
In the world of art, I believe that establishing rarity is not extremely difficult. There are so many catalogue raisonne’s of artists that with access to reliable auction records and an awareness of the number of works in private collections and institutions, one can make a rather quick and accurate stab at determining whether an artwork is rare or not. The distinction between rarity in art and in autographs is reflected in an experience I recently had. The American novelist Willa Cather is considered an uncommon, if not rare, autograph on the market; there are about 1800 known letters extant. Yet, I recently had the opportunity to handle on consignment a previously unpublished and unknown archive of more than seventy letters, i.e., over 4% of the generally accepted total. This is, in its own right, a special, but by no means extraordinary event in autograph and manuscript collecting. But I would be very surprised if a stash of completely unknown Renoir paintings, for example, appeared representing 4% of his identified output.
Rarity sometimes differs from one country to another: I have always followed the European market closely and found it amusing that a Jefferson letter in Germany is considered as rare as a Goethe letter is in the U.S. when, in fact, neither one of them is particularly uncommon. While rarity is an important factor in determining price, one should remember that rarity is not defined solely by how frequently an autograph appears in the market, but also by the form the autograph takes. Letters written by a secretary and signed by Napoleon are definitely not rare. In fact, they are common. Letters entirely in the hand of Napoleon, however, are extremely rare. So, after one has learned how to authenticate an autograph of the emperor and ascertained its general availability, one must determine whether the form of his signature and writing is rare or not.
Some American presidential rarities include anything written by William Henry Harrison as president – it does not matter whether it is a signature, document, or letter – because he died only a month after taking office and anything written in this brief period is of exceptional rarity. Handwritten letters penned during the presidencies of Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, JFK and LBJ are also rarely encountered. There are a few artists whose letters are genuinely rare, like Seurat and van Gogh, and certainly nearly every one of the old masters are extremely difficult to find. Every ten or fifteen years a document signed by Raphael or even Michelangelo might appear, but anything signed by Durer, Leonardo, Rembrandt, etc. is almost unheard of as are examples from composers like Monteverdi, Handel, Bach, or Mussorgsky.
3. Supply and Demand.
The law of supply and demand, a law that works quite favorably when investing in autographs, is largely unappreciated, if not unknown in this field, because of the somewhat arcane ways that autographs are bought, sold and collected. Let me illustrate this point with my three “laws” of autographs. The first is my law of supply and demand, the second is my law of monopoly (I mean the game, not the Sherman anti-Trust kind), and the third is my law of quality. In 1978, very early in my career, a new customer visited my office and after reviewing my stock, requested a discount on a letter by the French composer Maurice Ravel. I politely declined. He then offered me his theory of how I could and should make money in the autograph business. “The three keys to business, David” he intoned, “is turnover, turnover, and turnover. Make those sales whenever and however you can.” I mulled over his advice for about two seconds and then asked him what his line of work was. He sold textiles. I asked him what he did when he went to a client who wanted a discount on a fabric that was nearly out of stock. “That’s simple,” he said. “I give him the discount and then call my manufacturer and tell him to make more material.” “Right.” I replied. “But Maurice Ravel is dead and I am afraid I can’t call and ask him to write another letter to replace the one I’m offering you.” He got the point and bought the letter. The lesson is, of course, that everything I sell is unique and not easily replaced. In fact, my work is not selling autographs; my work is finding autographs to sell. This brings me to my monopoly theory of buying autographs. I try to buy autographs the way I play monopoly—I buy every time I land on something of quality and value that I like and can purchase without strain. Oscar Wilde once observed that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I make sure that what I buy is unusual, interesting, and affordable. I am not interested in just making a buck—I’m interested in offering people those items that not only reflect their interests, but mine as well. I like learning from my collectors and, conversely, they like to learn from me. The final law, the third one, is “everything of quality sells.” This is why when the right combination of quality and uniqueness is present in an autograph, I can very nearly guarantee that it will increase in value. I cannot predict by how much and how quickly, but I can safely tell you today, that by every objective standard, 90-95% of what I have sold in the past, if it came on the market today, would sell for more than what I sold it. How many of us can say that about our investment portfolios?
Markets, even the autograph market, are susceptible to speculation and hype, but this is usually brought on by influences outside the autograph market. Here are a few examples. When Princess Diana suddenly died, the value of her autograph shot up in price. It was not just that she was dead and could no longer write, but other factors played a role. A huge outpouring of sympathy for her and her family generated an interest in acquiring a “holy relic” as it were, from her life. Demand surged. This demand was met when former employees and correspondents sold what they owned of hers. Demand continued to surge and prices rose as her material became scarcer and scarcer. And then demand, by and large from outside the autograph market, dried up, leaving only a smaller group of diehard collectors as the secondary market to sell into and this market was already satiated. The consequences were, of course, predictable. When it came time to sell, those who had paid premium prices were stuck. This phenomenon is not unlike the exaggerated prices achieved at the estate sales of celebrities—Andy Warhol, Jackie Onassis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and the like. The auction house juggernaut inexorably moves forward, followed by the clout of its enormous marketing arm and all of a sudden, everybody decides they must own a piece of Camelot! Once the context of the event passes and the hype recedes, individuals are left as the proud owners of the Duke of Windsor’s boots, Andy Warhol’s cookie jar, or Marilyn Monroe’s nightie. Is there anything fundamentally interesting or compelling about any of those objects? Maybe, but not for me.
Let’s move to one of the most if not the most important determinant of autograph value:
Generally speaking, the piece in the autograph puzzle that exerts the greatest influence in defining value is content. Although it is true, as I previously stated, that handwritten letters by Napoleon are far rarer than those penned by a secretary and then signed by him, it is equally true, that at least two of the scores of Napoleon documents I have sold over the years – one being his son’s appointment as viceroy of Italy and the other an official and threatening warning from the emperor to the Haitian general and liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture – were more valuable than some of his notoriously scarce handwritten letters. Most collectors search for letters in which the writer describes an event that is closely associated with the author’s fame. Consequently, letters by Napoleon about preparing for battle, Mozart on composing an opera, Einstein discussing relativity, or Hemingway on writing, bullfighting, or fishing are highly sought after. Less interesting would be Einstein on bullfighting, or Mozart on fishing. It is safe to say that both from a collecting and an investing point of view, it is content that defines the “blue chip” quality of a letter. A first hand account of the Battle of Bunker Hill written by an anonymous soldier, would be far more desirable and expensive than a letter written on some less important military subject by the well-known opposing generals, Putnam and Howe.
Letters written between famous individuals are generally very desirable, but may involve a bit of work to uncover additional, associated identities. Here is an example of what I mean: I once purchased a letter of George Washington introducing John Wheelock. It was not immediately evident from the letter that Wheelock was, at the time, president of Dartmouth College and the son of its founder; a rather nice association, particularly for a Dartmouth alumnus. The addressee was referred to only as “Sir.” I outbid another colleague at a small Long Island auction and afterwards, he came up to me remarking, matter-of-factly but with a slight air of superiority, “Well, you know, of course, who Wheelock was,” and I said, “Sure, president of Dartmouth.” Then I inquired, with equal matter-of-factness, “And you know, of course, who “Sir” was.” “No,” he said, he didn’t. So I told him how I went to the Morgan Library, looked up the letter in Fitzpatrick’s edition of Washington’s writings (these were the pre-internet days when you couldn’t find such things with a computer) and discovered that the letter’s recipient, known only as “Sir” was none other than Benjamin Franklin. That valuable information, amounting to just an extra hour or two of extra research, transformed a $10,000 letter into one I sold easily for $25,000.
There are two aspects to this question when determining value. Letters by Beethoven, Einstein and Lincoln are not especially rare, but they are very desirable. However, desirability not only suggests whether the individual’s autographs are collected, but as I said about rarity, whether they are sought after in a particular form such as a manuscript, handwritten letter, signed photograph, etc. Desirability can also change. In speaking with a number of my colleagues prior to today’s lecture, I was informed that the Civil War market peaked in the 80’s and 90’s and has been moribund for some time now. The causes for this are manifold. A principle reason for all the attention drawn to the Civil War was Ken Burns’ ground-breaking documentary. In a manner similar to the story I told you about Princess Diana, everyone, almost overnight, wanted to collect Civil War material. The point is that a beginning collector needs to consult with a reputable dealer about current and past trends in the market. Some popular collecting areas include American presidents, composers, opera singers, world leaders, famous women in all fields, writers, Nobel Prize winners, scientific manuscripts and letters, etc. Desire, like most everything else in life, is a personal decision and, thankfully, autograph collecting allows one to specialize in many different areas. Ultimately, assessing desirability and other factors to determine value can be tricky and requires what is known in German as “Fingerspitzengefuehl” – an intuitive sense of connoisseurship at the tips of your fingers that comes from experience.
Unlike most collectibles, condition is probably the least significant issue when buying or pricing autographs. It is detrimental when a common autograph is in poor condition and favorable when a rare autograph is in excellent condition. Conversely, an excellent content letter by Jefferson is only slightly less valuable if it is not in especially good condition, and the price of a boring J. Edgar Hoover letter is so low that being in pristine condition won’t increase its value at all. Signed photographs and books need to be in the best possible condition, because their value in the photograph and book trade, two businesses defined by multiples of identical objects, is significantly affected by appearance. That is really the only thing that can determine value between one first edition or vintage print and another. Some general condition concerns for autographs might be, folding, tearing, browning, foxing, lightness of the ink, staining, missing pieces of paper, and so on.
8. Published or Unpublished.
This is a double-edged sword. Institutions generally prefer acquiring unpublished material so when considering the future value of an individual letter or an archive that could have institutional interest, the object’s value is enhanced if it is unpublished. Collectors are not quite so picky on this subject; some prefer a published letter because it validates the letter’s authenticity and possibly its importance since it has been chosen for publication. In fact, multiple publication in a variety of books and articles can suggest that the letter is of above-average significance. Recently, I owned a handwritten letter of Frederick the Great to Voltaire. In my estimation, the value of this historic letter, written just after Frederick became king and had embarked on his first important military campaign, was increased by the fact that 1) it was cited in nearly half of all the biographies about Frederick I could find in English or German and 2) that it had never really been accurately published since its initial printed appearance in the early 1800s.
9. Handwritten or typed.
This issue is generally less important to an institution than it is to a collector. Libraries want information, preferably new and important, while collectors seek to establish an ineffable bond with a famous personality that is best obtained through possessing a letter entirely in the writer’s hand. In addition, libraries do not care if correspondence is signed using just the first name, but collectors do. They invariably prefer to see the last name written in full. I once owned a lovely handwritten letter of Gustav Mahler to his wife, Alma. It was one of the few ever to come out from an important correspondence that have remained in private hands. I offered it to a collector who was very excited at such a find. He had a question, though. How had Mahler signed the note? I told him “Gustl.” “He didn’t sign it “Gustav Mahler?” came the disappointed reply and he passed on my offer.
Provenance can add some value to a letter if it can be proven. Establishing provenance for older documents is very, very difficult. I can think of only two instances where I traced provenance back into the 19th century and both of these discoveries were found by coincidence and not the result of exhaustive research. If one can prove that an autograph came from a famous person’s collection or was used as a facsimile in a well-known reference book, then it can be of some additional financial value. FDR, Queen Victoria and Johannes Brahms were all autograph collectors and anything originating from their collections would definitely add value.
Now that we have explored the 10 factors that influence price and value, let’s look at a few examples of some rather substantial price increases as reflected in auction prices. In every case, the prices realized were for the identical item, not merely similar ones.
ALS, 1987, $70,000 sold for $700,000 in 2002 (ex Forbes)
AD, 1979, $500 sold for $3500 in 2001
ALS, 1979, $1500 sold for $9000 in 1998
ALS, 1978, $30,000 (ex Sang) sold for $600,000 in 2002 (ex Forbes)
LS 1993, $975 sold for $1900 in 2000
LS 1990, $3200 sold for $9500 in 1999
LS 1975, $420 sold for $2350 in 1990
ALS 1999 $8400 sold for $14,300 in 2003
Collection of 9 ALS’s 1986 $24000 sold for $68,000 in 2005
LS to FDR in 1939 1986 $200,000 to Forbes sold for $1,900,000 in 2002
LS 1880 1995, $2600 sold for $11000 in 2001
ALS 1884 1999 $3000 sold for $3600 in 2003
ALS 1914, 1993, $1300 sold for $3100 in 2006
ALS 1916, 1977 $1400 sold for $3500 in 1995
Collection of 43 letters, 1977 $32,500 sold for $310,000 in 2004
Sold by Lion Heart Autographs in 1990 for $2750; re-sold by LHA for $9500 in 2007
So, are autographs a fabulous investment? I think the short answer is “yes.” The caveats are that either you or your dealer needs to know exactly what they are doing: the more informed you are in your areas of interest, the more you will understand and appreciate what is available and how it is valued. Autographs are not an especially liquid investment. Sometimes I will have to hold onto a piece of inventory for years until the right customer comes along. You should never sell under pressure, but that is generally true in any kind of investment. Remember that at least half the pleasure should be in the acquisition, ownership and enjoyment of your autographs. There are also potential tax advantages to acquiring autographs and then donating them to an appropriate institution at a much later date. These benefits can be substantial and should always be evaluated when considering the dispersal of a collection.
I hope that what I’ve told you today has not been too overwhelming, arcane, or boring. I understand that most everyone is interested in the value of his or her collection at some point, but the true benefit to you should be how your precious collection affects your heart and mind and not your wallet.