Assessing Autograph Values

Within each of the primary autograph formats (letters, manuscripts and documents), there are four identifiable price levels. Three of these track the gradations of content and intrinsic importance discussed above while one goes a step farther. It is noteworthy that the distinctions we are making are not the same as those found in most publications that concern autographs, such as price guides, which rely on whether an item is an ALS, TLS, or DS (we find these categories barely relevant). In those sources, an ALS of a person is generally considered to be worth more than a TLS of that person. Yet, without doubt, an individual’s good content TLS is of greater interest, and we believe more valuable, than his or her low content ALS.

To illustrate our point about price gradations, let’s assess four actual letters of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. A TLS concerning a visit has low content and sells for $2,000; it is not interesting and shows us nothing about Churchill. A letter thanking someone for help in his successful 1951 election campaign has medium content, as it relates to his public service yet makes no important statements; it sells for $4,000. A TLS we saw defending his controversial role in World War I had good content and dealt with a subject that mattered; it fetched over $10,000. Now to introduce the fourth price gradation – for an autograph that is of outstanding importance. We have a Churchill TLS as World War II Prime Minister thanking the American people for their support. It sells for $25,000.

It is likewise for manuscripts. A low content Theodore Roosevelt typescript with a few handwritten notes would be worth $500. A similar example with some interesting holograph content about his opposition to corruption would have medium content and sell for $3,000. A handwritten magazine article about conservation would have good content and be worth about $10,000.  In the outstanding category, we had a portion of the original typed manuscript of the speech he gave to his Bull Moose loyalists in June 1912, where he told them “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” It contained his copious handwritten revisions but was not signed; in this incomplete state, it brought over $20,000 even back then. As another example, a Civil War soldier’s low content diary would be worth $1,000. If there were some decent descriptions of activity, it would become medium content and rise to $3,500. We sold a diary with fine battle content for $9,000, and for an important, outstanding five-volume war date journal that served as the basis of a published book, received many times that amount.

The same principle holds true for documents. A business receipt signed by John Hancock is of somewhat lesser interest and would bring $4,000. An appointment of a militia officer, signed by him as governor of Massachusetts, is more interesting (thus medium grade) and might fetch $6,000. Military appointments Hancock signed as president of the Continental Congress, many dated in the magic year of 1776, are a definite step up to good grade and should sell for about $13,000. However, if the document commissions an officer who made a notable contribution to the Revolutionary War effort, it may have some intrinsic importance as well, and begin to climb towards the outstanding category. One at the bottom of that category would be worth $14,000-18,000, depending mainly on the appointee’s prominence and service. Hancock's appointment of Benedict Arnold as major general came on the market in 2002, and at the top of the outstanding grade, sold for $75,000. The importance of the document thus accounts for the spread between $3,000 and $75,000.

Here's another instance which you can categorize yourself. A Franklin Pierce document signed as president ordering the Secretary of State to affix the great seal of the United States to a pardon for small-time burglar Joe Doaks would be hard pressed to command $1,000. His original appointment of Francis Scott Key's son Philip as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, which led to a scandal and resulted in the younger Key's murder on a public street in Washington, sold readily for $2,500 years ago. Pierce’s pardon of a free black convicted of Underground Railroad activities, the only such pardon in existence, is unique and worth over $30,000 (see following page). You can see how importance accounted for the difference in price.

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