Like everything else, autographs respond to the basis laws of supply and demand. Demand is determined by the extent of the public’s desire for a person’s autograph, and supply by the basic number of the autographs available. A clear example of how these market factors function can be found in the autographs of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Of the 56 signers, only a very few (such as Franklin and Jefferson) would have any claim to fame (and therefore any autographic value) other than for having signed the document. Among the rest are Button Gwinnett, an otherwise obscure Georgia official, and William Williams, an otherwise obscure Connecticut politician and local office-holder. Obviously, the demand for the autographs of these two men is for all intents and purposes exactly the same: as signers. Suppose on the same day (say June 1, 1774) Gwinnett and Williams signed a very similar routine document, a receipt for horse fodder perhaps. That of Williams would be worth $500 today, while that of Gwinnett would be worth well over $100,000. Gwinnett emigrated to America in 1760 and was killed in a duel at age 42. He spent most of his life avoiding creditors and seems to have signed very little; perhaps 50 autographs of Gwinnett are known to exist, and the lion’s share of these are tucked away in institutions. Williams, on the other hand, was town clerk of Lenanon, Conn. for 45 years, and a prolific writer. Many hundreds, possibly thousands, of his autographs exist, and a large number have reached the marketplace. So, with demand being completely equal, the reason for the $99,500 plus difference in value is based purely on supply.
With such a small supply, if the document of Gwinnett was stained, torn or creased, it would still be worth close to the $100,000 figure. The supply and demand would be the same. However, one of Williams in similarly poor condition might be worth only $200, because the supply of ones in fine condition is ample and demand for a poor one would be low. If Gwinnett’s document was dated in the magical year of 1776 and related to his work in Congress, it would still probably be worth the same $100,000. Despite the date, there is no change in the supply or demand. However, we recently had a historically important letter of Williams from 1775 to a Tory friend all about the pending Revolution, and it sold for $35,000. Regardless of how common Williams is generally, the demand for such a piece is extraordinary yet the supply is meager indeed.