Legacy: Great Autograph Dealers of the Past

A few weeks ago, I opened up a package containing a Winston Churchill letter we were acquiring. With the letter came the original paperwork, and I was excited to see that the seller was Mary Benjamin of the old Walter R. Benjamin Autographs firm. Mary was the matriarch of autographs for almost three quarters of a century, and as The New York Times wrote,  she was “authoritative…widely recognized as the nation's leading document authority.” Seeing the letter from Mary, my mind went immediately back to a conversation I had with her in the 1980s, when I was first getting started in the field. Finding that we were distantly related through John Benjamin the Puritan, who had the largest library in the first two decades of settlement in New England, I told her I would like to send her a book on the early Benjamin family. She would be grateful to receive it, she said, and asked what she could do for me. I said I wanted absolutely nothing, beyond the pleasure of knowing she would enjoy it. Two weeks later I found the perfect gift from her in the mail, something extremely interesting yet not extremely valuable: a letter sent by courier pigeon from the Paris Commune in 1870.

Recollections of Mary got me thinking about the great autograph dealers of the past, the lions and lionesses in whose footsteps we follow, and in whose knowledgeable and ethical shoes we strive to fit every day. Their story is one of fascination, and I thought I would share it with you.

The first known autograph dealer in the modern world was the great bibliophile Thomas Thorpe, one of London’s best known booksellers in the first half of the 19th century whose finger was in every important pie in his era. He made the fateful decision to convert his inventory to one in which manuscripts accounted for 2/3 of his holdings, and by the mid-1830’s he began issuing autograph catalogs filled with material. In 1841 he offered his customers some 16,000 pieces. Thorpe’s best customer was Sir Thomas Phillips, who in one memorable case purchased every single item in the Thorpe catalog. It would be half a century before an American autograph dealer of that sophistication would emerge.

Walter R. Benjamin was the son of the noted editor and poet Park Benjamin, and in his youth a stream of interesting figures crossed the threshold of his home and sat in his parlor or at his dining room table. In later years he recalled meeting Ulysses S. Grant; the Civil War was still raging and Grant was in uniform. In 1887, at age 33, Benjamin opened a shop on Broadway selling autographs and manuscripts, which was the first major autograph retail establishment in the United States. His first promotional piece related to authenticity, stating that it was more reliable to purchase an autograph from him than write away to a public figure for one: “It is no use trying to coax an autograph from Gladstone. An application will only result in the receipt of a lithograph on a postal card.” His business was successful, and his customers were, he said, people with “a passion” for history and literature. In 1907 his firm stepped forward to fame. Learning that the U.S. Customs Service had disposed 140 tons of old documents, he found a way to go through them and obtained thousands of documents signed by Presidents. His daughter Mary joined the business in 1925, and was still actually involved upon her death in 1998. The firm closed its doors not long after.

The year after Walter Benjamin, 1888, Francis Madigan founded a similar business in New York, one that enjoyed similar success. His son Thomas Madigan was born in 1890, and was attracted to the family firm. His early training consisted of what might be called “road work.” He traveled up and down the East Coast, searching through barns, garrets, church offices and courthouse basements, looking for letters, signed documents and diaries of writers, politicians, clergymen and soldiers. Eventually Thomas took over his father’s shop and began to make a name for himself. He came to the attention of wealthy industrialists of the day whose collections are now legendary and are the center of famed institutions—Henry C. Folger, Henry E. Huntington and the like. Buying on behalf of such men helped build Madigan’s reputation. In 1930, Madigan’s place in autograph dealer history was secured with the publication of his book, “Word Shadows of the Great: The Lure of Autograph Collecting”. This was the 20th century’s first general interest introduction to autograph collecting, and the first to appeal broadly to collectors or would-be collectors. Soon after, Madigan also sought to popularize autograph collecting by giving a series of radio addresses, titled “The Autograph Album,” on Station WOR in New York. He afterward published each of these talks in pamphlet form. Thomas Madigan died in 1936 at age 45, and his widow sold his inventory to Mary Benjamin.

In 1906, Charles Sessler opened up his bookstore in Philadelphia, and one of his opening employees was the 15 year old Mabel Zahn. She would remain there for an incredible seven decades. Sessler’s, which closed in 1985, was the first major autograph dealer located outside of Manhattan. In time, Zahn came to run the rare book room, from which she sold many of the most important autographs and manuscripts to reach the market. The cream of the Philadelphia business world would reverently enter her private office having waited until the precise time of their appointment with her.  They would be ushered in for their special meeting, where they would be allowed to examine the rare autographs that Zahn had selected for them.  She carried many of the greatest pieces, attended all the great sales, and met all the great collectors of that heady era.

Mabel Zahn enjoyed mentoring young people, and that is our connection to her. In the mid-1960s, a young man named Neale Lanigan, with a lively mind and deep interest in autographs, began coming by regularly. Mabel started telling him about autographs, initially commenting on ones he mentioned, but soon turning to teaching him the field. Neale absorbed the information like a sponge, and combined with his own extensive efforts to learn the field, went on to become one of the most knowledgeable, indeed encyclopedic, autograph dealers in the world. I began buying autographs from Neale in 1986, and was always full of questions. Like Mabel before him, Neale loved to talk about and teach autographs, and he spent what seemed like an infinite number of hours teaching me about autographs. Sometimes he would give me a piece of information that predated his involvement in autographs, such as that a notable person’s correspondence had come out en masse at auction around 1955; then I would realize that that was Mabel talking. A few years after I opened the Raab Collection firm in 1989, Neale came to work for us. He remained with us until 2001, when he left the world of buying and selling and became a minister in the Methodist Church.

Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach was Zahn’s competition in Philadelphia, but he was also a collector. He and his brother Philip opened a shop in 1903, but it was some time before Rosenbach began selling significant autographs. Once he did, he did with a vengeance. At a time when the most sought after autographs were European, Rosenbach worked to increase interest in American writers and manuscripts. He also bought some of the most famous literary manuscripts, including part of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground, and James Joyce's handwritten Ulysses. He was also one of the first to point out the utility of autographs as investments. But the collector in him was always present, and his interest in great autographs and manuscripts was not purely financial. When he died in 1952, he donated his home and his vast collection to found the Rosenbach Museum and Library, with the understanding that it be open to scholars and the public. I was on the board of trustees at the Rosenbach for years.

Goodspeed’s Book Shop opened in 1898 in Boston, and initially remained mainly a book shop. However, after George Godspeed took over in 1925 (the same year Mary Benjamin joined her father), it began to sell autographs. By the time the Rosenbachs were selling important autographs in Philadelphia, Goodspeed’s was doing so in Boston. Goodspeed’s became unquestionably the dominant autograph firm in New England. It closed in 1995.   These were the greats in autographs through the 1950s. They essentially ruled the autograph marketplace. In the ’60’s and 70’s, a number of fine dealers entered the field, and they were still there when I entered autographs in 1985.

One fall day in 1966 I picked up a copy of the New York Times, and on the back page was a full-page ad for the autograph department of the B. Altman’s department store. I was stunned to find that you could actually own a piece of history signed by notable figures like Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson; this was my first experience with autographs, a pursuit that would form so much of my life. Of course, the autographs in the ad were very expensive, and I never dreamt that one day I would own things like them. I learned later that the manager of that department was Robert Tollett, who afterwards went into business on his own. He had impeccable taste, and his inventory had real breadth, atypically including all aspects of the arts and sciences in addition to history. I came to know Bob pretty well, and one day sitting in his living room buying an Oscar Wilde letter, I told him that his ad had made a difference in my life. He was touched and I well recall the moment. Bob died in 2001.

Charles Hamilton set up the first significant all-autographs auction, and wrote many books on autograph collecting and authentication. Soon after I saw Tollett’s ad, I went up to New York to meet him to get his opinion on a briefcase and letter from Lincoln’s vice president, Hannibal Hamlin that my uncle gave me. But by the time I entered the field in 1985, Hamilton had closed the auction, and fallen on hard times.

Paul C. Richards emerged at about the same time. He was, we have heard, an heir of the Ocean Spray cranberry family, and started with a good bankroll. He was quickly buying extraordinary autographs, and continued to do so until his untimely death in 1993 at age 54. To receive a catalog from Paul Richards was, as Wordsworth said, “very heaven” for an autograph collector. There were literally hundreds of items in each one, in every field of interest and in every price range.

We now pass to Robert Batchelder, who started out in coins but by the late 1960’s was dealing in autographs. Being both from Philadelphia, I got to know Bob pretty well. We made our first significant autograph purchase from him in 1985 (a letter of Einstein, a Jefferson free frank, a letter of Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes, and a document signed by Hancock as President of the Continental Congress), were customers of his for 20 years, and were at his home saying goodbye after he could no longer carry on the business in 2005. Bob had about 50 years experience in coins and autographs, and great wisdom, which he was always willing to share with me. I still find myself quoting him sometimes. He issued catalogs of the same kind and quality as Richards, and sometimes you would find autographs in there that were so important you’d rub your eyes to make sure you were seeing straight. We bought Theodore Roosevelt’s “Big stick” letter from him. Bob had one quirk that would stand him in poor stead in this day of the internet: he did not want people to know what his inventory consisted of, and no one who came to his office could browse. You told him what you were looking for, such as Lincoln military appointments, and he would go get them to show you. I quizzed him about this in the 1990s, and he said the field benefited from mystique, and that this policy furthered it. I was not so sure. He died in 2007.

These were the great luminaries of the field, every one of them legendary for their experience, knowledge, and ethics. You can see why finding their paperwork coming with an autograph we are acquiring makes me happy. I’m pleased to have known, and learned from, many of them. We at the Raab Collection have made a conscious effort to be worthy successors to them in every way. This is particularly crucial now, when there are fewer and fewer qualified autograph experts.

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