Letters from Dead Presidents: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

It’s not very often that someone tries to sell me something I already own. But it happens more often than you might think.

This week, I received a call from a man whose father, now deceased, owned a very important letter by Woodrow Wilson, found folded within the book The Bridge to France, by Edward N. Hurley. When I received a scan of the letter, I immediately recognized it; in fact, I own it. Not only was the letter similar to mine, it was exactly the same, every stroke of the signature identical, a facsimile (shown at right). This experience is not unique. Famous facsimile copies of letters of dignitaries such as Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Jefferson come our way several times each year, often tucked within books.

Since some facsimiles were made long ago, they look old to an untrained eye. They can even look authentic to descendants of the writers themselves, such as those of Revolutionary War figure Nicholas Biddle, who arrived at our offices with a gorgeous letter by George Washington to Col. Biddle. He wanted to know what I would pay for it. Instead, I walked into my vault and pulled out the original. The family had long since sold it, and I was the owner. Another time a descendant of a high ranking Revolutionary War general sent me their family treasure, also a letter from General Washington, only to find out that someone a century earlier had copied the original onto laid paper, the very kind of paper that Washington had used (shown below). The original is now in an institution, and the folds in two known copies differed from one another, a clear sign that facsimiles were involved.

Sometimes we are offered genuine forgeries. But there is a category of people who unwittingly offer us reproductions and who are not engaged in nefarious activities. In addition to the above, this was the case with a man who had a letter related to farming written by Thomas Jefferson, and with its envelope still present, he proudly proclaimed. I informed him that envelopes were not in use during that period of history and that the letter in his possession had been famously copied by a company for promotional purposes a century ago.

Where the piece has been duplicated for inclusion in a book, the author typically sought and obtained permission to reproduce the original. However, the case is not always so quickly solved. How could, for example, a close relative of Gerald Ford bring us a historic signed photograph of the former president, a family gift, and not know it was a copy? Many descendants sell or donate their letters and, seeking to keep a piece of their family legacy, copy the original. This can result in numerous copies made for several interested parties. With time recollections fade, and so does the memory of a facsimile.

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