Or why we buy what we buy
Each day, we are approached by many people looking to sell us their documents. Some are collectors; others inherited pieces from their parents or grandparents. Some are authentic; some are not. It is our job to look for and then acquire that small percentage that appeals to us. We own the material on our site, and so our purchase is our own investment in its worthiness.
When I started collecting autographs back in the early 1980s, my acquisitions focused on certain goals: to make history come alive, to ferret out letters and documents that were evocative of their moment, and to concentrate on those that were significant, or were inspirational. I was advised to make these goals my focus by legendary dealer David Holmes, who urged me to avoid mere scraps of paper and seek out things that were exciting. He also taught me to avoid over-hyped materials and glittery baubles, and those sellers who hawked them.
My focus enabled me to build a wonderful collection, one that was all substance, that had a voice, and one of which I was proud. There was a letter of Washington from Valley Forge saying he needed more troops, one from Lincoln refusing to charge orphans any legal fees, one of Horatio Nelson on board the HMS Victory, one of Alexander Graham Bell mentioning the telephone, one of Einstein about God and his religious beliefs, and so on.
When I started the Raab Collection in the late ‘80s, I maintained this focus for its acquisitions. When you see a piece on our website, you should be able to understand why it’s there. Sometimes it may simply be that there’s something just a little special about it, but many times it will be that this piece really matters. Let me part the curtain and bring you inside to see how our thought process works when we consider an acquisition.
Right now there is a John Hancock autographed note signed from July 1776 on our website. Most people know that Hancock wrote his large signature on the Declaration of Independence, but his role was far greater than that. He was mentored by Sam Adams, who was probably the most radical leader in the colonies, so under Adams’s influence Hancock adopted the same outlook and took the same anti-British positions. But there was one difference between the two men: Hancock was considered the wealthiest man in New England and one of the wealthiest in the colonies, with a mercantile fleet he had inherited from his uncle. So he had more to lose than almost anyone else if there was to be a rift with Britain. And because of his position of wealth he had the confidence of the elites both in Massachusetts and throughout the colonies. His election as President of the Continental Congress was no accident – it was the result of his being acceptable to, and trusted by, the two key constituencies: the revolutionaries and the wealthy merchants.
Victories were few and far between in 1776, yet the Founding Fathers and their families risked everything for freedom and agreed upon the Declaration of Independence on July 4. It was a time of deep tension for them, as just the day before the British had landed on Staten Island and would soon take New York. Within a few weeks Patriots were heartened to hear of a great victory in South Carolina, one that would thwart British designs in the southern colonies for years.
Charles Lee, the third ranking American general at the time, had achieved this triumph, and he immediately reported it to Hancock and George Washington, and at the same time also wrote his friend William Palfrey who was Paymaster General of the Continental Army. Palfrey showed his jubilant letter to Hancock.
Much has been made of the actual religious beliefs, or lack of same, of the Founding Fathers, and for most of the most prominent, evidence is decidedly mixed. But not so for Hancock. His father and grandfather were ministers, his grandfather being particularly prominent. Hancock contributed a considerable amount of money to the Congregational Church, and most importantly, was known on occasion as President of Congress and Governor of Massachusetts to make statements of praise and thanks to God for His blessings in the fight for independence. Yet one never sees one of these statements reach the market.
Recently we came upon the Lee letter to Palfrey. Now letters of the top American generals of the Revolution reporting great victories are rare enough to catch the eye; but set against that, letters of Lee are neglected by collectors who tend to opt for bigger names. But on this letter was Hancock’s handwritten response to seeing it, which was to exult in “the most fortunate defeat of the [British] troops and ships at So. Carolina”, and to add “God Almighty be praised, I feel grateful.” So here we had a powerhouse of four factors that mattered, all in one piece: 1. A letter reporting a triumph by a senior American general, which would be our first in all these years; 2. An exclamation of triumph (and of relief) by Hancock as President of Congress, surely echoing the feelings of others in Congress, just exactly when everything was at stake; 3. A Hancock autograph from July 1776, of which we had had but two in over 30 years; and 4. A clear and unambiguous statement by a top Founding Father of his belief in God.
So looking again at our acquisitions goals to make history come alive, to find pieces evocative of their moment, and to concentrate on those that were significant, or were inspirational, we see that this Hancock/Lee letter clearly met them. That’s why it’s on our website.