The Hunt for History in The Free Lance Star

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Book review: ‘Hunt for History’ shows the value of physical contact with our past

Jeff Schulze Apr 24, 2021

TO THIS DAY, I still kick myself for throwing out my baseball card collection in the late 1970s (was Mickey Mantle’s 1952 rookie card in that shoebox?) Perhaps you, too, agonize over junking antiques, family heirlooms, letters passed down generations. We all thought it was worthless.

Well, join the crowd. The truth is that it requires financial acumen, business savvy, historical appreciation and an emotional detachment to honestly appraise our collectibles.

So it’s enlightening to read the perspective of a collectibles expert who can distinguish the authentic from the forged, the significant from the mundane. Nathan Raab’s “The Hunt for History” is both an insider’s look at the collectibles industry and one man’s search for self-meaning by seeing, reading, actually touching historical artifacts.

The Raab Collection is one of the nation’s premier dealers of material directly linked to the much-admired figures of the past. Raab writes of joining the fledgling family collectibles business in 2004 and rising to become its president. He doesn’t dwell too much on his backstory, fortunately, as the joy of this book is reading all the anecdotes of how he and the Collection found and acquired gold nuggets of historical importance.

And what a list it is: a Theodore Roosevelt letter with a “speak softly /big stick” reference; Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the first set of books for the Library of Congress (authored by Meriweather Lewis); a piece of Thomas Edison’s first underground electric power line; a British communiqué about the acquisition of the Rosetta Stone: Andrew Jackson’s order that led to the Trail of Tears; a letter announcing the death of Napoleon; and Amelia Earhart’s entry form to an air race a year before her disappearance. There’s plenty more.

Your best art and architecture photos from our Destinations Photo Contest Raab uses a ghostwriter (Luke Barr), so the narrative is well-structured and reads fluidly, though it’s laced with self-flattery. The reader may wince as Raab salutes his ethical standards while sneering at forgers and con men; after all, it’s made clear the Raab Collection exists to make a profit—and a handsome one at that.

There’s also the question of selective treatment for certain figures. Raab publicizes the acquisition of unflattering letters written by President Ronald Reagan but stays silent on buying a Martin Luther King Jr. love letter to a mistress. Shouldn’t history lovers be aware of all their discoveries?

That aside, “Hunt for History” is worth indulging, if for no other reason than to learn that through relics, we prize our emotional connections to the past.


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