The Hunt for History Review: The Wall Street Journal

The below piece was first published on The Wall Street Journal’s website:


‘The Hunt for History’ Review: A Textual Detective

A manuscript expert’s discoveries illuminate the lives of Napoleon, Einstein, Amelia Earhart and others.

By Nicholas A. Basbanes

March 13, 2020 11:21 am ET

There are few hard and fast rules in the world of rare book and manuscript collecting, though two maxims that have stood the test of time emerge as guiding tenets in Philadelphia dealer Nathan Raab’s account of his determined search for historically significant documents. The first, in the words of Zack Jenks, a savvy book scout in the Larry McMurtry novel “Cadillac Jack” (1982), is that “anything can be anywhere.” A second, more nuanced principle, comes from Michael Sadleir, a distinguished British book-hunter and bibliographer of the early 20th century who professed that unlike the natural world, where “the bird who gets up earliest catches the most worms,” success in this pursuit “falls to birds who know worms when they see them.”

As things of value go, manuscripts occupy a special place in the pantheon of precious objects, distinctive especially in that by definition they are unique, and that context pretty much means everything. Provenance—verifiable trails of prior ownership—along with condition and scarcity matter a great deal, too. But how something that is demonstrably authentic fits into the grand scheme of things—or, more to the point, making the case for why someone would pay a significant amount of money for what to the unschooled eye might be an inconsequential sheet of paper—is at the heart of the discourse offered by Mr. Raab, president of the Raab Collection, a high-end purveyor of historical documents based in the City of Brotherly Love, and Luke Barr, his collaborator.

Their book, “The Hunt for History,” feeds into the renewed interest we of the highly digitized 21st century have taken in material objects that “tell us something” about our cultural legacy in ways that are both immediate and instructive—not virtual facsimiles, in other words, but artifactual touchstones with the past. Unlike physical objects that need to be curated, a handwritten document has a text of some sort that usually explains itself, either in explicit terms, or in more subtle ways that have to be fleshed out and highlighted with thorough research and interpretation. This careful detective work can enhance its value measurably in the marketplace.

The Rabb Collection was established in 1989 by Steven Raab, a successful attorney who had decided, with the full support of his wife, Susan, to take a stab at turning what to that point had been an enthusiastic pastime into a gainful enterprise. By the time their son Nathan, a 1996 graduate of Haverford College, came aboard full-time in the early 2000s, the Main Line firm had become a leading purveyor of historically relevant documents and, as an added inducement to prospective supply sources in the general population, was paying top dollar to acquire them.

In close to two decades as a big-game document hunter, Nathan Raab has scored a number of impressive coups, several of them sufficiently noteworthy to generate national news coverage. While names such as Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Amelia Earhart need no eureka moment to establish basic value, exactly what these people might be asserting in the texts often requires a detailed back-story that can reveal an otherwise uninspiring document to be something quite extraordinary.

Mr. Raab cites numerous examples along these lines, one of which came during the years of his apprenticeship, as a challenge from his father to “find the best piece” listed in the catalog of a forthcoming New York auction. Going through the offerings page by page, Mr. Raab had to admit that he was stumped, at which point his father told him to look carefully at a seemingly mundane letter written in 1801 from the “Headquarters” of a British military detachment in Egypt directing a civil engineer to take possession of a certain “Stone” from the French that bore an inscription, and ensure that it “be deposited in some place of security.” His father’s earnest belief—that “this is the order to seize the Rosetta Stone”—turned out, after careful research, to be spot on, and its acquisition for “a few hundred dollars” proved to be an unqualified bargain. Another hunch—that Teddy Roosevelt’s intention, stated in a signed, typewritten letter to “speak softly but carry a big stick” might qualify as the first recorded use of that resonant phrase—was equally prescient.

Mr. Raab’s fluency in several foreign languages—he had worked abroad with the Associated Press for a period before joining the family business—came in handy when he was able to recognize the merit of some letters being offered at a Christie’s sale of “a major collector who’d recently died”—a person not identified here, but clearly a heavy hitter. There were hundreds of marquee items sold over several sessions, so many documents that some were offered in bulk lots with minimal catalog description, requiring those interested to discern for themselves what might be lurking unnoticed inside the boxes.

In one grouping of “dozens and dozens” of European documents, Mr. Raab identified “one royal treasure after the next,” foremost among them a letter written by Louis XVI in France to George III in England—a year before the French king was guillotined—proposing a secret alliance that might have saved his life, and that of his wife, Marie Antoinette. Added to that were what he surmised to be the first written reports of the death on St. Helena of Napoleon, and of the autopsy that followed. Mr. Raab was not alone in his acumen, however; a rival bidder pushed the hammer price to $68,750, “the most expensive lot sold at the Christie’s auction that day,” but still a steal, it turned out, in the long run. “The greatest gem can be buried under a mountain of rock,” he concludes, his enthusiasm for the chase palpable in this diverting account of treasure hunting in the fast lane—a welcome addition to the genre.

—Mr. Basbanes’s latest book, “Cross of Snow: A Life of Henry ,” will be published in June.


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