Why Autographs Matter, and Why People Collect Them

The past defines the present, and history provides the window through which we view its incidents and personalities, determine its impact, and shape our understanding of where we are today. Historians play a key role in this process and strive to reconstruct the events of the past by bringing together diverse and often confusing information, identifying patterns, delving into meanings, and portraying individuals who rise to heights within their times. Though they may make use of original source material, the historian’s perspective is essentially top-down – seeing past events and the actors in them from the mountain peak of today’s viewpoint with a panorama of small objects distantly below.

“The past defines the present”

Autographs (by which we mean original letters, manuscripts and documents) reverse that perspective. They picture events in their contemporary context, without the lens of time and history, and present the men and women in their own day and setting, with their own outlook, without the intercession of the historian, or indeed anyone, as interpreter. They enable us to see and appreciate both the impact of people on events, and its corollary, the impact of circumstances on people. Broad and consequential currents of history are brought to the level of what one individual saw, thought, experienced or directed at a specific place and moment. And since that individual was often an important actor in the drama of his times, what he or she said or wrote matters. On the human level, as the great collector and dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach wrote over half a century ago, “Here are what individuals said they did when they did it, what they said they believed in when they believed in it.” Thus, autographs give us a unique access to the past and the tools to interpret that past, while also aiding us in assessing its impact on our present-day world.

The Raab Collection used to have a poem written by the artist and inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F.B. Morse, explaining that, from the perspective of the individual leaving the autograph behind, it afforded a chance to be remembered. He wrote, “There is a moral in an autograph. Man’s earthly life is limited to the span of threescore and ten, but all his acts have upon them the stamp of immortality, and even in the insignificant scratch that symbolizes his earthly name, is seen an example of a life that outlives him; that survives long after the hand that has written has mouldered to dust. ‘Verba scripta manent – the written word remains,’” he concluded, paraphrasing Pliny, the ancient Roman author and autograph collector.

But understanding and documenting history is not the only reason people collect autographs. A second is the desire to touch, to feel a connection to, an important figure from the past or event in which they participated. As Thomas Madigan, a renowned autograph dealer of yesteryear, stated, “Between the present and the past there exists no more intimate personal connection than an autograph. It is the living symbol of its author.” This fact stands out all the more when you consider the other artifacts a person leaves behind. The hat Ulysses S. Grant wore requires documentary proof for the acceptance of its genuineness and no man now living saw him wear it. There are in existence at least three pens said to have been used by Lincoln in signing the Emancipation Proclamation and no less than three suits of clothes said to have been worn by him at the time he was assassinated. How can we really know which of these, if any, were his? The same problem exists with the clothing of Franklin D. Roosevelt or a memento that is said to have hung in Woodrow Wilson’s office. And the purported hair of long-deceased notables that has become ubiquitous in the marketplace, who can be certain of that when all the person’s contemporaries, and most of the hair’s previous owners, are gone? But an autograph is tell-tale, and in a sense self-proving, and thus constitutes the most reliable intimate and personal link between the present and the past.

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