The Impact of Condition
Another factor affecting the value of autographs is condition. A significant condition problem will reduce the value of an autograph, even one of high quality. I want to stress, however, that a condition problem needs to be serious in order to affect value. I am not in agreement with people who avoid autographs with small flaws or limit their collecting to perfect or near perfect examples. It seems to me they are missing what really matters, and are chasing a phantom of perfection unconnected to the autograph, the history it represents or its true worth. Two examples will illustrate my point. Recently a collector contacted us looking for a Thomas Edison letter, and we had a very good one. After initially being excited, he turned it down because it had been folded too many times (it did, after all, have to fit into the small envelopes Edison liked to use). Another person admired an extraordinary and very uncommon World War I era signed photograph of Winston Churchill. The picture and signature were perfect, but he passed because of a small crease at the upper left hand corner of the mat (one that I hadn’t even noticed until he pointed it out). Both pieces went to collectors who were not at all bothered by these so-called “flaws.”
Significant condition problems do affect value, and some examples will illustrate the impact they can have. Medium content letters of George Washington written during the Revolutionary War are getting scarce but are by no means rare. In fine condition, one might be worth $25,000. Now add a large water stain that detracts, and since collectors have alternative options, this ones value might drop to $15,000. If there is also a piece missing that causes the loss of a few words, it might fetch $10,000. As the Bard said, “What a falling off was there!” A ship’s passport signed by Thomas Jefferson as president and James Madison as secretary of state would be worth about $6,500 in fine condition. If there is some discoloring, that might lessen to $4,500. If Jefferson’s signature is light due to significant mildew, the price could be $2,000 or even less.
It must be noted that there are three exceptions to this analysis on the role of condition, and they are often related: uniqueness, extraordinary importance and true rarity. If the Washington letter in our example was addressed to the Continental Congress and accepted its offer of the supreme command of the American army, then it would be both unique and extraordinarily important (to say the least), and be desirable regardless of condition. We had a somewhat faded letter of Robert E. Lee to George Meade that crossed the battle lines at Gettysburg, in which he asked about the safety of a Mississippi colonel wounded in Pickett’s Charge. It was an example of uniqueness, as no other Lee letter from Gettysburg remained in private hands, though without extraordinary importance. It generated excitement despite condition. An example of extraordinary importance without uniqueness would be a stained document of Franklin D. Roosevelt appointing a Supreme Court justice (he appointed eight). As for true rarity, I am not referring to autographs that are merely uncommon and nice to find, like Civil War date ALS’s of Stonewall Jackson. I mean autographs like those of Christopher Columbus or Shakespeare, where just finding one would be a news-making event. Condition would simply be a minor matter.