Misrepresented Quality and Rarity

Sadly, it is not uncommon to find sellers of autographs who are not satisfied with the lily they have and try to gild it. They will praise the most routine letter as having good (if not amazing) content, label as important or incredible the most mundane manuscript, say a stained document is in choice extra fine condition, and tack the label “rare” onto everything they sell. Logically, we know that a letter simply turning down a speaking invitation cannot be considered interesting, no less have good content. Presidents signed untold thousands of documents appointing postmasters, and one naming John Doe the postmaster of Podunk cannot be important regardless of how it is labeled. A manuscript that is torn and stained is simply not in choice or fine condition. And very few items are actually rare. Some dealers and auctions just cannot seem to avoid slanting or mischaracterizing almost everything they offer in these ways. One of my clients once bought a routine content ALS of Benjamin Franklin from a dealer who characterized it as very rare (thus adding the implicit pressure that the buyer needed to act now before someone else took it). Yet on that same dealer’s website, contradicting his representations of rarity, were listed other Franklin ALS’s that he had carried (not to mention the Franklin letters we and other dealers and auctions had available). So skepticism must be the starting point in assessing representations.

It is true that not all calls about content and importance are clear-cut. For instance, if Alexander Graham Bell makes a passing reference to the telephone in a letter on another subject, does the letter have good content? If Jefferson mentions the Declaration of Independence in a letter but says nothing about it, does that? I would need to see the letters to make a judgment, but suspect that my answer as to Bell would be no and as to Jefferson, yes.

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