What Makes Autographs Valuable

I first got started in this field in 1985. At that time, I was like a kid in a candy store, buying without much discrimination whatever caught my eye. Over lunch a respected dealer gave me some unsolicited advice. “Buy fewer things,” he told me, “but make them the highest quality you can afford.” I was impressed, and began a search for the true meaning of quality that has defined my relationship to autographs and led me through analysis of dealer and auction catalogs by the thousands, uncountable purchases at both private and public venues, and innumerable conversations with knowledgeable enthusiasts. In the end, it would take me many years to fully understand the implications of the advice and its value. Here are the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Understanding Content and Importance

The content of a letter or manuscript, put simply, consists of what it says. But it is more; it is the creative product of the human mind. It can be illuminating, dramatic, incisive, artistic or comic; indeed it can carry any emotion or message. The content means everything to an autograph’s value, so determining the quality of that content is essential. We divide content into three essential grades of quality: good, medium and low. Although an in-depth study would show that there are micro-grades within these gradations, the 3-tiered system works perfectly for our purposes.

A good content letter or manuscript is one in which the writer either tells you something of great interest or significance about himself or a primary field of his endeavor, illustrates creativity in that field, or provides valuable descriptions or information about an important event. A medium content letter or manuscript is one which says something either of moderate interest or significance, or, though of greater interest, relates to matters or events outside of the writer’s primary field of endeavor. It offers nothing that could be considered especially valuable or creative. A low content letter or manuscript is merely an sample of the person’s writing. It has no real interest, is not creative, and says nothing significant or valuable. Some examples will illustrate what I mean.

We will start with letters. A letter of George Washington saying he is too busy to accept an invitation to dinner says nothing anyone benefits by knowing, so it has low content. A letter of his about farming would be somewhat interesting because it is germane to running his plantation at Mount Vernon, but since Washington is best remembered for his leadership as general and president (and not as a farmer), it would be considered of just medium quality. A letter of his from the Revolutionary War ordering his chief spy, Benjamin Tallmadge, to obtain information on enemy troop dispositions, has good content, as it is historically significant and directly relates to his performance as commander of the Continental Army. When Albert Einstein writes a letter about what compelled him to a life in science, that’s good content indeed. When he writes a letter to try and help a refugee obtain a teaching position in the U.S., that’s medium content. And when he sends thanks for birthday greetings, that’s low content. When Grover Cleveland pens a letter describing the nature of the presidency, that’s good content. When he writes about his oral surgery, that’s medium content. And when he sends a note about going fishing, that’s low content. A letter of a Civil War soldier writing home about camp life is routine and has low content, while one mentioning that he had seen President Lincoln would have medium content. A letter of his containing a first hand account of the Battle of Gettysburg is exciting and has good content (and may even shed new light on the event). And so it goes for everyone. Please note that not all good content letters are expensive, as these quality principles hold true regardless of price. For example, letters of oceanic explorer Robert Ballard are not costly, yet one in which he relates his emotions on first seeing the Titanic has just as good a content in his sphere as Washington’s war date letter has in his. When good content is present, it matters little whether a letter is completely handwritten and signed by the sender, or was signed by him though typed out or secretarially written. There is a caveat to this, however: for a letter to have good content under this last circumstance, it must be in the voice of the signatory, and thus be dictated by or at least expressive of him. High-sounding letters with moving, patriotic phrases drafted for a president’s mere signature, and form letters crafted by speechwriters or fundraisers for a celebrity to sign, do not qualify as having good content regardless of what they say.

Good content is equally key in manuscripts. The original handwritten notes that John Quincy Adams used for his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court may safely be said to have good content. Some of his poems, often written to ladies, would have medium content. His docket on the verso of a letter would have low content. A quotation of Jefferson Davis containing his legal justification for secession has good content, while his endorsement as Pierce’s Secretary of War recommending that someone supply blankets to the U.S. Army has low content (though if he was instead recommending the appointment of a person who later served the Confederacy, the content would be medium). When George Gershwin composes a musical manuscript, that’s the most creative content imaginable. If he wrote out a few bars of music, the content would be medium. If he gave an account of a minor business transaction, the content would be low. A Mark Twain short story would have good content; a humorous signed quotation would have medium content; a minor annotation on a newspaper article would have low content. When a Revolutionary War soldier’s journal about his experiences relates what he heard Washington say while directing his troops at Monmouth, that’s good content. If he wrote instead about the shortages the army was experiencing, the content would be medium. If, as often happens in old diaries, he mainly commented on the weather, content would be low. As with letters, good content does not mean the same thing as expensive. A brief reminder Mozart wrote so he would remember a meeting would be very expensive but have low content, while a diary from Woodstock might have great content and not be costly. Unlike letters, many manuscripts are unsigned, and collectors generally prefer signed items. The rule is that the better the manuscript’s content, the less it matters if a signature is absent. We once had a letter of President Polk with a detailed, handwritten account of the foreign policy measures that led to war with Mexico. His signature had been cut off, but its absence in this case scarcely mattered. However, on more routine handwritten manuscripts, like those brief poems John Quincy Adams so liked to write, a missing signature can be a real detriment. This is even truer of typed manuscripts, as if the entire paper is typed and there is neither annotation nor signature, there is really no autograph. Unsigned typed manuscripts (such as speeches and drafts) need to have some significant handwritten content to be valuable autographically, unless they are intrinsically important.

Documents often evidence a key moment in history or were the cause or result of a memorable event. Although few documents have content, some memorable ones do. The Declaration of Independence contains statements on individual rights and the purpose of government, and the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession spells out the causes for the breaking up of the Union. Thomas Edison’s patent papers for his invention of the phonograph have detailed technical content. Even a simple check would have content, if it evidenced a payoff being made from a gangster to one of the Black Sox in 1919. Generally, however, documents do not have content in the same way as letters or manuscripts. More frequently, they rely on intrinsic importance.

We now consider intrinsic importance, which may exist in the absence of content. Intrinsic means “of a thing’s essence,” so to qualify for inclusion here, what the autograph says is of secondary interest, but the paper itself must be significant. A document signed by a president appointing someone to a cabinet level or high military post would be intrinsically important; an example would be Abraham Lincoln’s appointment of Ulysses S. Grant to command the Union Army. An original U.S. Supreme Court decision signed by John Marshall has intrinsic importance regardless of the statements it makes. A simple receipt signed by Meriwether Lewis has intrinsic importance when it acknowledges receiving his pay for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  John F. Kennedy’s acceptance of the nomination of the Liberal Party for president in 1960, which supplied his margin of victory, is intrinsically important. Sometimes the most routine autographs have had a big impact on history and can meet this standard. A brief letter inviting President McKinley to visit the Pan American Exposition would have low content, but would be intrinsically important, as he was assassinated there. And as with good content, intrinsic importance and expensive are not synonyms. A receipt signed by Benjamin Franklin may be expensive but lacks any claim to importance, while Calvin Coolidge’s appointment of George Kennan to his first diplomatic post would be significant for starting his great career and yet not cost very much.

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