Rare Book Monthly
An Authoritative Guide to Autograph Collecting Published by the Raab Collection
By Michael Stillman
The Raab Collection has published a book we highly recommend to anyone who collects, or has an interest in collecting autographs. The Raab Collection is the Philadelphia based autograph dealer that handles the highest level of signed items, particularly in the field of Americana. They have created a guide for autograph collectors that is filled with the knowledge and practical experience of Steven Raab, who has been collecting autographed documents for 50 years. That knowledge is essential for those entering this field, as autograph collecting not only has its great rewards, but its particular risks, most notably, forgery.
The title of this book is In The Presence of History, with the subtitle The Authoritative Guide to Historical Autographs For Collectors, History Enthusiasts and Investors. Now, here is one important clarification. "Autographs" don't simply mean signatures, but include letters, manuscripts and documents, signed by or in the hand of the creator. This guide is filled with the information you need to make intelligent choices about what to buy, where to buy, and how to authenticate what you are buying. Along the way, it is also filled with historical information, tales of treasure hunting, and an extensive section on U.S. presidential autographs.
Autograph collecting is particularly exciting for those with a keen sense of history. Not only do they provide a personal connection to the historic figures who wrote their words and names, they provide an insight into their lives unvarnished by the opinions of historians. A historian may interpret what Washington believed about the issues of his day, but an autographed manuscript can tell you what Washington actually said. It once more gives a voice to people who may have been psychoanalyzed, interpreted, and reinterpreted to the point that their actual thoughts have been lost.
Raab opens with a look back in history. One of the earliest to appreciate the autograph was Aristotle, who was a collector. Of course, autographs, in their broader meaning of handwritten documents, were the source of most information before the invention of the press. Alexander the Great founded the great library at Alexandria, which was massively expanded by his successors, the Ptolemys. At its peak, the library may have had as many as 700,000 manuscripts. In time, the library was destroyed, the Roman Empire fell, and every manuscript from antiquity disappeared. That is an astonishing reality, but nothing from the library at Alexandria or ancient Greece survives. Nor do originals from biblical times. All of these works are known only through copies made many centuries later. The oldest surviving manuscript that may have been written by a notable person is a letter from Simon Bar Kochba, leader of the last Jewish revolt against the Romans, which led to their long banishment from the Holy Land. This document goes back only to the 130s AD.
With the fall of Rome and the millennium long Dark Ages, autograph collecting was limited to cloistered monks, who fortunately copied many deteriorating old manuscripts. It was not until well into the Renaissance that collecting picked up again. It rekindled in 17th century Europe. In America, it took longer. There was little interest prior to the 1830s, but collecting became popular during the Jackson administration. Within a few decades the popularity became so great that notable figures, such as presidents, could no longer keep up with the demand. By 1857, Raab notes, Longfellow reported sending out 70 responses in one day to autograph seekers. The field was now well established.
The guide next goes into all of the details of assessing autographs, far too much for us to summarize here. Here is one: the importance of a document is critical to value, though many items may bear the signature of an important person. For example, everyone appreciates the famed signature of John Hancock. The result is even a lesser item such as a signed business receipt of Hancock goes for around $3,500. An appointment by Hancock as Governor of Massachusetts might be worth $6,000, while such an appointment made as President of the Continental Congress in 1776 should sell for $13,000. Finally, there is the extraordinary document, such as Hancock's appointment of Benedict Arnold as a major general, which sold for $75,000 in 2002.