Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2009 Issue

An Authoritative Guide to Autograph Collecting Published by the Raab Collection

An exceptional guide for the autograph collector.


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.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED DISCHARGE. June 9, 1783. $8,000 - $12,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: RARE AUTOGRAPH OF AMERICAN NAVAL HERO CAPTAIN JAMES MUGFORD. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A SIGNED HART CRANE BROOKLYN BRIDGE POSTCARD TO EDWARD DAHLBERG. $600 - $800
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A STOCK CERTIFICATE SIGNED BY THE "QUEEN OF WALL STREET," HETTY GREEN. $700 - $900
  • Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: U.S. / European Shipping Archive 1800-1814. The Widow Bermingham & Sons Collection. €7,000 to €10,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Bunreacht na hÉireann. Constitution of Ireland. An important copy of the First Printing of De Valera’s new Constitution, approved in 1938. Signed by the Constitution Cabinet. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: A Rare Complete Run of the Cuala Press Broadsides. €7,000 to €9,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Grose (Francis). The Antiquities of Ireland, 2vols. folio London (for S. Hooper) 1791. Magnificent Hand-Coloured Copy - Only 25 Copies. €3,000 to €5,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Cantillon (Richard). Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, Traduit de l'Anglois, Sm. 8vo London (Fletcher Gyles) 1756. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Gregory, (Lady Augusta). Spreading the News: The Rising of the Moon: The Poorhouse (with Douglas Hyde). Being Vol. IX of the Abbey Theatre Series. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Lavery (Lady Hazel). A moving series of three A.L.S. and a Telegram to Gen. Eoin O'Duffy, July-August 1927, expressing her grief at the death of Kevin O'Higgins. €3,000 to €4,000.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Dampier (Wm.) Nouveau Voyage Autour du Monde, ou l'on descrit en particulier l'Isthme de l'Amerique…, 2 vols. in one, Amsterdam, 1698. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Howell (James). Instructions for Forreine Travel Shewing by what Cours, and in what Compasse of Time…, London, 1642. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s
    Summer Rare Book
    & Collectors’ Sale
    July 30-31, 2024
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 8vo, L. (Bloomsbury) 1999, First Edn., First Printing of Deluxe Collectors Edn. Signed. €800 to €1,200.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: James (Wm.) A Full and Correct Account of the Military Occurrences of The Late War Between Great Britain and The United States of America. 2 vols. Lond. 1818. €650 to €900.
    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: The Laws of the United States, Published by Authority, 3 vols. Philadelphia (Richard Folwell) 1796. €600 to €800.
  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.

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