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Collecting Autographs - A Fascinating Hobby
( Article orginally published January 1963 )
Collecting autographs is one of the oldest hobbies. Much older for instance than collecting coins or stamps. Without autograph letters, much of the history of the world would not have been recorded. Cicero and Pliny were autograph hunters and experienced difficulty obtaining Caesar's autograph. Were it not for the great Lincoln Collection of Oliver R. Barrett, much of the biography of Abraham Lincoln as written by Ida M. Tarbell, Albert Beveridge, and Carl Sandburg would have been lost to the world.
An autograph collection provides more than pleasure to the owner. It is the flesh and blood out of which the history of an era is reconstructed. It is the essential tool for transmitting the thoughts, aspirations, and values of the past into the horizon of the present.
Quite apart from the social value, the personal satisfaction and exhilaration one feels in adding a highly prized letter or document to his collection meagers description. Within the past few months, I was fortunate to add the autograph of Stephen Foster, our great song writter, to my collection: It is one of the rarest of autographs and if you obtain one in your life time you are indeed lucky. I could have just shouted for joy of obtaining one. Other very rare examples in this country are Edgar Allan Poe, H. D. Thoreau, Israel Putnam, and Paul Revere.
Autographs fall into several classifications and each has its own rating in the market. Some autographs are mere signatures cut out of a book or letter and are known as "cut signatures." A signature on a document is of greater market value and is termed D. S. (Document Signed). A letter dictated to a secretary and signed by the author is an L. S. (Letter Signed). A letter written in long hand by the author and signed by him personally is called an A. L. S. (Autograph Letter Signed), As a rule this is the most valuable of all.
Perhaps 95% of all autographs would cost $20 or less. On the other hand, each one of the known signatures of William Shakespeare are valued at a million dollars or more
each if it were possible to obtain them. Here are those definitely known to have been in the handwriting of this great man:
Today there are five known copies of Lincoln's Gettysburg speech written in his own hand writing. The last copy sold for $125,000. Two copies are in the Library of Congress. A third copy belongs to the Illinois Historical Society Library. The fourth, though privately owned is destined for an institution. The fifth and final copy has been turned over to the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City. This bank is the executor of the estate of Oscar B. Cintas former Cuban ambassador to the United States. He bought the copy over 10 years- ago for $54,000. The manuscript was presented to the United States Government by the he:rs of Ciintas' estate. It has been placed in the Lincoln Room of the White House. The draft had originally been drawn up at the request of the historian George Bancroft to be auctioned for a benefit fair for the servicemen and their families in Baltimore in 1864. When no one bought it, it was turned over to Col. Alexander B1as of Baltimore, a collector of original manuscripts.
Many people collect, with great difficulty, the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. There are so few known autographs of Button Gwinett of Georgia, estimated at less than fifty, the cost of each puts them out of the range of most of us. Also Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton and John Penn are very scarce and expensive.
Actors, including motion picture actors, sports figures, inventors, iauthors of recent years, governors, and most statesmen are relatively inexpensive. It is not too expensive to make a collection of the autographs of most of our Presidents. I have the autographs of all our Presidents. Aside from about six, the cost was not too excessive.
Some of our great men and women have had their autographs forged, many of them expertly. However, long time and well-established dealers, such as those advertising in HIOBBIE,S, are able through historical knowledge by long study of handwriting, of paper, inks, and other trade knowledge are able to determine the authenticity of the autograph items.
A collection of autographs would be a poor investment indeed if we considered just the material reward which we might derive from it. The real value comes from the great men and women we meet. We meet Queen Isabella who financed Columbus on his expedliton when he discovered America. We meet Queen Elizabeth I, who knew Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh. We meet the great preacher Martin Luther. We read the letters of Napoleon and his wife Josephine. We read a tender letter from Benjamin Franklin to his wife Deborah.
We enjoy the letters written by Washington to his famous Generals during the Revolution, also the letters written by his Generals and the British Generals during the same period. A letter from Martha Washington and another by Marie Antoinette are exciting. We read from their own hand writing the views of government by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.
We read letters from the great medical leaders, Edward Jenner, John Hunter, Laennec, Pasteur, Koch, Lord Lister and Morton, the father of Anesthesia.
We feel sorry for Robert Fulton as he paces the streets of Paris, trying to sell his great invention of the steamboat after this country turned him down. We read Charles Darwin's letter to his sister explaining his theories of evolution. We meet the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon.
We roam the seas with Admiral Nelson, with Admiral Dewey and Admiral Farragut, who damned the torpedoes. We meet Generals Grant, Lee, Sherman, "Stonewall" Jackson, and all of the other great Generals of the Civil War.
We fly with Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindberg, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Amelia Earhart. We discover the North Pole with Peary and the South Pole with Amundson.
We read the letters from the bad men and women in our history such ias Aaron Burr, Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau and Mati Hari.
We feel sad when we read about the great baseball players whom I knew, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and the greatest pitcher of all Cy Young. These men have been in my home and I read and reread their letters. Cy was laid to rest in 1955 by the side of his beloved Bobba in a country cemetery near Peoli, Ohio. So it goes with 2000 letters, each having a different meaning, but any one worth more than any amount of money to me. These are my autographs, a hobby that means everything to me.