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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Autographs And Historical Letters

( Orginally published 1962 )



A crippled artist found an old piece of paper-and sold it for $51,000. Not because it was just any piece of paper, but because scrawled across it was the most famous signature in the world, the signature of Button Gwinnett.

To most people, the name Gwinnett simply means another signer of the Declaration of Independence, but to autograph collectors, the signature is the one most famous and most rare in all the world, so rare that the price paid for a Gwinnett keeps going up and up, and the end is nowhere in sight.

Over a comparatively short number of years the price of a Gwinnett signature has gone from a little over $4,000 to over $50,000 and, as the years go on, the autograph will become even more rareand the price will continue to rise.

One reason that the Gwinnett is so sought after is the fact that autograph collectors prize greatly a complete set of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it is the Button Gwinnett signature which most of them lack, because it is so rarely found.

Yet there are other collections which the autograph hound seeks diligently, and among these sets are those of the signers of the Constitution. A complete set of autograph letters of the signers is valued at approximately $25,000.

Single examples of the autographs of the signers of the Constitution can also bring fabulous prices-such as the autograph of Thomas Lynch, which has been known to bring $5,000 to the seller.

Prices vary, of course, on most autographs, since this is a collectors' market and in most cases the price a signature will bring in the open market or in an auction depends on the demand, yet, often, if the autograph is rare enough and the specimen is good, the value soars out of sight.

Rare autographs can be hidden away anywhere, waiting for you to find them. In an old trunk in your attic, tied up in a perfumed array of old love letters, hidden between the pages of a book; hidden almost any place small enough for a piece of paper, a letter or an old bill to remain unseen for a day, a month or a year; hidden until such time as the treasure hunter happens across it.

Most important, of course, in a search of this type is knowing which autographs are rare and valuable. There are those that are important because they are Americana and rare-and dear to us because they represent a part of our history-such as Gwinnett and Lynch. There are others, also rare and also sought after, such as Morton and Middleton, and Heywood and Hart.

From other nations, too, come autographs of vast importance to the treasure hunter, and one of these is the signature of Sir Francis Drake. Any scrap of paper, any book, anything upon which this great Englishman signed his name is worth checking by the treasure hunter, because the autograph of Sir Francis Drake is one of the most highly prized autographs in the world.

Also from England comes the signature of the blind poet, John Milton. His autograph, sought by collectors all over the world, is considered rare. It is ironic that this man, who sold his greatest work, Paradise Lost, for a measly $50, is today not only respected for his great poetry, but for his signature, which he undoubtedly scrawled on many papers-his letters, his daily notes, his memos on the state of the Puritans of Cromwell's England.

And where are the autographs of Milton? They could be anywhere. Autographs are found in the oddest places and are passed over year after year because the average person does not recognize them for what they are.

One of these unsung autographs might well be that of Sir Thomas More, who lived during the time of Henry VIII. Thomas More was the statesman who dreamed of a better life and told about it in Utopia. He told of a land where all men were equal, both in labor and rights, and every man was respected and human dignity inherent. Today, just his autograph would satisfy the treasure hunter, because it is one of the highest priced in the autograph field.

There was also, in a later time, another historically important figure whose name, today, cries out for recognition to all hunters of lost treasure because her signature has become one of the most highly prized autographs of all time. Yet, within her own lifetime, when her name was set to paper by her own hand, it was unknown -even to the man she murdered.

She sent two letters to Jean Paul Marat, the fanatic who led the people of France through a revolutionary blood bath that even now stains the memory of the glory of France.

Not knowing who she was, Marat at first refused her admittance, and when he finally did allow her to enter his room, he was in the bathtub. She sat quite close to him and watched him as he bathed. Hidden in her scarf was a dagger.

She spoke softly to him, telling him only the things he wanted to hear, promising him a new list of names of royalists for the guillotine. He listened quietly, not noticing that she moved closer and closer as she spoke. When she was quite close to him she stabbed him.

For this "crime" she was guillotined, and of her courage even her enemies said, "She has killed us, but she teaches us how to die."

This woman who killed so justly and died so bravely was named Charlotte (de) Corday. It is this signature that we must remember, yet we must also keep in mind that she was born Marie Anne Charlotte Corday d'Armans, and her signature may be written either way. There quite probably would be a difference in value in the two signatures, because, while they are the same woman, it is as Charlotte Corday that she became famous.

Also, of course, in any history of autographs, the practitioners of the arts cannot be forgotten. A man of music, the younger Bach left signatures which are highly sought.

In the world of art the autograph probably most highly regarded is that of a young man who lived in the 1500s, a man who had many names, and who is remembered by his people for many things. Even in his own lifetime he was loved by the people of Italy, and today they remember him as the son of a painter and poet, from a place called Urbino which was nothing more than a hill, bleak and isolated in the midst of desolate mountains.

They remember him as the young pupil of Perugino, of Perugia, where he painted his first pictures. They remember him as the youth who listened enraptured to the rumors in the air, fantastic rumors of two painters from Florence. Unusual painters, these, for one painted with his left hand and one gazed at his work over the bridge of a crooked and broken nose.

And when the young man went to Florence to see for himself the left-handed da Vinci and his competitor, the broken-nosed Michelangelo, the Florentines called him the "Youthful Master."

Today not only his countrymen but all the world remember him for the art he produced: the "Disputa del Sacramento," the "School of Athens," the unsurpassable "Jurisprudence," and many othersaltogether over two hundred of the world's greatest paintings.

Yet the searcher for lost autographs is not interested, primarily, in the works of art which this man produced nor in what he was called-still, it is a strange thing that he was known by many names.

His last name was Sanzio, but it was also written Santi. The Italians who loved him called him Raffaelle. They also called him Raffaello. But his paintings as well as his writings he signed merely: Raphael.

Raphael, More, Corday, Gwinnett, Lynch, and so on down the list of fabulous autographs, whatever the signature, it is there waiting to make a fortune for you-if you can find it.

A LETTER written by Ulysses S. Grant sold for $910-yet the usual price for a Grant letter is around $10.

Two letters written by Abraham Lincoln brought over $1,000 at auction-yet the usual Lincoln letter is only worth a couple of hundred dollars.

A letter by George Washington could bring as high as $1,000yet a Washington letter is usually worth only about $100.

Why? What is there about a certain letter, a certain scrawled memo, a certain written word, that raises its value out of the ordinary?

In the case of the Grant letter, Ulysses S. Grant, as a dutiful son, was informing his father that he was joining the United States Army. The letters by Lincoln were not just any letters. They were letters that were of historical importance to our nation. Lincoln was writing of history as it was being made.

A letter by Washington could bring $1,000 if it spoke of the actions of his colleagues, the events of the war with England, or any other historical episode of his period.

It is the historical value of such letters as these which raises their value. Their contents speak of times and things which are past; yet, if we can read about them in the handwriting of the men who actually lived them, how much more vivid these times are to us.

These letters of historical significance are always important items to watch for. Many times there are little-known or forgotten episodes or whole periods of history which have been told in the form of correspondence between one friend and another.

Imagine the value of a letter from Washington which might read, "Tonight I am going to cross the Delaware." Or a letter from Lincoln which might read, "Tomorrow I am going to free the slaves." These letters, of course, are purely imaginary; yet, letters of equal historical importance have been found in the past, and will be found again by some lucky treasure hunter who just happens to look in the right place at the right time.

There will be letters found which are similar in historical significance. Today there are already many examples of letters of this type in the museums of the nation and in the hands of the collectors, letters telling of history as it happened.

The Spanish text of a unique historical letter is now owned by the New York Public Library. This letter is probably one of the most important in the world as regards historical content, for it was in this letter that Christopher Columbus announced that he had discovered a new world.

Letters have been found from all sorts of people. Letters by Mary Lincoln have been found, speaking of the episodes of her husband's life, his times, his political and spiritual ideals.

There is a letter written by Americus Vespucius to his father, which is now in the British Museum.

Not all of the famous letters have been found, however. There are letters which we do not even know exist-letters which will remain undiscovered until the lucky treasure hunter finds them hidden away in old trunks and attics or slipped between the pages of a book.

Historical importance, however, is not the only thing which can raise the value of the handwritten word. Many other factors must also be taken into consideration.

A second-hand copy of Beale's History of the Sperm Whale sold for $2,200-yet a second-hand copy of the same book is usually worth only about a dime.

This second-hand copy of Beale's History of the Sperm Whale was on the face of it certainly worth only a dime, but scrawled across its pages were notes made by an author who was using this copy of the book as a textbook for a novel that was to become a classic. The author was Herman Melville; the novel was Moby Dick.

The book of itself was worthless, but the working notes of a master novelist made it of value.

Notes by famous authors on their works, marginal notes on documents, notations, and memos may all be of value-if they are in some way related to a great event, a great person, or a great work, and if they are in the handwriting of a famous person.

One other missive which should not be overlooked is the love letter. A packet of love letters from the famous people of another day can be of great value to the lucky finder.

Diaries must also be kept on the treasure hunter's list. Many men and women have kept diaries, from some of which we may glean an insight into the past.

There are missing diaries written by men and women who lived during exciting periods of history. These diaries would be invaluable-if you could find them.

Watch for letters, diaries, notes, and memos written during periods of revolution or war. Look for items penned during any of the periods of great upheaval in the world's history. Make sure that they are written by famous people or written by someone who knew and associated with the famous.

Watch for these writings in second-hand stores, in junk shops, and at auctions. Search for them in the attics and cellars of old houses. Old books are a common hiding place for letters-either tucked between the pages or in the binding. Or sometimes, as in the case of Herman Melville and Beale's History of the Sperm Whale, the valuable notations are right on the pages of the book itself.

If it is handwritten, and important enough, you can trade a book, a packet of yellowed letters, or a forgotten memo for a fortune.