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The collector of autographs has one special advantage over almost all other collectors; an advantage, by the way, that he shares with the collectors of illuminated MSS. Every item in his collection is unique. No man or woman is in the habit of writing two letters in exactly similar form. At the outset let me say that by the collector of autographs I do not mean the collector of bare signatures. Signatures are all very well in their way and are interesting, but a signature cut from a letter has lost the larger part of its importance and has become little more than a curiosity.
In one of the books on autographs there is a story of a person who presented to a collector a bunch of signatures of Samuel Pepys, the diarist, stating that, for convenience of handling, he had cut them off from the letters because he thought that collectors only cared for signatures. As signatures they were worth a few shillings, the complete letters would have been worth many pounds each, and if they had been interesting letters, a very large sum.
There are circumstances, of course, where only signatures can be obtained. An old attendance book in connection with the Royal Society once came into the possession of an acquaintance of mine; it was nothing more than signatures, but he unwisely cut all the book up and put the signatures into his album in groups. There again a mistake was made, because they would have been much more important all kept together in one book. Occasionally, on documents, there are only signatures, but even those are much better kept on the documents to which they belong than cut out for a collector's album. But the real collector of autographs is not the autograph fiend who simply tries to obtain signatures, or purchase them, but the student who is on the look-out for complete letters or documents that have an historic or literary interest, and oftentimes there are treasures to be obtained.
Just now the demand is for letters connected with literary people, notably poets. One single letter of John Keats sold, in 1909, in the Haber collection, for five hundred pounds. It was, of course, an exceedingly important and interesting letter, but it only cost Mr. Haber about thirty pounds; and other letters sold at the same sale, although not realising such a price as this one, showed considerable advances on the prices Mr. Haber had originally paid for them. The life of Keats was short and so interesting that there will always be a great demand for his letters. Shelley's letters are almost as rare. Even an autograph receipt signed by Shelley fetched fifteen pounds only a little while ago. Swinburne's letters are rare, but autograph poems by Swinburne are a great deal more precious-the autograph of his poem "East to West" fetched about twenty pounds. An essay that he wrote on one of Shakespeare's plays sold for twenty pounds; but some of his MSS have fetched considerably more than that; for example, in a recent catalogue there was a MS. essay written in defense of certain of his writings, only six pages, priced at fifty-six pounds; and another, written in conjunction with Rossetti, was worth a hundred pounds.
Stevenson's letters are very much in request amongst collectors, and only a few weeks ago several were sold at Christie's for high prices, while for a MS. there was great competition and it fetched a very substantial figure, and it fell into the hands of an important American collector. There is always a steady demand for essays or poems by any of the noted English literary men of the eighteenth century, and as the supply is very limited, such prices are sure to increase year by year.
Letters from Dickens and Thackeray also fetch substantial prices, while autographs concerning Dr. Johnson are most eagerly desired and generally find their way to the other side of the Atlantic into a very famous Johnsonian collection, about which there was issued last year a privately printed catalogue containing details of the greatest interest. For this particular collection there has been gathered up almost everything that has come into the market about Dr. Johnson or Boswell, together with a vast number of autograph letters of persons who are mentioned in Boswell's "Life of Johnson," or who came into contact with Johnson himself or who had any practical or intimate connection with him.
Autograph collectors as a rule specialize, taking some particular period or person and endeavouring to collect everything relative to it. A favourite method of mounting autographs is to extra illustrate some well-known book. Fanny Burney's "Diary," the "Life of Sir Joshua Reynolds," the "Life of Garrick," Bryan's "Dictionary of Artists," and many similar works, are extended by collectors into numerous volumes by the addition of autograph letters written by persons referred to in their pages, accompanied in many cases by illustrations of the persons or of the scenes referred to in the volumes in question. Mounted up in this way autograph letters acquire very special interest. It is delightful to find in a volume about Lord Nelson some of his original dispatches, several of his letters to Lady Hamilton, perhaps a letter or two to his own daughter, and other correspondence concerning the great Admiral.
I remember only some short time ago seeing a volume on Napoleon, containing many of his letters mounted inside it, together with his own drawings for the arrangement of his troops, communications to his marshals, some of his own personal letters, and two remarkable ones addressed to the Empress Josephine. There are not many collectors who are in a position to carry out work of this kind, and in some cases a collection is simply contained within the covers of a collector's album, but the great thing is to obtain interesting letters and characteristic ones.
Some collectors specialize in the works of musicians. There was an amazing collection offered some time ago of autographs of Mendelssohn : over two hundred letters, many MS. scores, and all kinds of relics relative to the musician had been all brought together with a great deal of loving care, and then, at the death of the owner, were put into the market. Here was an opportunity in this collection of having a vast amount of unpublished material relative to Mendelssohn.
Some years ago I saw a beautiful letter from Cardinal Newman in which, at the request of a friend, he had written out the first verse of "Lead, kindly Light." This was a precious thing and was very highly valued by its owner. In a famous library in New York there is the original MS. of another hymn, "Rock of Ages," written out by Augustus Toplady, and, more important still, Heber's original draft for " From Greenland's icy mountains," written on the vestry paper of the church where the hymn was first sung. No one is surprised that there is great competition for documents of that sort and that collectors are glad to pay substantial prices for them.
There is a great demand for autograph correspondence by William Penn, and perhaps an even greater demand for autograph letters by Washington. There are several American collectors who strive to obtain a specimen of the handwriting of every one of the persons who signed the Declaration of Independence. Of that of one of the signers I believe it is impossible to get anything, and of another only one or two signatures are known ; but of several of them there are letters to be obtained, and these, of course, have a very special interest to the collector on the other side of the Atlantic.
Then there are collectors who go very much farther back than the days of Penn and Washington for their special treasures. Some time ago the most important letter written by Cardinal Pole came into the market and fetched, if I am not mistaken, nearly fifty pounds, and documents relating to his period are always in demand.
Possibly, some day or the other, some of the long lost love-letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn may be recovered. They were sent out to Rome and some are still to be seen in the Vatican library, but no one knows for certain what has become of the best. It is very seldom that anything more than signatures of the Tudor Kings of England can be obtained. A few holograph letters of Queen Elizabeth are known, but as a rule the body of her letters was in someone else's handwriting, and she only supplied the famous square signature with its elaborate flourishes, which is so well known. Hers was, perhaps, the most wonderful and striking signature of any of the English Sovereigns.
Some writers alter their handwriting according to the period of their life. There were two distinct handwritings of Thackeray's. There are several very varying signatures of Charles Dickens. In 1830 there was no flourish under his name; in 1831 a simple double flourish, which became more florid in the following year and increased in the number of strokes year by year, until, in 1837, there were seven distinct loops underneath the signature. Then suddenly, in the next year, he altered the position of these loops, and instead of their being under the letter "C" and to the left of the signature, they all appear at the other end of the signature under the word "Dickens," and so they continued down to his decease, although towards the latter part of his life he made them much more loosely, irregular, gradually diminishing flourishes. Collectors need to know something of these peculiarities, because sometimes letters by Dickens and Thackeray and men of that kind are forged, and the forger has to be detected.
The study of forgeries is quite another subject. If I were to deal with the Ireland forgeries or the Chatterton forgeries, I should more than fill the space at my disposal. Autograph letters have been discovered in all kinds of curious places. There was a wonderful discovery of famous documents in a loft over a stable at Belvoir Castle. Some of the most important historical MSS. in England had been lost sight of, and were found in this place. Some wonderful documents were once found in a paper mill, whither they had been sent for destruction, and very often, in turning out family papers, bundles of letters have been discovered that had been quite overlooked, and which turned out to be of considerable value and high historical importance. Executors and others who have to wind up estates are bound to look very carefully through letters that are left behind, on the possible chance of there being" something quite valuable amongst family papers. Sometimes it involves a great deal of work with very little results. I remember having to go through the papers of the lady for whom I was executor, and finding very little amongst hundreds of letters she had kept, but my search was eventually rewarded, and I was glad that I had waded through a mass of rubbish because later on I came upon some correspondence that was distinctly of importance.