Presidential autographs can be worth collecting

Andrew Leckey

January 15, 1993|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

Inflation takes effect immediately in at least one area the very moment Bill Clinton becomes president:

The value of his signature more than doubles.

A pre-presidential Bill Clinton signature is worth about $65. Few Clinton signatures have been collected, for he didn't really look like a good bet to become president until last summer.

The signatures Clinton writes as president, however, will be valued at a more impressive $150.

Of course, no one can guarantee whether that value will rise or fall in the future. A lot has to do with the length of Clinton's presidency and the significance of his actions.

Because Americans have an ongoing romance with history and the political process, there's somewhat of a boom under way in signatures and autographs of the "right" former U.S. presidents. They range in price from modest to extravagant.

From a collector standpoint, a signature is a signed name with no written content, while an autograph is a handwritten document or letter, which can be signed or unsigned. Scarcity, content and historical significance of the item make the difference.

Two autographs of Abraham Lincoln recently brought enormous prices at auction.

An early version of the Lincoln doctrine, "A house divided against itself cannot stand . . " sold for a record $1.5 million at Sotheby's in New York. Meanwhile, an autograph album in which Lincoln wrote the sentence that begins, "With malice toward none; with charity for all . . ." sold for $1.3 million at Christie's.

"Presidential signatures are the most popular of collectibles in the historical field, because it's still possible to get a complete collection of all the presidential signatures for about $25,000," said Herman Darvick, president of Herman Darvick Autograph Auctions Inc. in New York.

"Hottest" presidential signatures are Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln and Washington signatures bring $3,000, Jefferson $1,000. Some handwritten notes from Franklin Roosevelt amending his will sold for $27,500 at Sotheby's last spring.

A signature of John Kennedy is worth about $300, due to his ongoing popularity and the shortness of his presidency. An ordinary JFK letter to a constituent during his days as a congressman or senator commands $750, while the lowest price for a letter written when he was president is about $1,500.

"The context of the autograph, in terms of date, time and place and its contents mean everything to its value," said Raleigh DeGeer Amyx, a Gainesville, Va., historian and collector of more than 1,000 presidential items, including a land survey written by a 17-year-old Washington, valued at $30,000.

George Bush's signature today is worth $50 to $70, about the same as a signature of former President Ronald Reagan. Signatures of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford go for somewhat less. A book signed by Jimmy Carter brings about $100, while a copy of the Warren Report signed by Ford is typically $200.

Although presidential candidate Ross Perot's signature reached a high of $100 last year, no one expects it to be worth much in

the future, because third-party signatures never have done well. dTC For example, John Anderson's signature is $5 today, and George Wallace's signatures have never been worth much, either.

Study history, read periodicals, visit collector shops and go to auctions to become an informed collector. Take your time.

"Collecting must first be based on historical curiosity or appreciation, and I would advise any collector to buy the best he can afford on his budget," said Selby Kiffer, vice president of Sotheby's books and manuscript department.

Be realistic in expectations for price appreciation.

"I think it's scary that everyone wants a Bill Clinton autograph now and is willing to pay so much for it," said Joe Kraus, founder of the magazine Autograph Collector, 510-A South Corona Mall, Corona, Calif. 91720, which charges a $38 annual subscription price for 12 issues. "If the general excitement about Clinton subsides, it won't be good news for those investors."

Darvick holds auctions in New York of more than 300 signatures or autographs six times a year. Mailed and faxed bids are accepted. For a $75 catalog subscription, write to Herman Darvick Autograph Auctions, P.O. Box 467, Dept. A.L., Rockville Centre, New York, N.Y. 11571.

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