Collecting autographs? UM has an Agnew for you University archives offers signed photos for a mere $50

April 04, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Pssst. Longing for an autograph of an controversial vice president?

The signature of Aaron Burr -- traitor, killer of Alexander Hamilton and the nation's third vice president -- might set you back $500 or more. But archivists at the University of Maryland College Park will sell you a photograph of a more recently disgraced vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, with the scrawl of the man himself, for a mere $50.

There are no plans in the works to sell campaign posters, cuff links, golf balls or anything else resembling a line of Agnew accessories, said Lauren R. Brown, curator of the university library's archives and manuscripts department. The archives has thousands of prints of stock photographs lying around, and Mr. Agnew is willing to sign them, Mr. Brown said.

"This is sort of an open-ended arrangement," Mr. Brown said. "It's not so much an effort to market these photographs or something from the collection as it is to respond to individuals seeking autographs."

The university stepped in at the request of Mr. Agnew, 77, who said he could not keep up with the more than 100 requests he receives each month for autographs.

So far, about 20 signed photographs have been sold, Mr. Brown said.

Some who study politics for a living at the University of Maryland's flagship campus were less than enthralled with the archives' salesmanship.

"I guess some people are willing to pay something to have a signed picture of anyone," sighed Paul S. Herrnson, an associate professor of government and politics. "It just goes to show how strapped the university has been and how badly it needs better support from the state."

A former Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor, Mr. Agnew was a controversial figure from the earliest days of Richard M. Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign.

As the vice presidential candidate, Mr. Agnew advocated a hard line against counterculture protesters. But he left the Nixon administration in disgrace in 1973, resigning as federal prosecutors sought to convict him of accepting bribes while in office in Maryland. He pleaded "no contest" to one charge of income tax evasion.

Yet interest lingers in the reclusive Mr. Agnew, now of Rancho Mirage, Calif. And it appears to have picked up, Mr. Brown said, in the wake of three events last year: Mr. Nixon's death, the unveiling of a bust of Mr. Agnew at the U.S. Senate and the return to public view of his gubernatorial portrait in Annapolis.

"Some of the best autographs are the autographs of scoundrels," said Richard Hall, manager of Harris Auction Galleries in Baltimore. "Jesse James' [signature], if you could find it, would be a wonderful one to have." A few years ago, Mr. Hall said, the gallery received more than $500 for a signature by Aaron Burr.

He said any price under $100 for Mr. Agnew's signature is reasonable.

The gift shop at the Jimmy Carter Center and Museum in Atlanta sells signed copies of the former president's 1994 book, "The Turning Point," for $10 above the suggested retail price. Mr. Carter autographs other books sent through the separate Carter Center without charge -- one per person, a center spokeswoman said.

At the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., customers pay $150 for signed copies of his books. The books are hot sellers, said Carolyn Mente, manager of the Reagan bookstore, and all of the money reverts to the library.

The money earned from the 1960s and 1970s vintage photographs of Mr. Agnew -- $15 unsigned, $50 signed -- goes entirely into department coffers, Mr. Brown said. It helps to pay for student researchers who are sorting through some of the 1.5 million Agnew papers that have not yet been released. The university made public about one-quarter of the collection in 1993.

Mr. Agnew has withheld some documents, and the rest of the collection is not believed to contain any bombshells.

Since leaving office, according to published reports, Mr. Agnew has traded heavily on contacts built up as vice president to build an international consulting practice that has paid him well.

Yesterday, he fended off a reporter's call to his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., saying, "I'm a very busy man."

Then he hung up.

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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