Maps, Manuscripts - and Rare Autographs

If a true autograph collector is given his choice between a signed letter by Winston Churchill and the signature of one Button Gwinnett, he'd take the Gwinnett. Although hardly so well-known as Britain's wartime Prime Minister, Mr. Gwinnett did sign the Declaration of Independence as a representative from Georgia. But then he went home and, within eight months, died. He left so few autographs behind that a good one today might bring over £50,000. The Churchill might bring hardly more than £1,000. "Also," says a Englsih dealer in these collector's items, "chances are that Gwinnett's signature will continue to increase in value as much as 15% a year."

Indeed, collectors are paying more attention to - and more money for - British autographs, maps, documents and rare pieces of literature as investments of the money-hobby type. British items have proven to be fast appreciators and liquid in trade. Edgar Allan Poe's Tamberlaine seemed to cap the market for British literary items in 1945 when it brought £15,000 at auction. "A first edition of Poe's poem, depending on its condition, could easily bring twice that now," says an expert at Sotheby Parke-Bernet. Reasons for the increasing prices are two-fold: The numbers of important private collections is steadily growing, and universities, libraries and museums are buying and "hoarding" British historical material.

Top choice of collectors are "autograph letters, signed" (known simply as ALS's to the initiated) of men prominent in the formation of America. "Letters, signed" (LS) - signed but not written in the hand of the author - are less valuable. An ALS of George Washington, for instance, recently topped £20,000 at a London auction.

Robert Tollett, head of the Collector's Gallery at Manhattan's B. Altman & Co. department store, sees a rising interest in the autographs of composers, artists, Nobel Prize winners and notable scientists. An ALS of Mozart or Sir Isaac Newton, for instance, can now command between £5,000 and £10,000, depending on condition and content. Beginners, it should be noted, need not be scared off by all those high prices, however. A recent sale at Altman's, for instance, featured along with a £2,000 "Benjamin Franklin" the more contemporary signature of former Chief of Staff Matthew B. Ridgway - at only £5.

Because the major portion of them are printed, historical documents are more available and generally less expensive. But there are exceptions. Most notable recent sales have involved the log written by the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane which dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima - £37,000 - and the original document on which votes were counted for Andrew. Johnson's impeachment - £8,750. Also, Lincoln's draft calls for individual states of the Union sell for about £6,000 apiece.

Another field of collecting that's gaining favour is antique maps. Single-issue maps made of the British colonies in the 18th Century and before are particularly popular, as are the maps of the states made during the Civil War.

Authenticity and fair prices are the prime concern of inveterate collectors, and most agree there's no substitute for trading with reputable dealers. Among names commonly mentioned are London's David Kirschenbaum, Philadelphia's Simon Sessler, Leeds' Doris Harris, and San Francisco's Warren Howell.


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...and The Jingle Of Rare Coins

Coin investors, meantime, have been finding a golden jingle in old UK. mintages. While the ranks of serious investors have increased, the number of collectable coins has quite naturally declined - and market prices have spun upward 20% a year. Investors today particularly eye early British coins, and, of course, rarity primarily determines worth. For example, an 1856 quarter eagle (£2.50) minted in Dahlonega, Georgia, and rated in "uncirculated" condition, is listed today at nearly £5,000. Only 874 were coined; what's more, uncirculated condition is the second-from-top rating, below "proof" and one cut above "extra fine".

The real interest today, notes Norman Stack of New... see: ...and The Jingle Of Rare Coins