Anyone watching the autograph market knows that a down economy is a good time to pick up bargains, even with presidential autographs. Ironically, general price reductions may disguise some of the best values and smartest moves open to collectors. Even when bargains appear everywhere it is worth looking for material that is undervalued—not just underpriced.
The best material for historic autographs, particularly presidents, are items with some interesting content. The difference between a thank you letter and a letter mentioning an historic event can be significant in building a valuable collection. Not all good letters mention famous events but many are interesting if you do the research to understand their significance. I have seen plenty of cases of good letters simply being lumped together by sellers and buyers alike as just a simple autograph.
It is not enough to assume that a recession makes every piece a good buy. You also need to consider the market for individual presidents. Understanding how the market can change around an individual president may help you find those better pieces and great buying opportunities. Here are three examples of market changing events.
The Loss of One Specialist
The autograph market is relatively small. A significant change in supply or demand will have a sudden impact on the quality of material and the pricing. Franklin Roosevelt’s autograph is a wonderful example of how one big change can temporarily affect the market.
For many years, one very focused collector had been removing FDR memorabilia, including autographs, from the market. He stopped collecting last year and his massive private collection, one of the finest in the country, was sold. The auction sale was conducted by Heritage Auction Galleries and covered two full catalogs over a six month period.
The auction was not merely a large collection but a collection of only one president. The sale meant the sudden flooding of the FDR market and one less premier collector willing to buy. Prices naturally fell. Add that on top of a general softening of prices, and the normal movement of FDR material to the autograph market from other sources, and now collectors have almost boundless opportunity—but only for a short time.
Signed photos can be found for almost half what they brought a few years ago, non-presidential handwritten letters can be bought for what a better than average presidential letter cost two years ago. Perhaps most important though is that interesting letters from all periods are available at good prices. The flood has softened some of the normal pricing distinctions between a routine letter and an interesting letter with some content. That means, for just a little more money, you can pick up something with content. Letters with great content and war related material still stick out and are able to maintain a high premium in pricing.
In perhaps another year or two collectors can expect two changes. The supply flood will recede and there will almost certainly be one or two new FDR specialists who will be chasing the better items. This will drive prices back up and remove some of the better material from the market.
A Passing Generation
A president’s autograph seems to go through a predictable cycle. While in office, it is the new “must have” signature. Supply is at its lowest and usually only found in photographs and minor souvenir items. Prices are high. When presidents leave office they are more likely to answer their mail, sign photographs, books and other material for collectors. They almost flood their own autograph market. (Does anybody not have a Gerald Ford autograph?) The supply of routine material spikes and prices start to drop for non-presidential material. Then, after a few years, the “sorting out” phase begins.
“Sorting out” involves gaining a better understanding of how much material may be out there and how much of it may be real. For the real history collector the opportunities for valuable pieces begin to emerge as the president’s friends and political colleagues begin to pass away. This always brings to market some of the personal and official letters that often contain the most interesting content.
Richard Nixon’s autograph may be experiencing the classic opportunity of a passing generation. Nixon material seems to be in the early to middle part of that phase. Several archives from members of Congress and long-time supporters have come to market in recent years. More will be coming. Several autopen guides and short signature studies have helped to distinguish his real signature from secretaries and autopens. More work is needed though and collectors should only buy Nixon material from reputable sources who will stand behind their material.
The early judgment on Nixon is that as president he signed very few letters to the general public. However, it appears that he signed—mostly initialed—a great many letters to political figures and friends. The political letters as president are often form letters thanking members of Congress for votes on legislative matters or comments about key events. While they are somewhat formal they are personally signed White House letters mentioning key events. There is even material mentioning vietnam and foreign affairs, although those pieces will still maintain a healthy premium. There is very little material referencing or even alluding to his problems surrounding Watergate. The big downside with Nixon’s presidential letters is most were only signed with his “RN” initials.
Don’t overlook his pre-presidential letters. These may be the most interesting material and are being passed over in favor of the ready supply of White House letters. Many of the pre-presidential letters have some content or show a personal side typically not seen in Nixon letters, especially after he became president. The added advantage of those earlier letters is that they were often signed with his full name or at least “Dick” and almost never just with his initials.
When History Changes Her Opinion, Prices Will Also Change
When a president’s “historic ranking” starts to move, prices often move with him—usually in the same direction. Dwight Eisenhower is beginning to show signs of rediscovery as his presidency undergoes some positive reevaluation.
The ’50s once looked like an exhibition of Norman Rockwell paintings—nice people frozen in a different age. It is now being viewed as a more active period of transition which set the stage for the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. The civil rights movement, space exploration, Vietnam, Cuba, struggles in the Middle East, America as an economic superpower and even the political leadership of the ’60s and ’70s are all understood more clearly by looking at the 1950s
Eisenhower, an aging and ailing old general, was viewed as an amiable president who set more of a national mood than a national agenda. Eisenhower is now being seen as a more engaged president managing complicated problems.
Ike was not a profound writer but increasingly collectors are able to find well written letters with decent content revealing his thinking and leadership style. One exception still seems to be presidential letters dealing with foreign affairs or Korea. These are still elusive.
Eisenhower’s autograph is also entering the final phase of the sorting out period. There seems to be some final cleaning of old files from Eisenhower’s younger associates. One recent auction offered a single lot of over 200 Eisenhower letters. File dumps like that will temporarily suppress prices but are likely to bring good pieces to the market. An excellent Eisenhower signature study by Paul Carr was published a few years ago. Studies like this help dealers and collectors judge more confidently whether material is genuine or secretarial. So, as authenticity becomes more assured, new material hits the market, and his presidency is seen in a more positive light, this is a good time to hunt for good content Eisenhower letters.
By no means are these the only presidential bargains and not every piece signed by FDR, Eisenhower, or Nixon is a smart buy. But if you understand trends such as these and their impact on pricing, you are less likely to have regrets tomorrow than an opportunity slipped through your fingers. If you are looking to start your presidential collection there may be no better time.
Sidebar: The Question of Content
Don’t look for good buys just by squinting your eyes for good prices. Smart buyers open their eyes wide to take in the whole value of what the piece is and what it says. Learning how to read content or even create it through research can add significant new value to your items.
Some content is obvious, some is inferred or has to be interpreted through research. Content can be what is written, when it is written, or to whom it is written, often referred to as association. Anything that sheds some interesting light on the human dimension of the person or an historical event has content. Sometimes it can simply be a well turned phrase or memorable line. Sometimes it can be “inside baseball”— something that would only be recognized or appreciated by serious collectors.
The illustrations all demonstrate different elements of content.
Eisenhower’s letter shows unusual content on two fronts: an important political issue and some insight into his management style. One of the important domestic economic and political issues in the 1950s was the balance of power between unions and management. The most significant change from pro-union New Deal legislation in the 1950s was the Landrum-Griffin reform bill. Eisenhower’s attention to such internal procedures as parliamentary tactics in a Congressional debate was somewhat unusual for any president and way out of line with the common perception of Eisenhower as a remote leader who wouldn’t be involved in tedious tactics.
FDR’s letter is also a double winner: date and association. Thanking someone for congratulations on a radio speech is pretty dull until you research the date. That immediately reveals that the speech was the famous Arsenal of Democracy speech. Writing to a labor leader adds some context because FDR needed labor’s support for the Lend-Lease program. The letter shows Roosevelt the politician building support with a simple thank you letter.
Nixon’s letter is a triple winner: it provides an unusual glimpse of his personality and references key issues and people. It mentions communism, a central issue throughout Nixon’s career and gets even better by mentioning Castro by name, a favorite target of Nixon’s criticism. In showing humor it illustrates an almost never seen side of Nixon. It carefully dodges the issue of the ban on Cuban cigars, a powerful symbol of the fight against Castro. There are plenty of other good content Nixon letters coming to market but don’t expect to find any more with humor!
Smart collectors do not look just at the signature beneath the letter; they read the story inside the letter.