March 19, 2018
Early American autograph material can be complicated to properly appraise. First of all, there are questions of authenticity as it is significantly easier for forgers to fake an autograph or manuscript than a full printed book. I won’t address authentication in this post, except to stress it is the first step in an evaluation.
Once the hurdle of authenticity is overcome, the next question is importance. In manuscript and autograph material, this essentially boils down to a question of not only whose autograph it is but the importance of the content and its historical context.
Recently at an estate in the Upper West Side of New York, I bought a small collection of autographs that contained the following 18th century manuscript page.
The interesting manuscript concerns the appointment John Laurance (1750 -1810) , the prominent American lawyer and politician from New York. Laurance was a veteran of the Continental Army who served throughout the American Revolution, and among other notable achievements served in the Continental Congress. Additionally, he was named Judge Advocate General from 1777 to 1782.” Among the cases he handled were prosecuting at the court martial of Charles Lee for insubordination in 1778, and the 1779 court martial of Benedict Arnold for corruption. He also served on the 1780 board that convicted John André of spying and sentenced him to death by hanging.” [Wikipedia]
With such an illustrious name, we can begin our search of other Laurance related manuscripts and autographs that have sold at auction in the ABPC Database. Plugging in his name brings up at least three records of sold documents connected with famous Americans that underscores his importance in the 18th century.
- Washington, George, 1732-99 – Ls, 1 Mar 1797. 1 p, 8 by 10 inches. On bifolium. Circular letter, this copy addressed to New York Senator John Laurance, inviting the recipient to the Presidential and Vice-Presidential swearing in ceremony of John Adams & Thomas Jefferson in the Senate Chamber. With conjugate self-envelope with address. Repaired. – Illus in cat. David A. Spinney Collection – Skinner, Oct 30, 2016, lot 31, $19,500
- Hamilton, Alexander, 1757-1804 – ALs, 17 May 1798. 1 p, 10 by 8 inches. To Senator John Laurance of New York. Expressing his displeasure over the defeat of President Adams’s proposed bills for defense. With franked integral address leaf & postal stamp dated May 16. Address leaf with fold separations. – Illus in cat – Sotheby’s New York, Dec 11, 2008, lot 130, $13,000
- Continental Congress – Manuscript, fair copy of the journal of the Continental Congress, June-July 1776. 4 pp, folio. In the hand of John Laurance, Senator from NY. – Bonhams New York, Jun 20, 2007, lot 5293, $3,500
It is easy to get excited at the high prices in the database. However, one must keep in mind that only important material comes to auction as single lots and this can artificially skew prices toward the higher end. Less expensive material is often sold in lots or at minor houses that are not included in the databases.
Additionally, if we read the document at hand carefully, it is clear that it is not signed by Laurance himself but is actually a 1781 copy “true copy of the Record lodges in the Secretary’s Office of the State of New York” So, while it refers to his 1775 appointment, it is actually written six years later in 1781 as an administrative copy.
As such, it is necessary to reduce of expectations in terms of salability and value. As an interesting document connected to an important American, it is certainly worth something, but most likely less than $500. Still, it is an interesting piece that yields insight into Colonial government and an excellent starter manuscript for someone who wants to begin collecting in the field but cannot yet afford the bigger prizes.
If you have any American autographs (or historical or literary autographs in general) in general, please email me and I will be happy to provide a free evaluation and relevant and comparable auction records to support it.