May 15, 2018
I am often asked if I can offer an appraisal or an evaluation of an autograph. The short answer is yes. And, of course, we do buy autographs and signed documents in the regular course of our business. While the fields of autograph collecting and rare books and manuscripts are separate, they often do intersect. Generally, I shy away from 20th century sports autographs (just too many fakes), and prefer to concentrate on autographs of historical and literary importance.
I was recently was offered a charming album containing the signature of our illustrious 16th President. There is something poetic, at least in my mind, about just the signature of Abraham Lincoln sitting isolated and dead center on a barren single page. I enjoy contemplating it- staring at a the modest hand, in keeping with the character of the President, and knowing that 150 odd years or so ago, his hand rested with a quill on this very page.
Cut signatures of Lincoln from documents can be had for reasonable sums. Here, as an example, is a record culled from the manuscript sales database in American Book Prices current (an excellent reference for evaluating autographs)
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-65 – Cut signature, [1861 to 1865]. On .75 by 3.75 inch strip of vellum. Sgd as President. Minor smudging to his last name. Left edge touching the extreme beginning of the first “A”. Mtd at right & left edges. – Swann, Nov 3, 2011, lot 187, $1,100
Of course that is towards the very bottom of the price range, and prices can quickly escalate:
Full autograph letters of interest can command $10,000+ such as this one:
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-65 – ALs, 15 Dec 1862. 1 p, 8vo. On bifolium. To Sec of the Navy Gideon Welles. Regarding a request for an appointment from controversial congressman Alfred Ely. With 3-line holograph postscript sgd (“A. Lincoln”) & dated 16 Dec 1862. Soiled & creased with some marginal tears (1 into text & signature of postscript). Signature of letter slightly smeared. Not in Basler. – Sotheby’s New York, Jun 13, 2017, lot 97, $11,000
And of course pieces of great historic importance in the history of our nation can bring staggering sums:
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-65 – Ds, [June 1864]. 1 p, 16.25 by 9.25 inch copy of the “Authorized Edition” oof the Emancipation Proclamation, printed to benefit the United States Sanitary Commission. Sgd by Lincoln as President. Countersgd by William H. Seward as Secretary of State & by “Jno. G. Nicolay” as the President’s Private Secretary, who additionally certifies that this printing of the Emancipation Proclamation is “A true copy, with autograph signatures of the President and the Secretary of State”. Several inches of blank margin trimmed from original sheet. With mat burn at edges touching the Nicolay signature but not affecting other signatures or text. Foxed & spotted. – Illus in cat – Sotheby’s New York, May 25, 2016, lot 78, $1,800,000
Naturally, the first step in evaluating an historical autograph is authenticity. Lincoln is a frequently forged autographed, given the nation’s reverence and his consequent desirability. Perhaps the most notorious forgers of “Lincolniana” were Joseph Cosey and Charles Weinburg. However, there are many less famous but still accomplished forgers as well- so one must always be wary.
It is imperative to study the handwriting and to determine if it is correct- to make sure it is in keeping with the President’s known hand at that date and that it possesses the small ‘tells’ of a fluidly written signature that are hard to copy without evidence of hesitation.
Besides the signature itself, it is importance to look at the paper, the ink, and whether it makes sense that it is a document that the President would even sign. Provenance is very desirable as well, but not always obtainable as documents often pass from hand to hand through families and collectors without record kepts.
In the example we were offered below, the authenticity is without question. If the leaf were seen only in isolation, one may not be certain of this, but our example is bound in an album filled with many of Lincoln’s cabinet and contemporaries and was compiled as a courtship gift for a woman by a Washington gentleman of means and access. I would love to relate the full provenance and story here of the album, but don’t want to steal the thunder of the Institution that will likely acquire it.