Bulls, bears debate value of gold investing
Autograph collectors share their passion for the pen strokes of the famous
By DIAN VUJOVICH
Special to the Palm Beach Daily News
November 7, 2009
When the market gets whipsawed by everything from scandals to products no one understands -- along with an avarice appetite for greed -- many investors look elsewhere for opportunities. Those opportunities can be had in precious metals and collectibles such as art and wine.
Collectibles of choice for someone with a penchant for history are often hand-written, hand-signed historical letters and documents.
As anyone who's held an authentic document signed by George Washington or Albert Einstein will tell you, it's awe-inspiring.
"We have a Helen Keller letter that was all written in her hand as a child when she had just learned how to communicate. When I look at that letter and juxtaposed to my life, it's priceless and inspiring," says Daniel Brams, who, with his wife, Tricia, owns The Brams Collection. "I couldn't care less if I make or lose five cents on it; and, ultimately, that's the purest thing about (collecting historical documents)."
This mindset separates the true collector from someone merely hoping to make a profit. After all, profits in this genre aren't always that easy to come by or quickly recognized, particularly for those purchasing less than investment-grade pieces. But more on that later.
Malcolm Forbes was a collector of quality pieces. In his book More Than I Have Dreamed, he wrote this about autograph collecting:
"Unquestionably my favorite among the collections are the autograph ... and documents. ... Such documents give us in many ways a better conception of a person than it is possible to get from a formal portrait or, in later years, from a photograph. They remind us that these are more than historical figures -- they were people pouring their hopes, sadness, reactions and direction onto paper."
There you have the "why" behind the reason people become collectors: Autographed letters are personal. They're an intimate reflection about the signer and what was going on in his life at a particular moment in time. And, as with signed historical documents, they tell a story unlike any you're likely to read in a history book.
'Buy the best'
To cash in on collecting these signature gems, the best advice is to first purchase autographs of those you have a particular fondness for, then to buy quality and investment-grade pieces.
"The advice that we like to give our clients and anyone who is interested in terms of collecting is to buy the best," says Jonas Raab, vice president of the Raab Collection. "Rather than going out and buying 100 things, buy that one thing that is just a gem."
Daniel Brams agrees. His company specializes in historical documents, autographs, and vintage Hollywood and classic rock 'n' roll pieces.
"There is investment-grade rock 'n' roll, investment-grade Revolutionary War, and there is investment-grade presidential. There is investment-grade everything in just about anything that could pull your trigger. But in my opinion, I don't think there is investment-grade Jose Canseco and Madonna."
Deciding what's investment grade and what's not isn't easy. Decisions of value lie in the eyes of the collector who is buying, the seller, the dealer, the auctioneer and what the market will bear.
That said, content counts. So while a signed Washington letter is certainly considered investment grade, a piece with only his clipped autograph won't cost as much as a letter written at Valley Forge about military strategy.
Raab divides investment grade into three categories: routine, good and great. "A routine piece would be a signature of a president or important person not really talking about anything important but maybe thanking someone for a birthday wish," he said. "A good content Abraham Lincoln would be Lincoln requesting the appointment of a future general for the Union Army. And a great piece would be a letter from Abraham Lincoln to the editor of a newspaper talking about how he, and the presidency in general, would deal with censorship of the press."
Then again, historical signatures aren't all investment grade, although they may appeal to a collector. Nor are many of today's hip signatures. But there are always exceptions.
"It's hard to answer that question" about what's considered investment grade, Brams said. "If you had spent $200 on a Michael Jackson three months ago, it may be worth $1,500 today. That didn't seem to be an investment-grade purchase then; but life being what it is and death being what is, it could now be worth eight-fold of what you paid for it."
Knowing that the lines between what's considered investment-grade quality and what's not are blurred; the best serious collectors can do is remember that there are four variables that define historical documents -- content, condition, rarity and demand. Then, they should work only with a reputable dealer, one who has experience and a sound reputation, and one who will guarantee and stand behind his offerings.
Raab's father, Steven, started this family business in 1989. The company is respected and specializes in high-quality historical letters, documents and manuscripts. Jonas Raab has formally been in the business for three years. But like his brother Nathan, also a vice president in the firm, he grew up with signed pieces all around him.
"I've been seeped in this industry since I was a little boy," he said. "So when my brother and I grew up, at breakfast we always heard, 'Don't spill your juice; you might ruin that Martin van Buren document.'"
Daniel and Tricia Brams' history of buying and selling autographs and documents began in 1990. In the early 1990s, they operated a shop, Paper Treasures on Worth Avenue. They then moved it to CityPlace and finally to Downtown at the Gardens before closing. Today, they work privately and only deal with collectors. "We don't have a storefront anymore and also don't have to deal with tire-kickers anymore," he said. "We're only dealing with collectors."
Anyone interested in beginning a collection doesn't need a fortune. A few hundred dollars -- and sometimes less -- can get you started if your interests are not for the hottest autographs around but rather for those of people you personally find admirable. But keep in mind that if they aren't investment-grade quality, expecting a windfall profit isn't likely.
Those collecting in the hopes of making a quick profit need to be cautioned, too, as the odds are unlikely. While someone may get lucky with his choice and timing, it typically takes three or five or 10 years -- maybe more -- for a signed quality autograph to increase in value.
Auction values are also hard to estimate. Brams tells of a hand-written letter from George Washington that was estimated to get between $35,000 and $50,000 in a Christie's auction. The price realized was $137,500.
Even though pieces may sell at auction at prices many times their pre-sell estimates, you can't bank on that happening any more than you can outsmart the market -- any market.
"You can't assume you can outsmart the market any more than you knew that Michael Jackson was going to die the day before he died," Brams said.
While demand for quality signed pieces may vary over time as they move in and out of the hands of private collectors, museums and galleries, a quality autograph will always be a quality autograph.
"A piece that has intrinsic historical significance will always be an important piece of American history," Raab said. "Just as a Renoir will always be a Renoir, a Washington will always be a Washington.
What's John Hancock's 'John Hancock' worth?
The world of signed letters and documents is a fascinating one. And while some of hottest names in that collecting arena tend to be those you might imagine -- Lincoln, Jefferson, Einstein, Churchill, Kennedy and Edison. Fans of anyone in history can find pleasure in collecting autographs no matter who the signers are. Even though 'How much will this autograph be worth one day?' is impossible to answer, below are a few examples of what John Hancock's John Hancock is currently being offered at:
Lest you think the historic world of hand-written letters and signed documents has gone by the boards, think again. A bounty can be hidden in autographed treasures of the past -- provided you're a fan of history and a savvy purchaser.
- $75,000 for an autographed manuscript that is the only known surviving credential to the House of Representatives for the first Congress in 1789. RaabCollection.com
- $55,000 for an autographed letter signed Nov. 12, 1783. RaabCollection.com
- $25,000 for an autographed letter signed, 'Council Chamber, Boston, Feb. 18, 1783. As governor of Massachusetts, to the Gentlemen of the Senate and Gentlemen of the House of Representatives.' historical-autographs.com
- $25,000 for a document signed as president of the Continental Congress, one page, oblong legal folio. Counter-signed by Charles Thomson, secretary. Hancock signs a blank military appointment. historical-autographs.com
- $22,500 for a letter signed 'J Hancock,' as president of the Continental Congress, five lines on an oblong octavo sheet, from January 1776. historical-autographs.com
- $6,750 for a John Hancock very bold signature, 'By order of Congress, John Hancock, Presid[en]t,' historical-autographs.com
To read more articles, please visit the column archive.