Collecting Manuscripts: A Practical Introduction Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Books & Manuscripts > Collecting Manuscripts:
A Practical Introduction
Collecting Manuscripts: A Practical Introduction

Collecting Manuscripts: A Practical Introduction

What motivates the manuscript collector?

What do collectors look for?

What determines value?

What are the best values?

Care for old books, manuscripts, photos and papers

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Collecting Manuscripts: A Practical Introduction

Last summer I received a call from a lawyer in Seattle who had found a packet of old letters and documents among his late father's possessions. He wanted to know the best way to dispose of them. It turned out that the young man's grandfather and great-grandfather had been ardent collectors who had aggressively sought letters and documents of American Presidents, Civil War generals, and other important 18th and 19th century political figures. The collection sold at auction recently, netting over $50,000. My client, who knew nothing about the field of manuscript collecting before he called, was thrilled.

What motivates the manuscript collector?

The manuscript collector does not enjoy the high profile of the art or furniture collector. To the untrained eye, a manuscript use that term to refer to any written document, be it a letter, a contract, a written draft, or an inscription is not intrinsically beautiful or decorative or artistic. The manuscript collector, however, is motivated less by aesthetic concerns than by a fascination with a moment in time or a particular historical figure. Collecting letters and documents allows us a chance to eavesdrop on history both public and private. For example, I recently perused an intimate letter from Lord Nelson to his longtime lover, Lady Hamilton, in which he declares that his soul is God's but his body is Emma's. Collectors are also driven by a curiosity to see not just what people write, but how they write. Often, the handwriting of famous figures is exactly what we expect it to be, as with Sam Houston's " big as Texas" script, Thomas Edison's innovative calligraphic signature, and Sigmund Freud's crabbed handwriting that looks, well, a little bit crazy.

About the Books & Manuscripts Department

Fine manuscripts and rare books in collections or as singular items come to Butterfields from private estates as well as museums and libraries. Among the fields represented are travel and exploration (including maps and atlases); natural history and botanicals; Americana, especially California and the West; literature; bibles; fine press and printing; illustration and the fine arts.


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