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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Books & Manuscripts > Collecting Manuscripts:
A Practical Introduction
: What determines values? Collecting Antique Books

Collecting Manuscripts:
A Practical Introduction

What motivates the manuscript collector?

What do collectors look for?

What are the best values?

Care for old books, manuscripts, photos and papers

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Collecting Antique Books

Collecting Manuscripts: A Practical Introduction

What determines value?

There are five major characteristics to consider when assigning value to a manuscript.

  1. Authorial presence. The first thing a specialist must determine is the presence of the author in the manuscript. A letter that is entirely handwritten and signed (what we call an "Autograph Letter Signed") is generally more valuable than a letter that is merely signed by the personage and either written by a secretary or typed. A letter, however, will generally be more valuable than a signed document (say, a military commission signed by a president, or a contract). And a full manuscript of a novel or an essay is generally more valuable than a letter. The least desirable form is the signature alone, which, ironically, was the most popular form of the 19th century. Consequently, many wonderful letters were mutilated and destroyed by collectors who only wanted the clipped signatures.
  2. Content. Another important consideration when determining value is content. What is the historical significance of this letter or document? How close to the significant events of the era does it place the writer? Does it offer previously unknown information? Occasionally, content trumps form: the collection I mentioned at the top of this essay contained two letters from James Madison, one an Autograph Letter Signed, the other a Letter Signed. Normally, the former would be the more valuable piece, but in this case, the ALS was merely a letter of recommendation written by Madison after his presidency. The LS (the body of which was in the hand of Dolley Madison) was written during the first months of Madison's presidency to the Representatives of the Mississippi Territory and mentioned the Constitution of the United States a very desirable association as Madison is remembered as the Father of the Constitution. The ALS sold at auction for $3,500; the LS for $14,000.
  3. Importance of writer. A pecking order exists among manuscripts determined in large part by the historical significance of the author. In the field of American Presidents, dollar values almost always reflect the President's position on the list of best and worst presidents. Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson consistently draw high prices, even on signatures alone, whereas no one pays more than a few hundred dollars for a letter of Warren G. Harding or Millard Fillmore. These distinctions are not set in stone, however. As most of us are aware, the cultural climate can and will shift, particularly with literary figures. During the 1920s, James Branch Cabell was consistently touted as one of the most important literary figures of the day, as significant as William Faulkner or James Joyce. Today, he is a literary footnote: few of his books remain in print, and a letter signed by Cabell sells for less than $100.
  4. Rarity. Again, this consideration can trump those previously mentioned. Because William Henry Harrison and James Garfield died so early in their presidencies, documents signed by them as 'President' are exceedingly rare and quite valuable, even though neither man is remembered as a great American statesman. Similarly, the most valuable Signer of the Declaration of Independence is not John Hancock or Thomas Jefferson, but Button Gwinnett, a signer from Georgia who died from wounds sustained in a duel less than a year after signing the Declaration. Gwinnett's descendents are believed to be extinct, and only 36 known autographs of his exist today. Those that have sold at auction recently have brought upwards of six figures.
  5. Condition. Condition is less important in the field of manuscript collecting than in that of books, art, or furniture, but can still have bearing on the value of a piece. Obviously, a collector would prefer to have a letter or document in pristine condition, and will pay extra for that privilege. With less interesting pieces, condition can be a crucial factor. There is no reason to pay top price for a presidential military commission in fair condition when one in really fine condition will no doubt soon come on the market. But sometimes manuscripts in very poor condition will still bring high prices. Recently we sold a collection of Marilyn Monroe manuscripts in very poor condition: they were water-stained and partially eroded. But the draft of a break-up letter written by Monroe to Elia Kazan on 20th Century Fox letterhead is such a rare and desirable piece, it still brought $19,000 at auction.
What are the best values?

Care for old books, manuscripts, photos and papers


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