A fellow who needed money for an operation walked into the American Political Items Collectors (APIC) convention in Anaheim, Calif., last August with a couple of old campaign buttons to see what he could get for them. The convention was called to order over the public address system and, in keeping with an APIC tradition, the buttons were auctioned, right then and there. One was an extremely rare button picturing John W. Davis and his running mate, Charles Bryan, the 1924 Democratic candidates. It sold for $20,000. Another button, showing Mr. Davis alone, brought $2,000.
"We call ourselves history's junk men," said Geary Vlk of Chicago, president of the APIC, referring to his organization's 3,000 or so members who collect presidential campaign memorabilia.
These days it pays to be a "junk man." A $50,000 reward will be given to the first person turning in a rare 1 1/4 -inch-in-diameter mint condition jugate -- that's a button showing two candidates -- of the 1920 Democratic presidential contenders, James Cox and a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not bad, considering that campaign buttons generally were given away free by the thousands or sold for a few cents. Ted Hake, who has been auctioning political memorabilia for 25 years at Hake's Americana and Collectibles in York, Pa., said he will be offering the big bounty on the television program "Missing Reward," airing nationally the week of April 13.
Electoral victory doesn't always mean hitting the jackpot in the world of political collecting. Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge beat Cox and Roosevelt at the ballot box but are comparative losers on the auction block. A Harding-Coolidge jugate is worth a mere $2,000, according to Mr. Hake's new paperback book, "Hake's Guide to Presidential Campaign Collectibles" (Wallace-Homestead, 1992, $17.95), an illustrated history and price guide published just in time for the New Hampshire primary.
Pulitzer Prize winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said in a recent phone interview that "The iconography of political campaigns is not just fun to look at, it reflects the mood of the time and the changing folkways of political campaigns. " Dr. Schlesinger has edited a two-volume book, "Running for President," to be published in the spring by Grove Press, which will include nearly 1,000 color illustrations of memorabilia assembled by collector and auctioneer David J. Frent of Oakhurst, N.J., and essays on each presidential campaign by noted scholars.
In the days before television appearances and chartered campaign jets, items such as buttons and banners were a crucial way for candidates to get their faces and their messages in front of the public. "These artifacts were very important before candidates went out on the stump," according to Dr. Schlesinger. During the 19th century, surrogates generally spoke for the candidates, he noted, "though Stephen Douglas and William Jennings Bryan went all over. Woodrow Wilson, in 1912, was the first real campaigner elected."
Surviving artifacts relating to the earliest presidents, typically ceramics and textiles commemorating their selection as president, generally are collected as historical rather than political memorabilia. Populist Andrew Jackson's 1824 campaign produced the first widely circulated campaign items, according to Mr. Hake. A small brass Jackson medalet fetches about $70 today.
New technologies brought forth a spate of political trinkets: Pin-back celluloid campaign buttons, as we know them today, were patented by Whitehead & Hoag Co. of Newark, N.J., in 1896, when William McKinley was elected to his first term. The 1896 race launched what has been dubbed the golden age of campaign buttons, which lasted to about 1916.
Collectibles come in all price ranges. Plenty of old and new pennants, posters and political buttons are available for $10 or less at flea markets. Some colorful souvenirs from the 1896 McKinley v. Bryan race sell at auction for between $100 and $200, but there is also much to choose from under $30. President McKinley was assassinated during his second term; as a result, people may not have thrown away his campaign paraphernalia. Similarly, Lincoln memorabilia survives, but condition often sets its price. A ferrotype button with a tiny photo of Lincoln on iron in a brass frame is less than $1,000 in mint condition, under $500 in good condition, and hard to sell for $100 if it is damaged.
Collectors tend to specialize: Some follow a straight party line while others home in on a single candidate. Third party candidates often attract more collectors' interest than voters' support. Causes are big: Many women collectors focus on suffrage movement items.
"There is excitement in collecting political items because there are no real records on what was produced," David Frent said. "There were hundreds of little companies putting out what the candidates needed, so significant items never before seen are turning up all the time."
Pioneer collections are coming on the market. In the fall, 'N Sotheby's in New York offered as a single auction lot, with a pre-sale estimate of $2.5 to $3.5 million, a collection of 20,000 items amassed by Paul Perlin of Chicago. The huge hoard failed to find a buyer. Nevertheless, prices were strong in June and October when Mr. Frent auctioned FDR artifacts assembled by another Chicago collector, lawyer Joseph M. Jacobs, considered some the finest specialized collection ever. (A third Frent auction of items from the Jacobs collection is scheduled for the ++ end of February.) Mr. Jacobs had outbid publisher Malcolm Forbes at a 1982 auction for a Cox-Roosevelt jugate, paying $33,000. (That button recently was resold privately for an undisclosed sum.) However, the late publisher still has his say in the world of collecting political Americana, narrating a videotape about the Forbes collection at a new exhibit of presidential autographs, papers and memorabilia on view at the Forbes Magazine Galleries in New York City.
While many collectors get buttons from current campaigns, don't expect them to become valuable overnight. According to Mr. Frent, "The campaign must be over before you can judge the relative scarcity and desirability of an item."
With campaign spending focused on TV commercials, collectors have to search longer and harder for the buttons, sheet music, bandannas, banks, china, glassware, watches, license plates, banners, pennants, ribbons, ties, badges, posters and hats that were hallmarks of old-style campaigns. Since these colorful partisan adornments look so good on the evening news, they have not been eliminated completely from campaign budgets. But, says Troy, Ohio, dealer and auctioneer Al Anderson, "If there weren't political collectors, I'm not sure how many political buttons would be issued today. The demand is not from the candidates."
Several dealers around the country sell political items through mail/phone/fax auctions, by catalogue, and at conventions and shows. Political memorabilia specialists include: Al Anderson, P.O. Box 644, Troy, Ohio 45373; David J. Frent, P.O. Box 455, Oakhurst, N.J. 07755; Ted Hake, Hake's Americana and Collectibles, Box 1444, York, Pa. 17405; and Tom Slater, the Political Gallery, 1325 W. 86 St., Indianapolis, Ind. 46260.
To join the American Political Items Collectors (APIC), send $25 dues to P.O. Box 2365, Chicago, Ill. 60690. Members receive a monthly newsletter and a journal published three times a year, a membership roster, discounts on books and collecting supplies, and notices of the bi-annual national meetings and frequent regional shows.
The Political Collector is a monthly newspaper for hobbyists. A year's subscription costs $15 by mail from P.O. Box 5171, York, Pa. 17405.
A timely exhibit this year is ". . . And If Elected: Presidential Politics and Personalities on Paper," at the Forbes Magazine Galleries, 62 Fifth Ave. at 12th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011. The galleries are open to the public Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (except holidays).