Heat and speculation hit once staid field of collecting historical documents


A one-sentence letter handwritten and signed by Abraham Lincoln, in which he vows not to "attempt to retract or modify the Emancipation Proclamation nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free," sold for a whopping $462,000 at a Christie's auction in New York last month, demonstrating that the once staid, scholarly and conservative pastime of collecting American historical manuscripts and documents is a hot and speculative field.

While much of the art and antiques market has contracted significantly during the recession, experts say there's so much energy in this small field that prices clearly haven't peaked.

Christie's May sale brought a record $2,919,708 for 147 lots, largely from several determined dealers. That total "still is less than the price of a single mediocre impressionist painting," quipped Christopher Coover, who catalogued the sale. More than three-quarters of the auction's lots came from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Spiro of New York.

Because every item in the Spiros' collection, noted for historically significant letters in fine condition, was bought at public auctions over the past 14 years, its dispersal reveals the market's astounding rise. For example, the Lincoln letter that brought $462,000 was purchased for $14,000 in April 1978. Like many of the Spiros' gems, it had come from the vast collection of the Elsie O. and Philip D. Sang Foundation of Chicago, which Sotheby's auctioned over several years. This time around, the purchaser was a telephone bidder, identified as dealer Joseph Maddalena of Profiles in History in Beverly Hills.

Another important Lincoln item, his handwritten text of a telegram to Ulysses S. Grant, who was about to advance on Petersburg, Va., in the Civil War's last campaign, carried a conservative $18,000 to $25,000 pre-sale estimate and brought a strong $418,000, nearly 60 times the $7,000 which the Spiros paid for it in 1980. Wrote the commander in chief concisely to his general on June 15, 1864: "I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all."

Records were made at the Spiro sale for autographed letters by George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, the Marquis de Lafayette, Dolley Madison, Jefferson Davis, Adm. David Farragut, General William T. Sherman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hyam Salomon and Judah P. Benjamin, reflecting the broad appeal for the field's blue chips: signers of the Declaration of Independence, great military figures, letters relating to black-white relations and important figures in American Jewish history.

Several letters from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee brought high prices: Profiles in History paid $52,800 for a poignant one dated Aug. 13, 1863, calling for penance and prayer after the Gettysburg defeat. It was purchased at Sotheby's in 1981 for $1,200.

No document at the Spiro sale topped the record $2.42 million which an Atlanta investor paid at Sotheby's in June 1991 for a broadside of the Declaration, and no letter topped the record $748,000 Mr. Maddalena paid at Christie's last December for Lincoln's famous letter of Jan. 8, 1863, in which he used the metaphor "Broken eggs cannot be mended" to explain that after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation he could not retract it.

Prices began to rise in 1989 when a Caesar Rodney letter dated July 4, 1776, the only letter of that date by a signer describing the Declaration of Independence, sold at Christie's for a then-record $440,000.

"Few collectors buy solely for investment, but, on the other hand, they keep an eye on the market and when prices escalate they can't help thinking of selling," said Christie's Mr. Coover. The Spiros picked a very good time to sell. A small group of collectors and dealers with very deep pockets have discovered autographs.

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