I’m a history buff, so when historical documents and photos come in to our auction house, I’m particularly interested in discovering the stories behind them. Sometimes it’s a military document revealing a strategy behind battle orders, other times, it’s a vintage signed photograph of a prominent public figure or a celebrity – even an old, tattered paper map can provide clues to what life was like during a certain era.
Recently we sold nearly 40 historical signed photos, letters, documents and first printing vintage concert posters that represented just a fraction of one man’s lifetime collection. The rare historical documents included a photo of Abraham Lincoln with signature that realized $3,250. A signed note with photo of George Armstrong Custer realized $1,200, and a Cy Young autographed index card with photos sold for $1,000. The star of the historical documents was a signed letter from Mexican Revolution leader Emiliano Zapata with his photo. The letter, dated October 10, 1916, offers a glimpse into a dispute over weapons. It hammered at $4,250.
Whether you’re looking to add to your collection or you’re ready to sell, it’s helpful to know what makes historical documents valuable. Do your research and consider:
What’s in Demand Now: Just because you have a signed photo of legendary cowboy singer and actor Roy Rogers doesn’t mean bidders today are interested in buying it. The same applies to old sports celebrities, rock stars, politicians and other high-profile figures. If you’re selling, it’s particularly important to monitor this as you don’t want to hold on to your collection too long.
How Important is the Content: Our Abraham Lincoln photo with signature that sold at our auction house last month is a good example. While it did well, had there been more content, like a hand-written letter, this piece could have been worth more. For example, in 2015, a rare letter written by President Lincoln sold at auction in Dallas for $2.2 million. It contained the last passage of his second inaugural address, including the famed line, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”
How Strong is the Provenance: What’s the ownership history of the item? Does it come with past receipts, appraisals and certificates of authenticity? This is a constant challenge as paperwork sometimes gets lost during moves or when passed down to younger generations. Also, some items, like vintage signed sports memorabilia, were collected before there were official agencies to authenticate them.
Overall Condition: Time takes its toll on paper, photographs, ink, postage stamps and other markings that contribute to the overall condition of historical documents. Too much exposure to light and heat can also warp or damage fragile pieces. Bidders will value a photo or document in mint condition over one that appears faded or has creases, frayed edges or tears.
I think historical documents will always be of interest to collectors, and it will be interesting to watch values in years to come, particularly since most of our correspondence now is via email, text messages, social media and other digital platforms.
Erik Hoyer owns EJ’s Auction & Consignment in Glendale.