Read Part I: Three Tips for Collecting Signed Documents to find out about how history and personal connections play a role in value.
There are two remaining factors in collecting signed documents, and they really apply to any type of paper collectible: rarity and condition.
Collectors must remember that paper is fragile and so often does not survive. The very term for paper collectibles, “ephemera”, literally means something that is fleeting and does not last. That’s why when a rare signed document comes to market in great condition, the sky is the limit for serious collectors and records are continually broken.
Keep these last two important tips in mind when considering signed documents at auction:
1. The Rarer the Better
As with all antiques of merit, rarity is highly desirable. In fact, the signature of a relatively unimportant historical figure can be extremely valuable if that signature is deemed very rare.
Take the case of Button Gwinnett, a little known signer of the Declaration of Independence. Gwinnett’s signature is one of the rarest in American manuscript collecting, due to the fact that he was killed in a duel less than ten months after the Declaration was signed. Because he died young, he didn’t have a lot of time to sign other documents, important or otherwise.
This brief brush with fame makes a Gwinnett signature extremely rare. Valued at upwards of $200,000, it is considered the Holy Grail among collectors of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Its worth far exceeds signatures by iconic founders Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. Because of its value and obscurity, Gwinnett’s signature is also one of the most commonly faked. Make sure you’re buying from a reputable source that will stand behind a document’s authenticity.
2. Paramount to Paper is Condition
It can be very difficult, and in some cases impossible, to restore paper. That’s why condition is paramount to signed documents.
Anything that alters the chemistry of the paper or obscures the ability to read the document and identify the signature compromises worth. Sometimes the best intentions to stabilize or save a document have resulted in bad fixes that cause condition issues. Documents that have been “laid down” (glued to a board or other surface) or “silked” (covered with and affixed to a piece of sheer silk) lose a significant amount of value because acid in the glue or board can deteriorate the paper and compromise its future survival.
Additionally, if a signature is clipped from the original document, making it devoid of date or context, that also affects value. Other condition issues that threaten a document’s integrity include tears, stains, foxing (brown spots due to humidity changes) and folding of items since the paper can become brittle and unreadable where it has been folded.
Documents prefer to be away from sunlight, in clean, flat, and dry conditions. Avoid changes in humidity, which can cause the foxing mentioned above. Always check condition, and inquire about the manner in which a document has been stored when making a determination to buy.
These tips can help even the most novice collector buy historic documents with confidence and conviction. Explore who and what from history interests you—and, as always, buy what sparks your personal taste or interest.