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Autograph Value Guide Part II: Rarity & Condition in Signed Historical Documents

Signed Historical Documents | John Hancock

Lot 116 (detail): John Hancock’s “John Hancock,” offered in the Fine Books Auction on Sunday, November 13, 2011 in Boston, Estimate $2,000-3,000

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.

79 thoughts on “Autograph Value Guide Part II: Rarity & Condition in Signed Historical Documents

  1. Pingback: Famous Signatures | Historical Autographs | Value Guide

  2. Pingback: Famous Signatures | Historical Autographs | Value Guide

  3. I have a book about Climbing Mt.Everast and it was signed with a short note to my late husband by Tensing Norkay (spelling). What would this be worth?
    Thank you for you kind attention to this request.
    Eileen

  4. We have two letters signed by J. Edgar Hoover on FBI stationary. Both written in the 1940’s. One is in perfect condition in the original envelope. Are they worth anything?

  5. We have two letters signed by J. Edgar Hoover on FBI stationary. Both written in the 1940’s. One is in perfect condition in the original envelope. Are they worth anything?

  6. I recently found in a stack of old family. pic. a copy the declartion of
    independence. how can I tell ifs old or authenic??

  7. I have a personal correspondence letter signed by Robert Kennedy. The outside envelope is a signature stamp, but the inside letter is his actual signature sent to me in 1966 when I was a soldier. I am interested in knowing the value of this item.

  8. I have a personal correspondence letter signed by Robert Kennedy. The outside envelope is a signature stamp, but the inside letter is his actual signature sent to me in 1966 when I was a soldier. I am interested in knowing the value of this item.

  9. I have what appear to be land documents that bear an original signature and a copy of that particular document signed by Peter Stuyvesant. All are in Dutch and I have tried, unsuccessfully, over the years to have these translated to determine their significance. I’ve sent scans out and the consensus is that the original signature is genuine. My goal is to sell these but I’ve had a lot of difficulty determining their value. Can you be os assistance in this matter?

  10. I have what appear to be land documents that bear an original signature and a copy of that particular document signed by Peter Stuyvesant. All are in Dutch and I have tried, unsuccessfully, over the years to have these translated to determine their significance. I’ve sent scans out and the consensus is that the original signature is genuine. My goal is to sell these but I’ve had a lot of difficulty determining their value. Can you be os assistance in this matter?

  11. Greetings, I was wondering how much Rev. Thomas N. Burke’s signature was worth on a 1st edition (New York printing 1875) of Lectures and Sermons. He signed it under his picture. It reads Faithfully yours Thomas N. Burke.

  12. Greetings, I was wondering how much Rev. Thomas N. Burke’s signature was worth on a 1st edition (New York printing 1875) of Lectures and Sermons. He signed it under his picture. It reads Faithfully yours Thomas N. Burke.

  13. Hello. I have a 2012 Leaf Cut Signature card of John Hancock. It’s a auto that’s cut off a document and its labeled as 1 of 1 made. What is the value of this?

  14. Hello. I have a 2012 Leaf Cut Signature card of John Hancock. It’s a auto that’s cut off a document and its labeled as 1 of 1 made. What is the value of this?

  15. I have some old documents that I found on a gravel road while bike riding…one is the original invitation to a Press Party for Helen Keller on her 86th birthday. There is an original photo of her as an elderly woman taped to the front. There is also the original Equity Minimum Contract signed by Kermit Murdock and a few other actors from the 30s. This contract has real signatures and specifies a Broadway engagement. It is dated 1931 and from New York City. What is the historical value if any?

  16. I have dozens of land grant documents with presidential signatures from several presidents going back to Buchannan, McKinley, Roosevelt. Would they be of value? Also, if not of financial value, would they be of historical value and where would I go?

  17. An inquiry regarding a picture of Jacqueline and John Kennedy signed in the year of 1962.
    This is an 8×10 autograph with Jackie and John Kennedy standing on a balcony facing the camera.
    My inquiry is to get an appraisal on this picture?
    Thank you, Michele McManus

  18. Hi
    I Have my Dad’s Commission certificate (British Army 1966) it’s signed by Her Majesty the Queen and General Montgomery. Does this item have a value either for insurance purposes or sale?

    Kind Regards

    Gordon

  19. I have a short note – hand written & signed to my husband’s grandmother from Herbert Hoover right after his 80th birthday. He also sent a booklet of an address by him along with it. Does the note have any value? Thanks for any info.

  20. Sean Connery got married in Gibraltar twice, the marriage registrar who performed his ceremony was Arthur Pardo. Mr Pardo paid to cover the cost for Mr Connery’s marriage certificate and in return Mr Connery then wrote him a check for 48p covering this cost, a check Mr Pardo never cashed.

    I am in possession of this check, dated January 3rd 1971 as well as a letter from Mr Connery addressed to Mr Pardo thanking him for covering such cost. In his letter Mr Connery confirms he has enclosed the check in question along with a signed photograph for Mr Pardo’s daughter Eileen, I am also in possession of this photograph.

    Please email if interested in seeing pictures of the check, letter and signed photograph.

  21. We have about 35 framed (in 3 frames total) Bowman 1952 series NBC Radio-TV Stars trading cards, all autographed.

    Included are Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Dave Garroway, Phil Harris Dinah Shore. Any idea of the value and where to sell them?

  22. I have a signed Savings Bank Life Insurance certificate, issued by The Monroe County savings Bank in 1840, for a 1000$. It is signed by the president of that bank. It promises to pay the 1000$ to some person. What is the value of this document?

  23. I have a veinte pesos singed by Chuck Conners (The rifle Man) is worth anything. Plus I had my picture taken with him. He was in Mexico to get married the next day.That was in Acapulco Mexico

  24. I have a note on her stationary, dated 1981, from Katharine Hepburn addressed to me with a personal comment on it and her signature. I also have the Playbill cover of the play she was currently appearing in in NY. Is this of significant value? Thank you.

  25. I have a signed document from Governor John Brough of Ohio, dated April 29, 1864. It is the promotion ‘certificate’ of a family member to position of Captain. All words are very readable, signatures, included. It has a raised seal on the bottom left-hand corner. the paper is torn a bit around the edges, but the actual ‘written’ document is intact. Does this have any value?

  26. I have a document signed by James Madison and W. Eustis. It has a raised paper seal from 1812.
    I was wondering how UHC it is worth

  27. I have a letter on Senate letterhead dated April 15, 1968, signed by Robert Kennedy. It also includes a photo with his signature as well as a biography. It all is in the original Senate envelope, with no folds – in excellent condition. Would this have any value? Please advise.

    Thank you!

  28. I have a typewritten, signed letter from Robert F Kennedy from when he was Attorney General thanking the captain of a USN aircraft carrier for his tour of the ship. Accompanying same is a hand written, signed, thank you note from Ethel Kennedy thanking the captain for same plus a short cruise on the admiral’s barge and some really good ice cream. The two are together in one envelope (envelope slightly stained but contents are fine). I see prices for RFK autographs in the $200 range up to $5000 or more; what is a serious estimate?

  29. My husband and I recently purchased a box lot at auction. In it, we were surprised to find diplomatic commissions signed by Herbert Hoover and Henry L. Stimson, one is introducing the vice-consul to the Cuban President at the time and another is a paper signed by Machado.

    The paper has been rolled for years and there are tears, there are three of them, they all have the appropriate presidential seals but look pretty ragged around the edges.

    They’re in a box, if they’re worth anything I can get them out and give you more details about them.

  30. Hi Richard,
    As a kid in 1965 I wrote to the FBI asking if “The Man From UNCLE” was a real organization. In reply I received a letter signed by J Edgar Hoover explaining that it wasn’t.
    My question is was Hoover in the habit of using auto-pens or having secretaries or assistants sign for him?
    I would be surprised if he took the time to sign a letter to a kid.

    Thank you in advance, Chris

  31. good afternoon ,I have a signed document by George c Wallace it says Governor of Alabama . under that says commander and chief the document states making an honorary colonel in Alabama militia . signed in 1964 . could you please tell me what it might be worth please. thank you

  32. also has a gold seal . notarized also signed by Alfred c Harrison . document in mint condition in a 50 year old frame. sorry for having 2 post . thank you

  33. We have several letters and course material that were written and signed by J Edgar Hover when he taught the finger printing course for the FBI I believe. It was to my Great Uncle who was a member of the Calgary City Police in Canada. How would I have them valuated?

    • Hello Jane, thank you for your interest in our article – I am glad to see that it has perhaps renewed your interest in your own Henry Lawson autograph.
      We would like to be able to help you find out what your Henry Lawson signature may be worth at auction, please submit photos and an auction evaluation form on our website: secure.skinnerinc.com/appraisals/form.asp. We will forward the information to our Specialist Appraisers.

  34. I have a typed thank you letter written to my uncle on March 27, 1968 from Groucho Marx with his handwritten signature of “Groucho”. At the top of the letter is Groucho’s full name and address in Beverly Hills. I also have the envelope it was mailed in. I find the wording in the letter to be typical of what I remember of Groucho’s humor and it actually makes me laugh. I am curious as to any value this signed letter might have.
    Thank you

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