In 1878 Autographs From 29 Signers Of The Declaration Of Independence Realized $680.50 At Auction
What Is A Collection Of All The Signers Worth Today?
The Most Valuable Signature Is Not Jefferson, Franklin or Hancock, It’s…Button Gwinnett.
What’s an example of a phenomenal return on investment? $10,000 invested at 10% for 100 years turns into $137.8 million!
With savings interest rates being under 2% for the past decade, that rate seems implausible if you keep your money in a bank or in a CD. So people look to other stores of value for investing; stocks; gold; real estate; bonds and cryptocurrency have been some of the more popular ways of increasing your investment. Then there is collecting.
People collect all sorts of things not just because they love what they collect but because they make potentially good investments. Just watch the Antiques Roadshow or go to eBay and see all the things that you thought had little value but are collected and go for big money.
Sign This Please – Autographs
One long standing collectible has been autographs. Whether they’re from athletes, politicians, artists, or musicians; signatures of the famous and infamous always have their collectors and fluctuations of value.
Two areas of autograph collecting are having all the Presidential signatures and the “Holy Grail” of autographs – all the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration autograph collecting craze started soon after the death of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two former Presidents were both signers of the Declaration who incredibly died the same day July 4, 1826 on the 50th anniversary of Independence Day.
In 1878 an auction was held at which 29 signatures of the signers of the Declaration went up for sale. 27 of the autographs were letters from the signers. Two were signatures only. Included in that group were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Roger Sherman. The total achieved from the auction was $680.50.
Adams sold for $10; Franklin $12; Hancock $9 and Sherman $21. The signature that brought the greatest sum was $110 for a signature of Button Gwinnett. Another signer, Thomas Lynch of South Carolina is also considered as rare as Gwinnett and fetches big money. Lynch’s signature sold for $95.
I remember reading as a child that Gwinnett was the rarest signature in one of the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! books. So why is Gwinnett the prize of the group?
Who Was Button Gwinnett?
Quoting from a profile of Gwinnett from Christie’s auction house,
“Button Gwinnett has attained a high degree of recognition–at least among collectors–based on the extreme rarity of his signature rather than any particularly crucial role in the achievement of American independence.
His activities in support of the patriot cause resulted in the total destruction of his property during the British occupation of Savannah, GA and surrounding areas.”
Gwinnett was selected as one of the five Georgia delegates to the Continental Congress in 1776. With his fellow delegates Gwinnett signed the Declaration on July 2, 1776. He shortly after returned to Georgia in August 1776 and served as Speaker of the Georgia Assembly. He also helped draft the state Constitution. After Governor Bulloch’s death in March 1777, Gwinnett became President of the state of Georgia.
Two months later, Gwinnett had a duel in which he was wounded. He succumbed to his wound less than a week later and died on May 25, 1777 at the age of 42.
Gwinnett’s family line died out around 1800. Finding anything with Gwinnett’s signature has proven elusive, with only 51 signatures known to exist.
In 1905 if the same 29 signatures came to auction, they would have been worth $2,350 according to a leading autograph dealer of the day. Gwinnett’s signature alone had jumped to $750.
The dealer also estimated if all 56 signers of the Declaration came to auction the price would be around $10,000.
That estimate turned out to be very low and the primary reason is how Gwinnett’s signature grew in stature and price.
In 1927 Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach paid an astounding $51,000 for a Gwinnett signature. Rosenbach fueled the fire of Gwinnett collecting and purchased eight Gwinnett signatures of the twelve that went up for auction between 1926 and 1934. The prices ranged from $16,000 to the aforementioned $51,000.
The Great Depression cooled the Gwinnett autograph market. Almost no Gwinnett autographs changed hand until the 1970s. In 2010 at Sotheby’s, a letter signed by Gwinnett and dated July 12, 1776, sold for $722,500. Gwinnett’s signature alone (shown at the beginning of our story) was sold for the bargain price of $319,500 at Christie’s in 2017.
So what are all 56 signatures worth in 2019?
It is estimated that if offered for sale, a set would exceed $1 million.
Most complete collections of all 56 signers, of which 40 are known, are held in public institutions or libraries. In 1979 autograph dealer Charles Hamilton (for collector Paul Francis Webster) purchased a full set at auction for $100,000.
The last time a complete set was offered was at RR Auctions of Nashua, NH in 2012, the pre-sale estimate was $1 million. The lot was passed, as it did not reach its reserve. Soon after, that complete set was sold privately to an anonymous buyer for an undisclosed sum. The seller was very happy with price paid.
So collecting autographs can be very profitable.
But buyer beware; it is estimated that up to 90% of the celebrity and sports autographs offered for sale are fakes, especially online. If you ever decide to delve into the field of autograph collecting, study up before you buy. Go with reputable auction houses and sellers who have an established reputation in the field. As with artwork, provenance – where and how the autograph was obtained and a lineage of ownership is crucial with big ticket items. Never buy because the autograph is offered with a “certificate of authenticity.” They can be printed as easily as someone can fake a signature.