While attending the show with Kimber, I found a dealer with a box titled “miscellaneous historic documents.” Perusing the material, I discovered some very interesting autographed correspondence, but what really drew my attention was a letter by Moses Montefiore, probably the most famous Anglo-Jew of the 19th century. (See, for example, my May 30, 2014 Jewish Press “Collecting Jewish History” column on Montefiore and the Damascus Affair).
This marked the first time I experienced the palpable sense of living, breathing history in my hands. “This is actually for sale?” I asked. “But how do I know it’s real?”
He proceeded to give me a lecture on the basics of document authentication, including ink and paper analysis; comparison with other authenticated signatures; knowledge of historical context; how to spot forgeries, etc. I acquired the document, and I have never looked back.
Even 30 years later, the fact that these pieces of history can be purchased never ceases to amaze me. It also often astonishes others, as I found out most amusingly during a tour of David Ben-Gurion’s Sde Boker home. When I explained to the guide that I personally owned many handwritten letters by Ben-Gurion and began to describe them, she turned white as a ghost and began backing away from me. It took some time to figure out that she could not imagine I had acquired them by other than criminal means, and she was visibly relieved when I explained there are any number of legitimate autograph dealers and auctioneers, including some excellent ones in Israel, from whom one may purchase an authentic document written by almost any historical personage.
“What is it worth?” is probably the most common question I am asked when I lecture to Jewish groups around the country or when I share my documents with guests over my Shabbat table. Of course, the law of supply and demand reigns here as it does with any commodity. For example, there is abundant Abraham Lincoln material available for sale, but demand is so great that a mere Lincoln signature alone sells for about $4,000. However, unlike most collectibles, particularly stamps and coins, where condition is all-important, values of autographed documents are based principally upon content. In this regard, knowledge and historical research become very important.
Here is a nice illustrative example: at an autograph show years ago, I picked up one of the greatest treasures in my collection, a typed letter in rather poor condition signed by Harry Truman. Struggling mightily to keep my eyes from bulging out of their sockets, I expressed casual interest in the item, which the seller ultimately sold to me for essentially “signature value;” i.e., as if Truman had simply signed his name to a blank piece of paper. In this stunning letter dated May 14, 1968 – if the date rings a bell, it should: it is the twentieth anniversary of the proclamation of Israel’s independence – Truman wrote:
One of the proudest moments of my life occurred at 6:12 p.m. on Friday, May 14, 1948 when I was able to announce recognition of the new State of Israel by the government of the United States. I remain particularly gratified by the role I was fortunate to play in the birth of Israel as, in the immortal words of the Balfour Declaration, “a national home for the Jewish people.”
The seller, who may have based his asking price on the poor condition of the document, clearly did not appreciate the monumental significance of this letter.
In Volume I of his Memoirs, Truman writes that he had carefully read the Balfour Declaration and familiarized himself with Jewish history. Resisting incredible pressure from the State Department, he personally extended de facto recognition of the Jewish state within half an hour of its birth. Perhaps the best statement regarding Truman’s role in Jewish history was made by Rav Yitzchak Halevy Herzog: the president reportedly cried when the chief rabbi told him that “God put you in your mother’s womb so that you could be the instrument to bring about the rebirth of Israel after 2,000 years.”