Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Saul Jay Singer

Another instance where research led to a valuable acquisition relates to another outstanding prize in my collection: a Raoul Wallenberg letter that may be the only one in the world in private hands, an August 21, 1943 correspondence on his personal letterhead. Perhaps the greatest hero of World War II, Wallenberg became immortal through his selfless and heroic efforts in saving some 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

While conducting background research, I learned that Wallenberg came to Ann Arbor in 1931 to study at the University of Michigan, where he earned his degree in architecture, with honors, in 1935. This deeply intrigued me, as I had had recently researched another famous personality, whom I could not immediately recall, who had graduated from Michigan around the same time.

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Checking my files, I discovered a heretofore unknown fact I am certain has never before been published: Wallenberg and Gerald Ford graduated the University of Michigan together in 1935. I wrote to the former president advising him of this fascinating historical anomaly and, in an August 6, 1997 letter, he wrote to me of his “tremendous admiration” for Wallenberg and his “regret at having never met him,” a lovely addition to my collection which I acquired for the price of a postage stamp.

Before his disappearance after World War II, reportedly into the Russian gulag, Wallenberg, still a young man, was a low-level Swedish diplomat. As such, there was no reason for anyone to have saved or valued his correspondence, and his signature is therefore extremely rare. A few collectors have acquired Shutz-passes, the Swedish certificates of protection signed by Wallenberg, which sell in the $10K-$13K range, but there are virtually no signed letters of his in existence, making my letter worth somewhere in the $20K-plus range.

* * * * *

I have been able to accumulate documents written by most of the famous Jews who lived during the past 200 years, spanning the entire range of Jewish involvement in the world. Of course, I have particular interest in Israel, both pre- and post-state, and my collection includes sensational correspondence from every Israeli prime minister and president and a very difficult to assemble accumulation of letters by each of the 37 signers of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

In this latter regard, it is interesting to note that the most expensive American autograph is…Button Gwinnett. (Who?) An obscure Georgia representative to the Continental Congress and essentially unknown before signing the Declaration of Independence, Gwinnett (1735-1777) was killed about 10 months later. Consequently, only a few examples of his signature are known to exist, and anyone seeking to assemble a full set of American “signers,” an enormously popular area for collectors, is invariably missing Gwinnett’s, which is worth upward of $750,000.

In contrast, it is very difficult to determine the most expensive Jewish signature. The Rambam’s is undoubtedly up there, but perhaps trumping even that would be an autograph by Christopher Columbus; though the subject of great disagreement, there are historians who argue that Columbus was Jewish. If so, his authenticated signature – very difficult to establish for many reasons – might well hold the record.

Over and above the pride of ownership common to all collectors, I have learned so much through my study of these historical treasures. I have acquired fascinating correspondence written by people whom I never suspected were Jewish, such as:

● legendary frontiersman/gunfighter Wyatt Earp’s wife, Josephine, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn;

  • pantomime artist Marcel Marceau, a Jewish hero who saved the lives of many Jewish children during the Holocaust and whose father was murdered in Auschwitz;
  • Felix Salten, the author of Bambi, which was actually an adult Zionist political allegory presenting his presentiments of the coming Holocaust;

● artist Diego Rivera, who wrote that “my Jewishness is the dominant element in my life” and refused to stay at a hotel that excluded Jews;

  • immunologist Paul Ehrlich, the first Jewish Nobel Prize winner, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew and was a strong and committed Zionist; and
  • world chess champion Boris Spassky, who proclaimed that the Jews commit ritual murders and urged the banning of the Shulchan Aruch.
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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.
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