Collectibles: Hail to the Chiefs

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Decades of dealing in historic documents have led Kenneth Rendell to an intriguing observation about the presidents of the United States: The greatest were invariably skilled letter writers. “Washington and Lincoln could write staggeringly good letters, and I’ve sold letters by both for $1 million each,” says Rendell, owner of the Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery in Manhattan. Among the most noteworthy letters is one that Washington composed in 1789, a week after becoming president. In it he expresses his fears and doubts: “I greatly apprehend that my Countrymen will expect too much from me. I fear . . . they will turn the extravagant praises which they are heaping upon me at this moment, into equally extravagant censures.” Not all of the writing samples in Rendell’s inventory are as riveting, but the Washington letter does indicate the attraction for collectors of presidential material. This and similar items allow a glimpse into the lives of the men who have played such significant roles in shaping American history.

The pursuit of presidential documents and artifacts can keep collectors busy for decades, regardless of whether they attempt to gather an example from every administration or focus on a favorite individual. Those who follow the former strategy will have a difficult time finding a William Henry Harrison item for their collections. Harrison, the ninth president, died of pneumonia a month after taking office, and the few dozen papers he signed during his administration are highly coveted. “I’ve had two Harrison items in 50 years of business,” says Rendell, noting that one, a small vellum document bearing his signature, is part of a presidential collection that his gallery is offering for $165,000.
 
Auction houses occasionally conduct sales of presidential belongings. From February 15 through 17, Sotheby’s New York will hold a 600-lot sale of items from various homes owned by the John F. Kennedy family. Included are several rocking chairs that the president used to ease his back pain, and also artworks, books, and photographs.

Generally speaking, photographs of presidents are not very valuable, but pictures of Lincoln, whose presidency coincided with the emergence of the medium, are exceptions, as was demonstrated this past November, when the California auction house Bonhams & Butterfields sold the Lloyd Ostendorf collection of Lincoln photographs. Ostendorf, who died in 2001, wrote the definitive reference on the subject, Lincoln’s Photographs. In addition to drawing devotees of what is sometimes called Lincolniana, the sale attracted Civil War buffs and collectors of autographs and antique photographs, who collectively spent almost $1 million on the 204 lots. An oversize albumen print of Lincoln taken by Alexander Gardner in August 1863 sold for $99,000, almost 10 times the pre-auction estimate. Other items in the sale bordered on the morbid: a plaster cast of Lincoln’s head that some have mistaken for a death mask ($93,250), and a bloodstained piece of the jacket that he was wearing when he was assassinated ($12,925).

After handling more than 300 images of Lincoln, Catherine Williamson, head of the Bonhams & Butterfields books and manuscripts department, discovered that her appreciation for the man had grown. “You don’t get tired of looking at Lincoln,” she says. “He was just such a compelling person, and the more you learn, the closer you want to get.”

Bonhams & Butterfields, 415.861.7500, www.butterfields.com
Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery, 212.717.1776, www.kwrendell.com
Sotheby’s, 212.606.7000, www.sothebys.com

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