The smart collector: Founding Fathers', early presidents' signatures vary enormously in value

2013-04-14T00:00:00Z The smart collector: Founding Fathers', early presidents' signatures vary enormously in valueDanielle Arnet Tribune Media Services Arizona Daily Star
April 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Q: Your column carried a photo of a Ben Franklin-signed deed that sold for $13,200. We have a document signed 1811 that grants land in Ohio to a family member. It's signed in two places by President James Madison and once by Secretary of State James Monroe. Is this of similar value? Should we have the signatures authenticated? How do we sell it?

A: In 1811, when the reader's land grant was written, Ohio territory was the American frontier. They're not rare; quite a few presidential land grants for that area from the era still remain.

Sandra Palomino, director of historical manuscripts at Heritage Auctions in Dallas, www.ha.com, has handled many such documents.

"Primary value for a land grant is based on the autograph value of the signer," she told us. In this case, the money question is whether a Ben Franklin signature tops Madison and Monroe signings.

While Palomino thinks that signings by the latter are "hugely undervalued" because both Founding Fathers made significant contributions, it is Franklin's signature that buyers want. That, in large part, explains the five-figure result on the Franklin-signed deed.

Happily, the reader's grant was signed before the 1830s. Early presidents and Cabinet officers signed all land grants, but "once you get into the 1830s, that is not always the case," Palomino adds. As an example, Andrew Jackson signed many during his administration, but his nephew and secretary also signed.

After Jackson, all presidents used their secretaries to sign grants. The one exception is John Tyler, and he did not sign many. Only a handful of Tyler-signed land grants exist. It seems like an ideal collecting scenario, but low demand has kept values low.

A casual look on the Internet for Madison-Monroe-signed land grants offered by dealers showed breathtaking price tags. We found several in the $15,000 range.

When we asked what gives with those prices, Palomino replied by email that she had no explanation or comment. Our opinion is that a seller can ask anything, but getting it is another matter.

Most retail dealers offer Madison-Monroe-signed land grants for $1,000-$1,500.

Results at auction tend to be more realistic. The auction house wants to realize best price for the consigner as well as for the house, because it realizes a percentage of the sale. It's in everyone's interest to sell high.

According to Palomino, George Washington-signed land grants sell at auction for $8,000 to $10,000. Jefferson grants sell in the $3,000 to $5,000 range, and John Adams-signed grants sell for $2,000 to $3,000. After that, results drop. Secretary-signed Abe Lincoln grants go for $25-$100.

Authentication is not necessary if the grant is consigned to auction; house experts will take care of that. I suggest shopping the document to auctions that sell Americana and historic manuscripts.

Q: Any thoughts or comments on my granddad's Omega watch?

A: An image sent shows a pocket watch on a chain. Either might be gold or gold plated. Unfortunately, case markings and those on the works are not shown. That's the info needed.

I suggest that the reader check his local library for a recent edition of "Complete Price Guide to Watches." Or look on www.tinderboxpress.com. The title lists more than 10,000 pocket and wristwatches with values.

The no-fee site www.liveauctioneers.com has recent auction results of Omega pocket watches. There he'll see why proper ID is critical.

COLLECTOR QUIZ

Q: One 19th-century technological and social advancement made American pocket watches the best in the world. What was it?

A: The hunter case

B: The railroad watch

C: The lever escapement

D: Enamel dials

E: Swing-out movements

Answer: With 500 to 1,000 American railroads at the time, the railroad watch standardized time setting and established American pocket watches as the best. Source: "Complete Price Guide to Watches."

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send email to smartcollector@comcast.net or write to Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Please include an address in your query. Photos will not be returned.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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