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Signatures for Sale : Dealer Likes His Papers Rare

September 21, 1987|DAVID LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

It's that kind of a business for Kenneth W. Rendell--the big problem isn't selling, it's finding the merchandise.

"I have to wait for things to turn up," he said. A document dealer's lament.

Take the time a couple in suburban Boston, who had purchased a house, found trash bags in their basement containing papers and clothing. Rendell was summoned, and after rummaging through what seemed like worthless trash, turned up a badly soaked journal.

"Within a few minutes, I realized what it was," he recalled.

Written in Pencil

Said a journal entry written in pencil: "We should be at the Pole now, radio that we have reached the Pole and are now returning on one motor with a bad oil leak, but we expect to be able to make Spitsburgen (island in the Arctic Ocean)."

Nothing less than a written message from explorer Adm. Richard Byrd to his pilot as they circled the North Pole. The journal subsequently was sold to the Polar Archives at Ohio State University for $160,000.

In contrast, four years ago, it was Rendell who gave a historic thumbs down.

He had been the only American invited to examine the sensational discovery of what appeared to be Hitler's diaries. Newsweek had retained the services of the Boston-based manuscript dealer to authenticate papers for which the West German publication Stern had paid $3.1 million.

As other authorities were gushing over the find, Rendell quickly exposed the writings as fake.

"For one thing, whenever Hitler wrote a line, he slanted it downward. None of these lines were. Everybody who had examined the diaries had missed that completely.

"For another thing, when people sign something, they generally form the capital letters differently than they do in what they have written. And this hadn't been done.

"Also, even superficial research into the dictator's personal habits would have revealed that he always used high quality leather writing folders. These were cheap notebooks. It just wasn't his style."

And it was only last month (August) that Rendell sounded the whistle, or more accurately the Whistler, on art scholar Charles Merrill Mount, arrested twice by FBI agents (in Washington and Boston) after the discovery of 200 missing documents from the National Archives and the Library of Congress. The 59-year-old Mount is awaiting trial on possession of stolen documents.

"He had sold a Boston bookstore 20 letters by the painter (James Abbott McNeill) Whistler," Rendell said. "When he told them he also had three letters by Abraham Lincoln, they consulted a reference volume and called the FBI, which got in touch with me.

"I saw that his Whistlers were among about 50 that I had sold to the Library of Congress between 1970 and 1974. They had my handwriting on them--the inventory numbers and cost."

This case involved his own writing, but he emphasized that he isn't usually for hire as an expert on handwriting of others. "But," he said, "you have to have such expertise in my business."

Although forgery of documents is probably on the increase, the 44-year-old Rendell prefers discussing trends in collecting rare documents, who is hot and why the hobby is increasing.

Contemplating the placement of framed rarities at his newly opened gallery in the Heritage Book Shop, 8540 Melrose Ave. (he has others in Boston, New York City, Chicago and London), the dealer philosophized:

"People are looking for heroes. As the world becomes depersonalized, events are overwhelming individuals. It means something for a person to have some kind of personal connection, if only in the form of a letter or document or signature. It takes the hero out of a museum and makes him real," he said.

A Babe Ruth signature, for instance. "They are hard to find. I get one about every two months and can sell it immediately, usually for around $750."

Little Logic

Sometimes, not always, there appears to be little logic in who's hot at the moment:

- A Napoleon Bonaparte document goes for $1,000, whereas one by Arthur Wellington, who defeated him, goes for only $500.

- A signed check by Charles Dickens, who is hot now, goes for $600, whereas one by Alfred Tennyson commands only $350.

- There has been considerable interest in Victor Hugo (letter for $1,500) since the current success of the Broadway hit "Les Miserables."

As for U.S. Presidents, it must pain a New Englander to admit it, but Rendell pointed the finger at John F. Kennedy as the chief executive responsible for the often cheap value of Presidents' signatures--because of the introduction of the autopen and the practice of allowing secretaries to sign their names.

"As a congressman, Kennedy let his secretaries do this," Rendell said. "It was deliberately deceptive.

"Until Kennedy, most presidential signatures were genuine," the dealer explained. "Now you have to presume it isn't, until proven otherwise.

"Jimmy Carter, according to his chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, started off wanting to sign everything, but after about three days into the presidency, he realized it would be impossible.

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