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People of Letters : Collectibles: Autographed material is being called the "unexploited collectible." Experts agree the money is in Los Angeles, the market in the East.

November 06, 1989|ELIZABETH VENANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kline, who counts important clients in the Los Angeles area, sees them as more independent than the usual East Coast buffs. "They like to have control over their collecting," she says. "They make their own decisions."

The motivation to collect derives from everything--from hopes of lucrative investment to less easily definable instincts.

Americans, says Kline, have never thrown out scraps of paper. No sooner had the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence than collectors were gathering up signatures of the signers. And, following the Civil War, Gilded Age millionaires took to manuscript collecting as a means of attaining cultural respectability.

Contemporary collectors also begin their habits in typical ways, the experts say.

Kragen recounts how he wandered into an autograph shop and bought a signed Mark Twain photograph as a Christmas gift for a client. When the client announced he was changing managers, Kragen kept the photo, and, finding that friends viewed it "with awe," went on to such acquisitions as producer David Wolper's collection of 21 presidential checks.

Building firm president Benjamin Shapell started just as predictably. Ten years ago, he was browsing through an antiques magazine when he noticed a blurb about historical manuscripts. "I was stunned," he remembers. "I thought people weren't allowed to own these things. I thought they were all in institutions."

Once hooked, collectors find the value of their passion in the content of their documents, ideally, written on a pertinent subject by a famous person. Says Karpeles, "You want John Hancock saying, 'Oh, I just signed the Declaration of Independence yesterday.' "

When a document is desirable, there is always a story behind it. The Marilyn Monroe letter auctioned at Willen's was written when she was 16 and working in a wartime factory in the San Fernando Valley.

"Here's somebody who had a tortuous childhood and adulthood," says Willen. "But if you look for a moment between the awful childhood and the hideous adulthood, there's one moment when she's Norma Jean and happy."

"I'm so full of life, pep and vitality," declares Monroe, who has become the proud owner of a monkey-hair coat.

Historical Link

It is just such visceral links to history that provide collectors with thrills.

"You can collect any hero you like," says Shapell, whose idol is Abraham Lincoln. "When I hold a letter Lincoln once held, it really does something to me," he says.

For the cognoscenti, crossed-out texts only add to the intrigue.

"You can look under cross-outs to see what this famous person was thinking," says Karpeles, who laughs. "Some of the things they thought about were pretty dumb."

Karpeles, whose treasures include a 1493 letter from Spain's King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella to the Pope agreeing on their ownership of the New World, sees only about one in 10,000 manuscripts as historically important.

In the high-price class are blue-chip American Presidents, Washington and Lincoln, at around six figures. An early unpublished Einstein article sold two years ago for more than $1 million, while in the top-of-the-line category of composers, the record price was set in 1987 at Sotheby's in London when nine Mozart symphonies were sold for $3.9 million.

For bargain-hunting collectors there are the neglected areas of black history and women (Susan B. Anthony letters typically bring less than $1,000), says Sotheby's Kline. Karpeles sees former President Richard Nixon's letters as important, and McLaughlin recommends modern movie scripts ("they're not sexy looking") as good buys in a skyrocketing market. Says Maddalena, "Four years ago if you walked in a major auction house with Orson Welles' reading copy of H. G. Wells' 'The War of the Worlds,' they'd have laughed you out the door. It sold a year and a half ago for $220,000."

But passionate collectors are sharp on the subject of speculative buying. Says Kline, "If people want to collect documents for investment, I recommend CDs and treasury notes."

And, caution the experts, even the biggest collectors sometimes make serious errors of judgment.

Five years ago, Malcolm Forbes and H. Ross Perot did legendary battle over a souvenir copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Caught in auction fever, the moguls charged ever upward, until the gavel finally whacked down at $270,000.

Sotheby's estimate for the document had been between $35,000 and $50,000.

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