Letter From President Lincoln Brings $14,500 at Smythe Auction

Manhattan, New York – January 24, 2008 – New York auction house RM Smythe & Co, Inc held one of the most successful autograph auctions in its 125-year history on Thursday, January 17, 2008. The sale, featuring the collection of Steven Lee Carson, saw an unprecedented 77 percent of offered lots sell. Although the auction suffered a few delays due to technical problems with E-bay Live Auctions, in the end bidders on the floor, on the phone, and at their computers were able to take home a remarkable variety of historical autographs and Americana.

Not surprisingly, the highest hammer price was won by a letter written by President Abraham Lincoln, asking Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to approve the resignation of a cavalry captain at the request of the officer’s wife. Lincoln, typically a “soft touch” in such cases, makes the argument that “we are rapidly getting an over-proportion of officers.” The letter sold for $14,500, not counting a buyer’s premium. The Great Emancipator wasn’t the only family member bringing high prices. A pair of 1869 letters (one incomplete) from his widow, in which she refers to him as having been “from my eighteenth year – Always – lover – husband – father and all, all to me – truly my all,” brought nearly as much, $13,000.

One of the most exciting possibilities at any auction is watching a lot begin at a modest opening price only to rise and rise. That is just what happened with an extremely rare autograph note signed by beloved artist Norman Rockwell that had on it an original concept sketch for one of his covers for the Saturday Evening Post. A typical autograph note by the author might bring about $200-300, and the lot had been given a modest estimate of $650. Due to mail bids received before the auction, the lot opened at $2000; furious bidding drove it to a final price of $5500. Another high climber was a fascinating typewritten letter signed by Theodore Roosevelt as president during his negotiation of the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War, complaining about the stubbornness of both sides. Estimated at $2500, it sold for $8500. Also shooting well beyond its estimate was a signed copy of Woodrow Wilson’s book Why We Are at War, which was estimated at $700 and sold for $3000, a record price. According to American Book Prices Current, it was the first copy to sell at auction in thirty years.

When asked why these lots were estimated so low, Smythe’s Bob Litzenberger explained that in some cases, there were no recent sales results to use as a reliable guide. He added that there are strategic advantages to setting conservative estimates, too. “High estimates, even if you’re confident a lot can reach them, discourage bidding. When an item opens low, more bidders get involved, and even if it goes so high that only those with deep pockets can stay in the game, it makes the auction more fun for everyone. If you know you can get in on the action, you’re going to come back, and you’re going to also bid on other items and win them. Consignors, too, are much happier when something sells much higher than its estimate than they are when it sells for even a little less. They also know we aren’t going to give them false expectations just to get hold of their material.”

As usual, early presidents and first ladies were a hot item, with a very unusual letter by Abigail Adams in which she commiserates with a friend whose son died in battle bringing $7000. A great document signed by her husband, authorizing a letter of marque for the Quasi-War with France, sold for $6000. An autograph letter of recommendation signed by the ever-popular Thomas Jefferson while vice president brought $10,000.

Highlights from other collecting areas included an outstanding content typed letter signed by novelist Henry James in 1914, with his views on wartime topics ($850 – a record for him in that format); a delightful original drawing of the Grinch signed by animator Chuck Jones, who directed the television version of Dr. Seuss’s book ($700); an autograph letter signed by beloved “Peter Rabbit” author Beatrix Potter ($850); and a scarce program for a 1942 German marksmanship competition signed by notorious dictator Adolf Hitler ($2050).

Along with great autographs, Smythe offered collectible Americana, books, prints, and photographs in a mail bid and online sale following the public auction. Here, too, there were valuable rarities. A most unusual hand-drawn map of the area around Vicksburg, MS, used by soldiers under Gen. W.T. Sherman during the Union siege of that city, sold for $2100. A large tapestry celebrating the Declaration of Independence went for $1900. A letter from a girl who had witnessed the horror of the Great Chicago Fire reached $600, while a wonderful diary along with a few letters of a Civil War soldier, telling of his participation in the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, went all the way to $3250.

This is just a fraction of the sale’s results. Prices realized for the entire sale can be found at the firm’s web site, www.smytheonline.com.

Smythe is already accepting consignments for its next auction of autographs and Americana, scheduled for spring 2008. Interested parties can contact the company at 1-800-622-1880 for more details.

About R. M. Smythe & Co.
R. M. Smythe and Co., established in 1880, buys, sells, and auctions coins, paper money, stocks and bonds and autographs at their corporate headquarters at 2 Rector Street in the heart of the Financial District in New York City. To order a catalog, to contact any of the firm’s specialists, or to make general inquiries, call 212-943-1880 or 800-622-1880, or visit the firm’s website at: http://www.smytheonline.com.