Presidential Signatures For Sale

WE have inherited George Washington as a statue rather than a man. He lived in an age when character was prized over personality - which led Washington to construct an awesome, aloof character rather than a lovable one.

All of this comes to the fore because George Washington's autograph is worth more than that of any other president, according to an article in the antiques newspaper "Small Fortune."

In its recent edition, the paper publishes a list of all 42 presidents, with an accompanying price for each one's signature. The list was compiled by the Charles Hamilton Galleries of New York. It also serves as a guide to what contemporary America thinks of its past chief executives.

George Washington's signature brings $4,000. The runner-up is Abraham Lincoln at $3,500. Lincoln was a lot more lovable than Washington and much more human in the eyes of posterity. Still, his autograph is worth $500 less than that of the Master of Mount Vernon.

As well as a president's echo in our concept of history, the price of his autograph is determined by several other factors. How recently a chief executive served is one such litmus. The autographs of Richard Nixon, George Bush, and Bill Clinton go for a mere $75 and Jimmy Carter's for $60. Nixon and Carter were very generous to people asking for autographs, thus, perhaps, glutting their particular markets.

It is a somber commentary that contemporary autograph collectors are willing to pay only $60 for a Herbert Hoover signature, $35 for Gerald Ford's.

There are some puzzles in the Charles Hamilton Gallery's list. Why, for example, is Zachary Taylor's autograph worth $300 and Grover Cleveland's only $80? Taylor served a little over one, inconsequential year in office before he died. Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president, the only one to have two unconnected terms.

It could be argued that Taylor's signatures are in short supply and are, therefore, higher priced. But there must be thousands of George Washington autographs around; he served, after all, as the commanding American general of the American Revolution, presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and was a two-term president.

John Adams was our second president and the first unsuccessful one. His autograph sells for $1,500. His son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, fared better than dear old Dad, but in the autograph business he's strictly down-market at $150.

William McKinley, whose nature was as amiable as his political activism was bland, fetches $150 - the same amount as his dynamic, history-making successor, Theodore Roosevelt.

If the prices collectors pay for presidential autographs reflect our opinions of former chief executives, then contemporary American views of the past are somewhat murky.

But maybe autograph collectors know something that the rest of us don't know. Maybe Zachary Taylor invented bungee jumping. Maybe John Adams was privately a barrel of laughs.

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