All The Buttons In One Basket

In the Chicago Board of Trade's wheat pit, Paul Perlin turns more than 100 trades a day--working for tiny profits that might add up to a fortune. Off the floor, though, he's going for the trade of his life: auctioning off his 20,000-item collection of Presidential campaign memorabilia--the largest in private hands--in a single lot. The presale estimate: $2.5 million to $3.5 million.

Perlin isn't the only one playing for high stakes. Sotheby's will wield the gavel on Dec. 12 in New York, gambling that a well-heeled individual or institution will buy a collection that includes items from every campaign from George Washington to Jimmy Carter. If the sale succeeds, interest in political collectibles could bloom, creating a new market for the auctioneer. If it fails, Perlin and Sotheby's may end up red-faced. The Perlin collection mixes several types of artifacts: 11,000 buttons, 3,000 manuscripts, plus photos and printed materials. That cuts both ways. "It's like you're auctioning the rarest of three cats and the rarest of three dogs," says Robert Fratkin, a McLean (Va.) collector who has twice appraised Perlin's buttons. "If I'm a dog collector, what do I want with the three cats?" But Kenneth Nebenzahl, a Chicago rare-book dealer who advised Perlin, says the "wonderful" collection shouldn't be broken up: "It's a cultural property now."

Perlin, who got hooked in 1972 after buying a letter by Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, admits he's more a buff than an investor. For the next four years, collecting consumed all his free time. Among his treasures: a rare autograph by William Henry Harrison, a scarce button showing the unsuccessful 1920 Democratic ticket of James M. Cox for President and Franklin D. Roosevelt for Vice-President, and pieces associated with Presidential assassins.

Perlin won't say what he paid for any item. But during the height of his collecting, he was the biggest factor in the market. "He wanted everything that ever existed," observes David J. Frent, an Oakhurst (N. J.) dealer. Adds Fratkin: "Dealers were just jettisoning their inventory. Paul became a fatted calf."

'NO HUNT.' The spree stopped in 1979, when Perlin began devoting more time to work and lent the collection to the University of Kentucky--which doesn't have the funds to bid. Budget problems may keep other institutions away, too.

Sotheby's is aiming for the private market, as it did last March, when it sold 873 baseball cards for $4.6 million. "It could appeal to the gray area of collectors interested in something new," figures Selby Kiffer, a Sotheby's book expert. The trick is to find a buyer who wants a turnkey collection. That's not easy. "The thrill is in the hunt," says Ted Hake, a York (Pa.) dealer. "This way, there is no hunt." If such feelings prevail, Perlin's big score could be a bust.

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