In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed an executive order that freed slaves in the non-Union states—and he signed 48 copies. The original version of the Emancipation Proclamation is in the National Archives, but several copies are privately owned. One of those will be put up for sale at the Robert Siegel Auction Galleries on June 26 and is expected to fetch between $1.8 million and $2.5 million. Bloomberg Businessweek spoke with Seth Kaller, the historian who authenticated and appraised the document and has agreed to sell it for the owner. Kaller explained the origins of the document, which U.S. presidents bring in the most money at auction, and why historical papers are so much cheaper than works of art.
Wait, so Lincoln signed 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation? Why’d he bother to do that?
One of the ways that the Northern public supported the troops during the Civil War was through an organization called the Sanitary Commission. They helped makes soldiers’ conditions in the camps better by improving administering medicine, providing items for personal comfort, and supplying pens and paper so they could write home. Think of it as something similar to the Red Cross and USO put together.
To raise money for all of this, the Sanitary Commission held what were called Sanitary Fairs. They sold artwork, autographs—anything of value that people donated to them. Lincoln was very popular (in the North, at least), so some abolitionists asked him to sign a number of copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, which they sold for $10 a piece. There were 48 originally but only 26 remain now.
Who has them?
Eighteen are in museums or libraries. One of those is on loan right now to the White House. Eight are in private hands. But several of those are slated to go to museums in the coming years. I sold three of them in the $1 million-plus range a few years ago. The most interesting one has been the one that went for $3.77 million at Sotheby’s in 2010. It was the same as the others but it had the added bonus that in 1964 or ’65, when Bobby Kennedy was involved in the civil rights movement, he bought the copy.
Are these so expensive because Lincoln actually signed them?
No, the signature is only a small part of the value. There are military documents that Lincoln signed that go for much less money. I have a particularly nice one of him approving the promotion of an officer that’s worth about $11,000. This isn’t just a Lincoln signature, it’s an 1863 copy of the Emancipation Proclamation—a copy, yes, but it’s a historical document—and part of the value is related to its importance. It changed the world. There’s a spiritual value to it. It’s the closest we can get to touching the real thing, and it’s one that met with Lincoln’s hand.
What U.S. president brings in the most money when his documents go up for auction?
Lincoln historically has the highest prices. Washington will once in a while come up to that. I think this month there’s a Washington document that might break the record. It’s Washington’s personal signed copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and is estimated to be worth between $2 million and $3 million, but it will probably go for more.
For more modern presidents, Kennedy’s signature is of course highly desirable. So is FDR’s. On things related to the atom bomb, Harry Truman’s signature is a big deal. And then there’s William Henry Harrison. Signed documents from before he was president run only $500, but we just paid $85,000 for a standard shipping document he signed while president. The price is so high ’cause he was only in office for a month [before he died]. The scarcity is what makes it valuable.
These documents are pricey, but their price tags are much lower than what some pieces of art go for. One of Edvard Munch’s The Scream just went for $120 million. Is there a reason why artwork is more valuable than historical artifacts?
Not one that makes sense to me! You need more of an intellectual connection to historical documents, and art is easier in that sense. But also part of it is just the market. When the price for something is $10 million or more, the size of the number attracts some people. Some documents are below the radar of many big-time art collectors who really put importance on a piece based on its price. Yes, Lincoln did sign 48 of these proclamations, but they’re limited editions of a document that saved America. What should that be worth? We can’t price them above what the market says, even though right now there have been baseballs that have sold for more.
Do you think historical documents will ever reach the level of art and memorabilia? Has the asking price been rising?
The average market price hasn’t been rising much but the top end is. And actually, the lower-tier items priced below $1,000 have fallen. It’s an EBay effect; things aren’t nearly as scarce as people thought. There are really nice things that people can collect that are even in the $100 range. Yes, this Emancipation Proclamation is probably going to go for around $2.5 million—that’s my guess. But for $250 you can buy a copy of the document that was printed in a newspaper back in 1863. That’s just as historical. It’s just not signed by Lincoln.