Snippets of History

May 6, 2014

Autographs are vestiges of history. They tell their stories to the attentive listener more completely when they remain a part of their original context. Thus, complete documents are preferable to fragments and archives of related items are more desirable than individual documents. Critics may point to auction houses and dealers in autographs as the primary "culprits" in the crime of rendering history into incoherent fragments. Yet one could also argue that the same actors are equally responsible for the preservation of items that would have been destroyed, had they not been redistributed to collectors with the will and means to preserve those snippets of history.
In Swann Auction Galleries' Thursday, May 22, Autographs Auction, there are a number of items that have been clipped out of their original context, but for many of these, we know enough about their origins to recover their intriguing places in history.
One such item is a fragment of George Washington's draft of his discarded first inaugural address. It would surprise many to learn that this important document was the victim of someone's scissors, especially as the person responsible had no intention of profiting from the act, except insofar as he felt satisfaction in pleasing an autograph collector. Jared Sparks, before becoming president of Harvard in 1849, was given the papers of George Washington, so that he might publish them in his “Life and Writings of George Washington, 1834-37.” When his work was completed, Sparks complied with the growing requests for samples of Washington's writing, and when he had sent nearly all the trifling items, he began cutting into strips the remaining "trifles," so as to please as many collectors as possible. Today, it is not difficult to recognize the historical importance of many of the items Sparks seemed to view as being sufficiently insignificant to send to collectors. The incomplete phrases that can be read in the fragment being offered in the auction do not seem especially important in themselves, but with some scholarship and imagination, the humility, duty, struggle, and optimism expressed by the young country's first president can be reconstructed. If no collectors had pestered Sparks for autographs, one might wonder whether Washington's first inaugural draft would have been neglected and lost altogether, like countless other items whose value was not recognized by their early protectors.
Every little stitch of history that has been left to us can be a blessing for the collector, even those bits that have little more to them than a signature. Sometimes, close attention can unlock some of the story behind such a scrap. For instance, on the verso of a clipped signature by Thomas Jefferson (little more than two inches long), a few printed words reveal that the signature was once part of a 1793 act of Congress establishing the first Federal maritime infrastructure, including lighthouses, beacons, buoys and piers. In rare cases, a collector can reunite a clipped signature with its complementary document, such as can be seen in an Alexander Hamilton letter that will be featured in the sale. In this letter, in which Hamilton writes from Morristown in 1777 as George Washington's aide-de-camp, the signature in the closing had clearly been clipped out and later restored. One can only speculate whether the restoration was done by a remorseful scissor-wielder or an attentive collector who owned one part and happened upon the other.
Although it is easy to see why the collector might prefer whole documents and undisturbed archives, the historical importance of an artifact is not always so obvious. For historians and collectors of the future, there will always be gratitude for the quiet heroism of today's collector who harbors an appreciation for the snippets of history.
For more information on the auction, visit
Images courtesy Swann Galleries.


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