People Near Here; 207; Howard Coffin: Handwritten History
The history of America in signatures of the people who made it happen.
As we are due to a fellow with one of the most unusual autograph collector anywhere next on people near here.
Thank you very much. Hi and welcome to another edition of people near here. Have you ever stopped to consider how important your signature is. It's probably the most important thing that you own. For no one else has one exactly like it. I mean sign your name on the dotted line and you can cash a check buy groceries fill up your gas tank. Close the deal on your dream house. But we take our signatures for granted don't we. I mean how many times in your lifetime will you sign your name to something. And for how many years after your death will your signature survive you hundreds of years. Most probably. And if you're famous Your signature is sought out by collectors historians and THING hands. Big money changes hands these days for an Abraham Lincoln autograph. And the ownership of an authentic Shakespeare signature could make you one of the richest people in the world. Well recently videographer Paul Frederick and I met a fellow who has some of the most unusual autographs to be found anywhere. His name is Howard cotton a Vermonter and a collector of hand written history.
We're in Howard Coffin's living room. He's graciously invited just over to look at his very special autograph collection. But we have made him one promise and that is we're not going to tell anybody exactly where in Vermont we are and that will become evident I think as we go along.
Thanks for having us. Well I'm glad you came over. I would make the point early on that if you knew where I was it would do any good because I don't keep the autographs here you go.
Louis Armstrong jumps out at me here and you were telling us earlier that this is where your collection began. Is that right.
Yeah. Many years ago I suppose I was about 12 years old a friend of mine took me to a Louis Armstrong concert at Dartmouth. And afterwards he had access to Armstrong and we went down to his dressing room. We was having a fight with his lead singer but he started smiling when he saw some fans there and I asked him for an autograph body instinct I guess and he willingly signed it and he had a glossy Yeah to publish the photo there so he signed it and I put it away didn't think much about it. And that's not really where I started collecting I just happened to have that. That's fascinating. Who else do you have here. Well there's a quite a pile of titles are these sure that we will come to I know who this woman is.
This is my actual Angelou Yes wonderful.
I was an opportunistic collector and I was working at the University of Vermont when she came there speak so naturally I put a photo in front of her nose and she said that's great and very you know joy and the date in her name.
Well what makes.
What makes an autograph valuable.
Well of course it has a lot to do with the with the importance of the person in history.
It has a lot to do with the fame of a person I mean an autograph as the market is like any other commodity. If it sells it sells if it doesn't it doesn't need to be in wide use of autographs risin in their rise and fall. For instance when a president is in office many times his autograph is can be very high. But after history makes a judgement Italy's are either rise or fall. Well here you go here's a general forward that's his signature right there and yes it is he signed it in front of me so I can tell you that it is authentic and it's very hard with politicians to know whether the signatures are authentic. Why are most politicians don't sign their own signatures because they get so many requests so they have their their assistants Toronado pen or something on a pens but mostly now the politicians have people who can copy their sense is almost perfectly. Is this worth very much Harris. Well it's a four signed Ford photograph will list in an autograph catalog for $500 that looks like Nixon. That's Richard Nixon. That's Richard Nixon. It is a letter written to a conservative columnist in New Hampshire Jeffrey Hart. Nixon letters are fairly common and he wrote a lot of letters particularly post-presidency This is the post presidential letter I mean you can pick one up for four or five hundred dollars but this one is somewhat unique. Why. Because in the letter he tells heart that he wishes he had started bombing North Vietnam much earlier than he did.
Content is very important in autographed color.
So when looking for an autograph or something scribble on a napkin. That's all right.
But if it's if it's a story if it's a piece of history of any science and piece of history your your value is definitely going to go up on a napkin isn't going to be terribly durable peace right. You have to worry about that with autographs too what kind of paper are they written in are they going to last paper that's part of the date of the last. You can have them de acidified of course but that costs money.
This one is dated one thousand twenty seven and it's written on White House stationery. Yes but I got to be honest with you I can't read the signature. Well it's Calvin Coolidge.
That's Calvin Coolidge's signature and that's a that's a very distinct and famous signature he had it he had crafted the signature that no one could mess all over. You have to be familiar with it to recognize it instantly. But in it he talks about. It's a letter to his a man who worked for him in Plymouth as written at the White House while he was president. And he's asking the man to put pine boughs on his parent's grave. And then he's telling them to send some maple syrup but don't send too much. Anybody who would it was very penurious always concerned of the cost of things. It's one of the better. Coolest lot as I've ever seen. That's wonderful. And it came available to an autograph collector and I couldn't resist it.
And when you send the syrup please send your bill along with it. Yes take care of all of it right there right away. Fascinating this is wonderful. Who is this.
Well that actually you got two letters of parallel to see there. Here we go. Those are letters signed by the two men who piloted the planes that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.
Yes I see. Paul Tibbets. Yes Paul Tibbets was the pilot of the Enola Gay and and the general Sweeney who's who is dead now. The other one I had a hard time tracking Sweeney down it took me almost a year to find out where he lived in the last use it and I sent him a letter asking him why he did it and saying that I too believe that the world would would would have ended sooner because of that and he wrote back sort of agreeing with me but that's a that is a fairly important pair of letters not only because again who they are but but because of the content because of content Absolutely and also because of Sweeney is no longer with us and it will be no more of these letters tippets.
There is a fairly easy autographs to obtain by the way if you write to him.
This this one is an anomaly a great photograph but this is a photograph of Ted Williams signed by Ted light.
Yes and this. Well I was.
I've been a baseball fan of long standing and I went to a spring training one year and Williams was around and so I procured somewhere I think from the Red Sox publicity office a photo album and I eased up to him and he very willingly signed it. Now today he won't sign a photo without charging it with his agent. I'm not sure I would think probably around $100 million in most sports personalities won't sign for nothing today but this was 20 years ago.
But sports autograph collecting.
It's not what it used to be is it I mean isn't it a risky business it's a risky business it's a big business that's the problem in that in that sports personalities are signing by the by the hundreds and selling them for a certain amount of money.
Now one of the keys in valuing an autograph is a rarity. Yes and when you've got someone's signing autographs I don't care how important a sports personality for instance Mickey Mantle you know very valuable autograph when he signed as many as he signed. The value goes down plus it's hard to be certain that they actually were signed by the person you always got that concern with autographs. You can buy books that tell about authenticity and will give you examples of funny and signatures autopen signature but it's always a concern.
What about something as lovely as this now. This you must of did you run into the man.
No I worked for seven years at Dartmouth College and Ted Geisel who's That's Dr. Seuss's real name who is a Dartmouth graduate. Oh OK.
And he came there quite often and we built a winter carnival around in one year and I helped him work on that and so we corresponded by a lot he was always dropping me these wonderful little it's wonderful Was he that generous with all of his friends.
I really don't know. He was a he was a very nice person. It was a very nice person and I remember taking my daughter with me. He signed a book for her and that when he got through signing it he gave her a big hug I mean he was just a wonderful man as I would think well you know that's just wonderful.
There's a book here that I want to show everybody because it's one of my favorite American poets certainly and one of the great Vermonters of all time. Yes I put laureate at one time and right here signed in 1039 when this edition came out. Yes yes. Is this something you've had for a long time this book with this.
There's a couple interesting things about this for one thing when frost signed an autograph he would sign it quickly slammed the book shop hoping it would pick up on the next page you get to autograph for one that didn't happen with this. Now he made a joke of that. The other thing is I bought this at the Brattle Street bookshop in Boston for $35. Twenty years ago the day after I bought this book the place burned 400000 books when I complained the owner of the shop always remembered me. The little rescuing the frost the day before the fire.
That's interesting. Then it's not just collecting it's it's it's making sure that history survives in a way almost done.
Yes you're going to collect autographs if you're particularly historic documents which I'm also into and we can talk a little later about the Lincoln document. All of it. You got to be willing to take care of them and sometimes that involves considerable expense. D acidification paper that's printed today is no good unless it's good rag paper. But your average piece of paper is full of acid and it's going to self-destruct if you don't do something about it and keep them out of the light. Yes he's going to frame them put them behind ultraviolet protective glass try to handle a lot of it right.
Right right. Be careful if you do make sure your hands are clean. Can you do use it if I have piece of paper you can de acidify a piece of paper but the ink is a problem.
Often times you have to put it in a bath in a solution and some inks will just run away. Better have a pencil autographed pencil autographs are much much easier to care for because they don't flow away like ink and the fountain pen better than the ballpoint you're not sure.
Oh that's Sorry that's a bridge I've never cross Here's one that is signed by a ballpoint obviously that's one of my favorite autographs because when it is red and Hillery course the first man to climb Mt. Everest and its sign on a funnel over the peak of Everest. And I used to do an awful lot of hiking still do and so that's long been a favorite of mine of course now they are good they go up every now like yes in hordes.
But he and Tenzing Norgay were the first is right ever to do that yet and here before we get into it you've got some wonderful eclectic Hollywood stuff this man has some of the most amazing autographs you'll ever see but I think you'd enjoy looking at this because this is so American.
Yes that was that's an interesting acquisition. Many years ago I was helping a woman in Shrewsbury Vermont. Marjorie Pierce she's now 94 in better health and clearly cleaned out an attic. And we came out and all Kellogg's What is it like yeah box. And I cut the front panel out of it I saw it was a rock weld and I nailed it too. And he sent back a letter which I still have saying you know I don't do this anymore but you being a Vermonter and so forth he signed it you see and so I've had that ever since.
So the formal signature tells me this is very interesting how because the formal signature if you will on his work was very laborious and precise and his his hand signature is much more casual scrawls Yeah. Fascinating. Now let me see some of your more collected things this is this is going to be a real treat for the.
Well I thought of you as many years ago I bought a collection of letters written during World War. Well some of them were written during World War Two.
It concerns fire safety in the United States Navy. And someone was doing a film and got all these VIP all these VIP to write letters about fire safety and the corrections and they offered me the collection of a couple hundred dollars and I bought it so I have always letters about fire safety signed by for instance Lillian Gish.
Wait a minute. The great screen actress on her own stationery to us is finally dinner with Lillian Gish once and I retain several of her autographs and I and they matched perfectly so I know that's an interesting moment.
A wonderful woman had a wonderful chat about her filming way down east on White River in Vermont.
Yes yes. OK Basil Rathbone. This is in my opinion the best who ever played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sleuth super sleuth and it's had the whole thing's hand written that's handwritten Yes wonderful Adley Stevenson.
You know we can flip through these quickly Nat King Cole at all for months you know hang on necking calls a big favorite of mine.
OK look at that that's a nice signature. This man was fly blind wish I wish that that letter dealt with music and it doesn't have to have that brings up an interesting point here. Here's a letter on fire safety signed by Chester Nimitz Admiral Nimitz. They're important world war two personalities and it talks about fire safety on battleships and World War 2 and that's got real content is a value that if there is one can I ask you the value of some of these would that be. I really don't know you have to test that at auction but I think a Nimitz letter dealing with World War 2 we're talking a thousand dollars clearly in his own hand.
You know interesting. But again I'd not search engine old Thomas. Oh yes yes Rudy Vallee who you know was born up in the in the Island Pond Vermont. I didn't know that. Is it for Monster or she was money to Vermont you can stick around that long. Do you remember him.
Yes the famous actor as actor and it just goes on here Mae West and Walter Pigeon and so forth. I notice that these this is all the same collection that you showed us here. The fire safety collection the address he has been eliminated and I don't know why I don't know why.
A mystery and the person I bought the collection from said they didn't know why either. Isn't it strange.
What do you suppose is the most valuable signature autograph that you could show.
Oh it would be Lincoln and I don't you know I mean I talk a great deal I'm willing to talk a great deal about why things are valued as far as the actual value it doesn't concern me that much I'm very interested in having in my home. The something signed by someone that fascinates me and I write books about the civil wars and civil wars. It's particularly interesting to me. What got me started not a graphic collecting was an uncle of mine who told me once that he owned a Lincoln signature and sold it and to kill it you know. Yeah but I said My God how did you pay for it he said I think I paid he said he paid $50 and I said You mean you could own a Lincoln signature I mean even I could afford that you know. And he said yes and he said you know when the man's gone.
The only thing you have left of him is is writing.
Interesting that concept that idea got me going on autograph collecting and I did indeed buy a Lincoln signature about a year later and I bought it for three hundred dollars of military commission a sign for a Vermont it's on the wall right there right there now.
Also I'll say for instance that if that were sold today it probably would be worthwhile. Lincoln signatures are common on commissions but it's worth at least $5000. That's a nice appreciation and good investment although it you never sell the Lincoln Lincoln signature is getting it's collecting autographs these days and different than it used to be.
There are yeah I think you know it is I think I think the sports market is indicative of what's going on. People have suddenly realized that there's money in autographs. And the prices have gone up on many autographs. The civil war today is since the Ken Burns series in the movie Gettysburg is tremendously popular. And so civil war autograph for instance have gone up.
Significantly What's the one on a graph that you don't have that you look for all your life that you would do just about anything to get.
William Shakespeare that's finally getting I think is one autograph of Shakespeare that exists and I think I don't know what what the worth would be.
That's an interesting question we were talking before the camera was turned on here and you mentioned Dylan Thomas the the Welsh poet and I happen to be a considerable fan of his and that's that's a signature I would like to own but I don't collect anymore.
And if I blunder on to something something and grab it particularly if it's someone that I admire.
If it's an awfully good deal you know and friends of mine say never buy an autograph or store a document as an investment.
I don't agree with them I think I think it's a perfectly logical thing to do although sometimes sometimes you make a mistake I remember working hard to get a Henry Cabot Lodge signature many years ago. He was on his way to the presidency disappeared now to five weeks now and probably spent a lot more than I've posted. So you never you never really know. Dylan Thomas would be that it would make you happy. Now the Ethan Allen is the signature I'd like to own but they've gone out of sight. In terms of expenses I did once for the University of Vermont several years ago in a Lincoln Allen letter at auction and I think I went down there were thirty thousand dollar limit and I went for 40 in that one one letter.
Is it possible to come across interesting signatures of significant people in history by going through an old bookstore.
Yeah going to a garage sale is that possible. Yes and if you just give me a moment here I'll show you a good example. Sure. Yes go ahead.
This is a good example of of the fact that you can.
You can indeed find bargains on the bookshelves. Although it's increasingly difficult. I found this book in a bookstore in Woodstock Vermont 15 years ago. Martin Luther King. Signed by Martin Luther King with an inscription in the book by the woman who owned it written on the day that he was assassinated.
Wow I just got up.
Well I did some research on this book and found out that Martin Luther King was only in Vermont once he was. It was a Norwich Ramadi giving a speech at Dartmouth College just across the river. He went over to a professor's house in Norwich for about an hour before he went down to White River to catch the train.
And he signed one thing while he was there. So that's the only king autograph ever signed in Vermont and this was on the bookstore shelf for $15.
And needless to say I was willing to pay that I didn't know the whole provenance of the thing at the time but I but I was certain that it certainly $15 it was a good buy using watch. If you're collecting you're serious about you watch for mistakes and sometimes you make them of course. But you watch for dealer mistakes is a good example of civil war letter. Advertise an autographed catalog for $250. It's written in the middle of the battle of Chancellorsville by a general named Oliver oldest Howard who lost the battle of Chancellorsville and in the letter he said I'm happy to report there's no enemy in my front.
There wasn't at the time but a couple of hours of the twenty five thousand men you see his whole mindset there he wasn't paying attention. He was about to be clobbered. That's a very important Civil War letter and worth from more than two hundred fifty dollars in the deal or made a mistake. Fortunately I saw it in the catalogue the day it came out and pounced.
Howard's fabulous collection is evidence of a keen eye and the willingness to pay. But Howard I think was holding out on which signature he would really like to own for nearby at the local historical society where Howard does some research as a writer of civil war history. There is a bust of Abraham Lincoln. And with it is a note in Lincoln's own hand. It's a pass which allowed the bear to move unhindered through Union lines during the Civil War. But what makes this particular note most collectable is the date on which it was written. April 13th 8:00 p.m. 65 the day before President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater.
There's one other graph I'd like to have. This is a this is a book that I partly wrote for mothers in the civil war a full duty by her coffin and are you working on another book now I understand.
Yes I'm working on another book about Vermont the Civil War called nine months to Gettysburg. We'll be out in the fall and it's about a Vermont brigade that probably did more than any other unit to win the battle of Gettysburg.
Interesting. Well we'll look forward to that. Meantime I look forward to reading this if I get a pair you sang as well I certainly will. Excellent collection has begun. Thank you oh my first autograph. Thanks for having us are of course very good fun.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- People Near Here
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- Meet a fellow with one of the rarest and almost priceless collections of autographs to be found anywhere; from Abraham Lincoln to Dr. Seuss. Includes tips on how to collect famous signatures and how to spot the forgeries.*(episode number on tape label and/or slate may be incorrect)
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Camera Operator: Muirden, Derek
Editor: Frederick, Paul
Producer: Muirden, Derek
Producing Organization: Mountain Lake PBS
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Mountain Lake PBS (WCFE)
Identifier: 0086A (MLPBS)
Format: Betacam SP
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- Chicago: “People Near Here; 207; Howard Coffin: Handwritten History,” 1997-00-00, Mountain Lake PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 22, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_113-472v74k2.
- MLA: “People Near Here; 207; Howard Coffin: Handwritten History.” 1997-00-00. Mountain Lake PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 22, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_113-472v74k2>.
- APA: People Near Here; 207; Howard Coffin: Handwritten History. Boston, MA: Mountain Lake PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_113-472v74k2