Letters & Documents
Letters & Documents, from historically significant texts to notes from celebrities, are widely collected around the world.
The practice of letter writing is an ancient one. Letters were delivered by messengers, often risking their lives, sometimes by a complex system of relay. Some were delivered by trained pigeons.
After the Roman Empire, there was little communication throughout Europe, literacy levels fell and the dark ages reigned.
The practice was rejuvenated with the invention of the printing press. Books were widely available, and an increasing number of the population began learning to read, and to write.
The post office was established in 1860, and the typewriter invented in 1868.
The first documents written were laws, accounts of battles, and records of the deeds of powerful men. As time went on, official documents were used more and more in business, to keep track of money, and as proof of agreements.
Both letters and documents generally bear signatures of the writer, and when these are the signatures of historically significant or famous figures, they become of interest to collectors as well as historians.
Since the 19th century, the role of the letter has diminished as other, more immediate forms of communication were invented. There are groups of people actively keeping the practice of letter writing alive, but its superfluous presence in the era of the telephone and email means that many people feel nostalgic about letters, as relics from the past.
Letters and documents are items of ephemera, and as such not necessarily expected to have a long life. This means that many letters and documents are precious survivors, the evidence of history that would have otherwise been entirely forgotten.
Letters are generally unique, one-of-a-kind items of correspondence. Each letter will possess different content, reference different events and people, and provide an insight into the daily life of the writer and the receiver.
Documents on the other hand may have been produced in a larger number, however, copies are often lost or destroyed so survivors can also be incredibly rare.
Types of letter and document
Historical & Political
One of the most notable historical documents is the Declaration of Independence. This represented the breaking away of American colonies from the British Empire, and the creation of the United States. Around 200 copies were printed to be read to the general public, and 27 copies are thought to remain extant. However, more copies may be unearthed at any time. In 1989, a copy was found hidden inside a picture frame bought at a flea market for $4. It sold for $2.42 million in 1991, and again for $8.14 million in 2000.
Other notable historical documents include the Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution, Bills of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act, treaties and surrenders, wills, laws, birth, death and marriage certificates, military records, cheques, census records and more.
Another important type of document is the paper copy of a political speech. Memorable speeches from history, before people had the ability to record them audibly and visually, are documented on paper. Even after recording speeches was a possibility, the written copies of the speeches provide the exact original words intended. Pericles’ Funeral Oration speech in the 5th century BC, George Washington’s inaugural speech, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Emmeline Pankhurst’s Freedom or Death speech, Winston Churchill’s We Shall Fight on the Beaches speech, and later his Iron Curtain speech, John F Kennedy’s inauguration address, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, Nelson Mandela’s I Am The First Accused speech, the list goes on. Abraham Lincoln’s election victory speech, delivered in Washington on November 10, 1864 sold for $3.44 million at auction in 2009. And not all memorable speeches are political; Lou Gehrig’s tearful Farewell to Baseball address in 1939 was one of the most moving speeches of the 20th century.
The letters of political and historical figures are likewise sought after, providing a more personal insight into their lives. The words from the pens or typewriters of politicians, royalty, military leaders, spiritual leaders, political prisoners, revolutionaries, the Kings and Queens of history, Lincoln, Napoleon, Nelson, Lenin, Churchill, Gandhi, all appeal to collectors.
Collectible letters and documents can also relate to significant historical events, such as the Antarctic expedition of Robert Falcon Scott, the fateful voyage of the Titanic, or any of the wars that have taken place throughout history. The most valuable letter ever sold at auction was a letter from scientist Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, to his son explaining their groundbreaking discoveries: ‘the secret of life’. The letter achieved $6 million in April 2013.
The letters of literary figures are highly collectible. In letters, the craft of the written word extends from fiction into their everyday lives. Collectors love literary ephemera, personal words from the pens of authors, poets and playwrights.
The cult of the intellectual ‘man of letters’ arose among the ranks of author and lexicographer Dr Johnson and his peers. Their letters were more than just correspondence: they were intellectual treatises. Letter writing became linked with literature, and remains so, the personal letters of writers revealing details of their lives that shaped their works, and also helping to study meaning in their writings. The letters contain matter that is key to both the fictional and the real worlds that the writers inhabit.
One notable example is American poet Emily Dickinson. A famous recluse, she conducted most of her friendships through written correspondence. These letters were dramatic, mysterious, packed with imagery, extensions of her literary art. They are very sought after and valuable. One such letter sold for $38,750 at auction in 2008.
Other writers whose correspondence is favoured when it comes up at auction include Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Jonathan Swift, Phillis Wheatley, George Orwell, James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sylvia Plath, T. S. Eliot, Walter Scott, the list goes on.
Original handwritten drafts of literary works generally come under the term manuscripts rather than documents.
The public interest in the personal lives of celebrities means that letters of famous people: musicians, actors, sportspeople, artists, socialites, are desirable collectibles. Collectors are eager for all memorabilia relating to the people in the limelight, and letters are a particularly personal example of this, an insight into the ‘real person’ behind the celebrity status.
For example, a letter from famed Major League Baseball right handed pitcher Christy Mathewson from 1900 sold for $37,375 at Sotheby’s in December 2004.
A handwritten letter from Marilyn Monroe to her half-sister, written prior to her rise to fame and signed ‘Norma Jeane’, sold for $16,000 at Julien’s Auction in June 2005.
A three page letter from boxer Muhammad Ali to sportswriter Jim Murray sold for $15,600 at Sotheby’s in June 2005.
Even the letters of famous criminals have a following, such as outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, notorious London gangsters the Kray twins, even John Lennon’s killer Mark Chapman.
The desire to possess a snapshot of the personal lives of historically significant, literary or celebrity individuals is further evidenced by the interest in obtaining the love letters of famous figures. From politicians to writers to entertainment professionals, billets-doux offer an unparalleled insight into the personal affairs of public faces.
Love letters sold at auction in the last few years include those of illustrator Charles Schulz to a woman 23 years his junior, Mick Jagger’s love letters to singer and model Marsha ‘Brown Sugar’ Hunt, and a letter from Horatio Nelson to his mistress Lady Emma Hamilton.
Collectors are generally interested in one particular famous figure, love letters being a part of a wider collection related to that celebrity, politician, writer, artist, musician, actor etc.
However, some collectors may focus on love letters more generally, collecting some by complete unknowns, such as letters to sweethearts from the front lines during war, written by forgotten soldiers.
Guide to Collecting
Collectors of letters and documents are often historically interested in learning about the writer, preserving their words, and maintaining a record of events.
Many significant letters and documents remain in the hands of institutions or historians. However, letters and documents are sometimes discovered in unusual places, and come into the public forum. Sometimes a large collection of letters and documents will be auctioned in one sale.
A collector must decide what to focus on within their collection. Generally this will be narrowed by era, and centre around political, literary, artistic, sports personalities, musicians, actors or other celebrity figures, perhaps just one in particular. Sometimes a collection will not focus on a person but centre around an event, such as letters from the trenches of World War One, or a historical experience, such as Western travellers and missionaries in colonial India in the 19th century.
Some items are extremely elite, expensive and rare, such as the Declaration of Independence. At the other end of the spectrum are letters from prolific letter writers, not necessarily containing any interesting or significant content. A general rule is that the more important the content, the more valuable the letter or document.
If the recipient of a letter is also famous, this can make the letter more valuable, such as love letters exchanged between two famous figures.
If the correspondence or document confirms or contradicts a known event, relationship or understanding about the writer, then it is a significant addition to the canon of knowledge about the individual, their history, and the society they lived in, and is thus more valuable in historical terms, and often monetarily.
Beware of forgeries. As with many areas of memorabilia, in particular autographs, the market is full of counterfeits and fakes. Always ensure each item has immaculate provenance.
Where to find
Letters and documents can be found at auction, on eBay, through autograph and memorabilia dealers, sometimes hidden in frames, in books, and amongst the belongings of the recently deceased.
When looking for letters and documents at auction, it is likely they will be found within auctions that focus on an area of memorabilia, such as sports collectibles auctions, or literary manuscript auctions.
If you know a famous person, or one who is likely to become famous, ask them to send you a letter!
- Letters of Note, a digital collection of famous correspondence that anyone can visit and read cost free.
- The Manuscript Society