Collect antiques from US presidents

Hundreds of presidential artefacts are being sold in an online bidding that started this month in celebration of Presidents Day.
Hundreds of presidential artefacts are being sold in an online bidding that started this month in celebration of Presidents Day.PHOTO: REUTERS

(NYTIMES) - Mr Robert Russell Crans Jr is storing a bounty of items once owned and touched by President Abraham Lincoln and his family that represent a time in US history and politics most can read about only in history books.

Through hundreds of years, the Lincoln personal items have been passed down through generations of family members. Mr Crans is adopted, but his mother's stepfather Robert Lincoln Beckwith is the last known blood relative of the Lincoln family.

So he has taken some of these items to market, including a fan owned by First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln when she was in the White House; a sterling silver ladle from the wife of Robert Todd Lincoln, a son of the President and Mary Todd Lincoln; and a portrait of the First Lady's half-sister.

They are among hundreds of presidential artefacts being sold in an online bidding that started this month in celebration of Presidents Day at RR Auction, an auction house in Boston.

Auctions like this one open up a market to people who want to sell the historical items they have owned for decades and for presidential collectors who are eager to own a piece of US history.

Examples include a lottery ticket from 1768 signed by the first president George Washington that is projected to sell for at least US$20,000 (S$26,500).

The lottery was conceived by Washington as a way to raise funds to build a road through the Allegheny Mountains. Bidders can also buy locks of presidential hair from Washington and First Lady Martha Washington, estimated to sell for about US$75,000, or from Lincoln for about US$20,000. In that era, the locks were keepsakes often given to loved ones.

There is also a photograph, only one of three that exist, of Lincoln and his son Tad Lincoln, who died at age 18, signed by the President that is estimated to fetch about US$75,000.

Items from more modern presidents are also available, such as a personal letter from Mr Ronald Reagan to his daughter Patti Davis; John F. Kennedy's crimson red Harvard cardigan; and a cheque signed by Mr Donald Trump.

Many people do not realise that they can own something significant, like a letter from one of the country's founding fathers, said Mr Bobby Livingston, a spokesman for the auction house.

"It tells the story of the United States," Mr Livingston said. "History repeats itself in America. It's all right here in this auction." Bidders buy into these presidential items as a hobby, and it does not have to be expensive, said Mr Winston Blair, a board member for the American Political Items Collectors, a non-profit organisation founded in 1945 to collect and preserve presidential memorabilia.

And any time there is an intense election, similar to those in 2016 and last year, interest in collecting presidential items increases.

"It's just so neat to know that this person was president and they wore it, they signed it," said Mr Blair, who has a collection of 3,000 presidential items. "We can once own what they held in their hands. It brings a connection."

Mr Blair said he tended to favour items going to private collectors over museums because sometimes curators remove items from public display and because some donated items were auctioned off to help with fund raising or to pay off debts.

"They have more invested into it and they prize it more, and they'll do whatever they can to make sure it stays in great condition," Mr Blair said about personal collectors, adding that it also means rare pieces can be recirculated in the market. "It gives us hope that one day, we can own it again."

A majority of the country's cultural and historical artefacts are owned by private collectors, said Ms Margaret Holben Ellis, president of the American Institute for Conservation and New York University professor of paper conservation.

But the issue with private collections, she said, is that many collectors may not know how to properly preserve sensitive historical items or may want to display them.

"When something enters a private collection, the custodian is only a temporary custodian," she said about private collectors. "The same expectation of preservation should be extended to these items."

The institute offers resources to help private collectors maintain historical pieces and recommends against displaying them to keep natural light from damaging them, which is why museums will cycle collections, she said.