Members of the Hall of Distinction
Oliver Rogers Barrett (1873-1950) was a Chicago attorney and Lincoln collector extraordinaire. Perhaps no other private collector has ever been more closely associated with the letters, documents, and autographs of Abraham Lincoln as Oliver Barrett. Barrett, who grew up in Pittsfield, Illinois—Lincoln country—graduated from the University of Michigan law school and practiced law in Chicago for most of his life. Although he was more than a fair trial and personal injury lawyer, he freely admitted that, “My collection is my real work. I only practice law so that I can do my collecting.” He amassed a breathtaking array of Lincoln manuscripts and artifacts. Among the former are the “White Rabbit Letter,” in which Lincoln tenderly expressed his appreciation for a furry gift sent to his son Tad as a means of consoling him over the death of brother Willie; the “Testimony” copy of the Emancipation Proclamation; the series of intimate letters written to his closest friend, Joshua Speed; and the very rare correspondence between Lincoln and wife Mary during his one term in Congress. He also owned such precious relics as Lincoln’s carpet slippers, gold watch chain, and even the “Reserved” sign which was posted to keep trespassers from accessing the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre. Barrett was more than a passive collector: his familiarity with Lincoln’s calligraphy was often put to use in detecting forgeries, his energetic investigative work helped to save many irreplaceable records from the incinerator, and he opened his collection to many Lincoln researchers. Among the researchers to benefit was Carl Sandburg who became a fast friend of Barrett’s. Sandburg’s 1949 book Lincoln Collector: The Story of Oliver R. Barrett’s Great Private Collection contains reproductions of many of Barrett’s significant items as well as stories and Sandburg’s commentary about them. Barrett served as president of the Board of Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library. Perhaps his greatest achievement was acquiring for the Library Lincoln’s Sanitary Fair autograph copy of the Gettysburg Address—and, for good measure, the manuscript of Edward Everett’s grand oration delivered just prior to Lincoln’s modest remarks. Barrett devised a unique fundraising campaign to acquire these Gettysburg treasures that involved Illinois school children donating their pennies to assist with the purchase. After his death, Barrett’s great collection was dispersed in 842 lots at a Parke-Bernet Galleries auction. In the first spring after Oliver’s passing, his widow, Pauline, travelled south across the prairie to Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery. There near Lincoln’s tomb was where she dispersed her husband’s ashes so he would remain forever close to the one he revered.
Mary A. Benjamin (1905-98), the daughter of noted dealer Walter R. Benjamin, is considered one of the greatest autograph dealers of the 20th century, renowned for her vast expertise. She went to work for her father in 1925, and after a long apprenticeship took over the business in 1943. In 1946 she published Autographs: A Key to Collecting, one of the classics in the field, a worthy and more scholarly successor to Thomas Madigan’s 1930 Word Shadows of the Great. Under Mary’s direction, Walter R. Benjamin Autographs cemented its reputation as one of the finest and most reputable firms in the U.S. and her standing as a preeminent authority on authenticity. She eventually moved the firm to Hunter, New York, where she continued buying and selling autographs until her retirement in 1994 – at which time The Collector, the monthly newsletter begun by her father more than a century before, was still being published.
Walter R. Benjamin (1854-1943) was a newspaper reporter who with his brother William, founded a rare book and manuscripts firm in 1887. The next year the autograph portion of the business, Walter’s passion, was split off and became Walter R. Benjamin Autographs, one of this country’s oldest autograph firms. Operating in New York City, Benjamin brought a strong business sense and belief in advertising to the autograph world. In that first year he began issuing The Collector, a monthly news bulletin and sales catalogue aimed at collectors. He offered a wide array of material from prominent persons in all fields, and his clientele were not only the wealthy but also collectors of all means. By the early part of the 19th century his firm was one of the leading autographs firms in the U.S.
Malcolm Stevenson Forbes (1919-90) was chairman and editor in chief of Forbes Magazine. Young Forbes attended the Lawrenceville School and Princeton University, where he majored in politics and economics. He was a flamboyant multimillionaire whose enthusiastic and well publicized pursuits included autograph collecting. He once said, “None of my other investments give me the joy that autographs do because they make me feel that I am holding a piece of history in my hands.” He died of a heart attack in his sleep at his home in Far Hills, N.J. He was the son of a publisher, and his son now heads the company.
Simon Gratz (1840-1925) was a descendant of an old Philadelphia family and active in the city’s public affairs, especially education, serving on the Board of Education and as Trustee of the Jefferson Medical College. Besides his devotion to civic functions, his other passion was collecting. By the time of his death, he had amassed about 175,000 manuscripts and works of art. Quite justifiably, he had come to be regarded as one of the leading autograph collectors in the United States. In 1917 Gratz deeded his massive collection of manuscripts and portraits, acquired over six decades, to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The collection is one of the HSP’s most significant and comprehensive. Its 859.5 linear feet, contained in 961 boxes and 18 volumes, is divided into two parts. The larger part consists of manuscripts and documents on such topics as American politics, the settlement of Pennsylvania, American jurists, American war autographs, George Washington letters, northern and central European literary luminaries, and Martin Luther and the Reformation. Gratz’s collection of Signers of the Declaration was referred to by Walter Muir Whitehill as “the most perfect for its depth”—with 53 of the 56 signers represented by autograph letters. The smaller portion of the collection is particularly rich in papers of Protestant American clergy as well as containing letters and portraits of many other prominent Americans and Europeans. Gratz’s (1920) A Book about Autographs was one of the most popular of its day and provided advice for collectors about steering clear of forgeries—including some over-the-top examples of same, such as Mary Magdalene’s “correspondence” with the risen Lazarus. Simon Gratz must also be credited with conserving important letters and documents and eschewing the common practice of mutilating them in the process. In its 1926 tribute to Gratz’s legacy, the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography grasped the measure of the man: “As an autograph collector he was never satisfied with the clipping of signatures, which has done so much to despoil both public and private depositories, but he sought the best letter to be found as indicative of the character of each individual.”
Charles Hamilton Jr. (1913-96) was an autograph dealer and handwriting expert who invented the term philography. Hamilton was born in Ludington, Michigan. He grew up in Flint, Michigan, and made his first acquisition, a Rudyard Kipling autograph, at the age of 12. He won a Bronze star in World War II. Hamilton worked in advertising and publishing and pursued autograph collecting as a hobby. In 1953, he turned his hobby into a full-time business and began selling autographs at auctions. He was married to Doris Harris, an autograph dealer in her own right. Hamilton wrote 17 books about autographs and forgers, many of them standard popular texts, and his high-profile image and frequent television appearances did much to broaden the popularity of autograph collecting.
Henry Edwards Huntington (1850-1927) was the nephew of Collis P. Huntington, one of the “Big Four” who created the Central Pacific Railroad. After his uncle’s death, Huntington assumed Collis’s leadership role, and married his widow Arabella Huntington. Between 1914 and 1924, Huntington made a series of large, very public book and manuscript acquisitions designed to build up a research collection. This core collection has been expanding ever since, making The Huntington Library (San Marino, California) one of the primary repositories of Americana in the country. Henry E. Huntington once wrote, “The ownership of a fine library is the surest and swiftest way to immortality.”
Thomas F. Madigan (1890-1936) was a pioneering autograph dealer in New York City, son of book and autograph dealer Patrick Francis Madigan. His father’s shop opened in 1888, and it was here that Thomas cut his teeth in the autograph. Eventually Thomas took over his father’s shop and began to make a name for himself. He began to publish a weekly Autograph Bulletin, which along with Walter Benjamin’s monthly The Collector were among the first regular autograph publications. While wealthy industrialists of the day were an important part of Madigan’s business, he never lost the common touch and enjoyed providing material for collectors of all means – the “Bargain Counter” at his shop was a popular feature. Madigan also sought to popularize autograph collecting by giving a series of radio addresses at Station WOR in New York. Madigan was only 26 years old when he published A Biographical Index of American Public Men, a checklist of names useful for autograph collectors. In 1930, Madigan’s place in autograph collecting history was secured with the publication of Word Shadows of the Great: The Lure of Autograph Collecting, the 20th century’s first general interest introduction to autograph collecting. Despite the Depression, so broad was this book’s appeal that it warranted a second printing. Madigan introduced the American public to the notion that the average citizen could afford to collect worthwhile historic material.
John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), icon of business and finance, had roots extending far back to pre-Revolution New England. He was groomed by his father to enter the world of international banking, which he did with unparalleled success. As a youth and young man, Morgan had shown some interest in autograph collecting. However, it was not until 1890 and after the death of his father, that his collecting fancy took flight. For the next twenty years, Morgan had the inextinguishable energy and “deep pockets” to go on a buying spree of gargantuan proportions. He was neither a connoisseur of art nor a literary or historical scholar, but his many visits to England and the Continent helped him to develop an eye for the rare, exquisite, and significant; and thus his collector’s grasp was far-reaching—toward paintings, furniture, ancient artifacts, porcelains, books, and even cuneiform tablets. However, autographs and manuscripts, purchased singly or as entire collections, were the cornerstone of his holdings. His famed acquisitions included the Lindau Gospels, the only surviving manuscript of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dickens’s manuscript of A Christmas Carol, the manuscript of Pudd’nhead Wilson (purchased directly from Mark Twain), scores of illuminated and other manuscripts from the medieval and Renaissance periods, as well as a complete set of the Declaration of Independence Signers, which he donated to the Library of Congress in 1912. His purchase of the renowned Stephen H. Wakeman manuscript collection garnered such treasures as Thoreau’s journal and examples of Poe, Emerson, and Longfellow, among others. In his insatiable quest for treasures he was assisted by a host of dealers, as well as a nephew and the young, gifted librarian, Belle da Costa Greene. Portions of his vast collection were donated to the Metropolitan and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museums of Art. The core of his collection, however, including books and manuscripts, serves as the backbone of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.
Alfred Edward Newton (1864-1940) of Philadelphia was largely a self-taught and self-made man. He earned his fortune as president of a company that manufactured electrical equipment, but the manufacturing business was more a means to fuel his real passion: books and everything about books. An early encounter with Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson resulted in Newton’s becoming both a rabid bibliophile and a confirmed Anglophile. These fascinations were reflected in his collecting taste which leaned heavily toward 18th and 19th century English works. And what a tasteful collection he amassed! It included, for example, original art of William Blake, the four Shakespeare folios, the holograph manuscript of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Johnson and Boswell manuscripts and letters, and extensive holdings of Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray. These lined the shelves of his library at Oak Knoll, his Philadelphia “Main-Line” estate which was a frequent gathering place for scholars, collectors, and dealers. Newton was also a prolific author about books, book collecting, and writers. His essays appeared frequently in the Atlantic Monthly, and he penned nine books which attracted a devoted following during the 1920s and ‘30s. His first book, Amenities of Book Collecting and Kindred Affections (1918), introduced readers to his chatty, congenial style. Other popular books included A Magnificent Farce and Other Diversions of a Book Collector (1921), in which Newton lists his “One Hundred Good Novels,” and This Book Collecting Game (1928), a collection of personal musings on a variety of topics including his relationship with Walt Whitman, the man and his poetry. After his death, most of Newton’s collection of over 10,000 books and manuscripts was auctioned in three parts during 1941 by the Parke-Bernet Galleries. The legendary event garnered over $376,000 in a depressed market. Certainly, A. Edward Newton will be known for his discernment as a collector and for introducing many to the intoxicating world of rare books, first editions and fine literary autographs. Of his unbridled passion for books, he once explained, “We cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access reassurance.”
Pliny the Elder (23 AD- 79 AD), was a Roman official and military officer who collected books and manuscripts. His writings culminated with a 37 volume book, Nauturalis Historia. He loved to study his collection which contained the letters of Virgil, Cicero, and Caesar. When Mt. Vesuvius exploded, he left his readings and assisted people trying to escape. Overcome by fumes, he died on the Pompeii beach and his body was recovered two days later. His many autographed materials were passed on to his nephew, who was also a strong collector.
Ptolemy I (ca. 367 BC-ca. 283 BC), a Greek general with Alexander the Great, served as king of Egypt. He is believed to have established the Library of Alexandria. He collected the manuscripts of world knowledge, including the classical Greek writers. “These writings are the foundation for modern mathematics, philosophy, science, literature, medicine, and history. It comprises perhaps as many as 700,000 manuscripts — the whole corpus of knowledge accumulated from the ancients….” Scholars visited the library and through their research preserved copies of many of these manuscripts. Sadly, the library was destroyed.
Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach (1876-1952), also known as “Dr. R.,” was easily the most famous American book and manuscript dealer of the first half of the 20th century. The nephew of noted Philadelphia bookseller Moses Polack, Rosenbach grew up surrounded by antiquarian tomes. Although he earned degrees in English literature, no one was surprised when in 1902 he founded The Rosenbach Company and began buying and selling rare books and documents. A master at getting publicity, his acquisition of fabled rarities at fabulous prices often became newsworthy items of the day. His client list became a “Who’s Who” of wealthy industrialists and businessman of the day – Harry E. Widener, J.P. Morgan, Henry Huntington and Lessing Rosenwald among them. Rosenbach’s well-publicized purchases at auction of notable American literary manuscripts helped popularize and legitimize the collecting of American material at a time when many considered only European literature worth collecting. His frequent buying trips abroad resulted in many an English and European manuscript residing in American institutions today. He further popularized collecting by publishing such books as The Unpublishable Memoirs (1917), Books and Bidders (1927), Early American Children’s Books (1933) and A Book Hunter’s Holiday (1936), and in 1960 Edwin Wolf II (his nephew) and John F. Fleming published Rosenbach: A Biography. Today the Rosenbach Museum & Library, founded in 1954 and housed at Dr. R’s residence from 1926 to 1952, displays many of Rosenbach’s book and manuscript treasures and is a leading research library.
Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), considered by many the greatest manuscript collector the world has seen, was an eccentric and wealthy English antiquarian who spent most of his life acquiring vast quantities of illumined manuscripts, incunabula and early printed books – it was said he could not bear to throw away any paper with handwriting on it. After the French Revolution with its wholesale destruction and dissemination of private aristocratic libraries, after the Napoleonic wars, after the suppression of French and German monasteries in the 1820s, Phillipps helped quell the destruction of libraries filled with manuscript material by intentionally offering high prices to the rag dealers, wastepaper merchants and other tradesmen into whose hands this material often ended. He wanted to drive up the prices “For nothing tends to the preservation of anything so much as making it bear a high price.” Phillipps’ bibliomania and vellomania (a term he coined), which drove his family deep into debt, saved many thousands of unique manuscripts and incunabula that would otherwise have been lost. He founded a publishing firm named after his country estate, Middle Hill Press, to spread knowledge about his book holdings and other antiquarian interests. His attempts to find a national institution to house his collection and keep it intact met with no success due to his many animosities, thus in 1886 his heirs began dispersing it by auction. Large twice yearly auctions took place for decades, with other bulk sales filling many European national libraries and private sales of the choicest rarities going to high-level collectors such as J.P. Morgan and Henry Huntington. In 1945 two English booksellers acquired the large amount still remaining and continued to sell it off for more than three decades, at which time an American dealer purchased what remained. Finally, more than a century after Phillipps’ death, the last of his massive collection was sold off.
William Buell Sprague (1795-1876) was educated at Yale and graduated in 1815, then studied at Princeton Theological Seminary. Sprague was a collector of historical documents and became the first person ever to gather a complete set of the autographs of the signers of the United States Declaration of Independence. He also gathered a collection of the signatures of all of the members of the Convention which framed the Constitution of the United States in 1787, and a complete set of the autographs of the Presidents of the United States and all the officers of the United States government during the administrations of Presidents Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and John Quincy Adams. This latter collection included signatures of the Presidents, Vice Presidents, all the members of the President’s Cabinet, and all of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court and all of the foreign ministers. Further, he collected the signatures of all the military officers involved in the American revolutionary war, from all nations, during the whole war. He collected signatures of great men of the Reformation and great skeptics. He even owned a copy of the autograph by Saint Augustine. He was one of America’s foremost autograph collectors by the time of his death. His collection, numbering nearly 100,000 items and probably the largest private collection in the world at that time, was left to his son.