July 31, 1978 12:00 PM

Dump those hog futures. Wipe that Vegas excursion. Take up philography, Jack. What’s that? It’s what autograph fiends do when they grow up and get smart. It’s the Game of the Name, roulette for intellectuals, a worldwide, millennium-spanning cultural crapshoot that you can play for pennies—and take for thousands. But be warned. Philography is also the special preserve of Charles Hamilton, a feisty Manhattan dealer who is both revered and dreaded as the Pope and Grand Inquisitor of the thriving cult of the document.

The rules of the philography game, says Hamilton, are simple: Find a document signed by Julius Caesar (though none has come to light for about 2,000 years, thousands once existed) and a collector will snap it up for $2 million. Discover something signed by William Shakespeare (only six authenticated signatures are known) and it will go for about $1.5 million. For a Christopher Columbus you can get $500,000. And even a letter from somebody named Button Gwinnett, who signed the Declaration of Independence and practically nothing else, is worth $250,000.

The lesser prizes are impressive, too. A signed Mozart cantata recently sold for $120,000. Paul Revere’s expense account for a trip to Philadelphia, countersigned by John Hancock, brought $70,000 at auction. One 22-word sentence (“Ask not what your country…”) signed by JFK sold for $11,000—$500 a word. And an astronut actually spent $150 to acquire the paw-print of Muttnik, the first space dog.

Documania is spreading. Ten years ago there were roughly 3,000 significant private collections of documents in the U.S. Today there are 20,000 big-time collectors and two million paper junkies at the shoebox stage. In aggregate, they spend about $100 million a year on the hen tracks and curlicues of the great and near-great and have put philography right up there with coins, stamps and tropical fish as one of America’s hottest hobbies.

Why all the furor over spilled ink? Profit is a major motive—the average value of collectible documents has steadily advanced 10 to 12 percent a year. Yet far more exciting to most collectors is what Charles Hamilton calls “the aura of the document.” Collectors, he says, “love to play Peeping Tom at the keyhole of great events. When I see the blood splotches and the broken-off signature on the proclamation Robespierre was writing when the bullet shattered his jaw, my heart jumps as if I’d heard the shot. And how could one not be moved by the farewell Anne Boleyn sent Henry VIII on the eve of her execution? ‘You have made me…a queen,’ she wrote, ‘and as you can raise me no higher in the world, you are sending me to be a Saint in heaven.’ ”

Hamilton himself is another reason for the document boom. With his frosty thatch, bright pink face and glittering blue eyes, he looks like a slightly sinister rabbit, but there is nothing of the Easter Bunny about this crusty character. At 64 he is still the same energetic, determined man who found philography (a word Hamilton coined) a kennel of flea-bitten autograph hounds and transformed it into a scholarly discipline and an orderly trade. In the process he has battled the White House through five administrations, exposed a dozen thieves and forgers, turned up spectacular finds, built a business that grosses just under $1 million a year and still has found time to write 10 learned and witty books.

Raised in Flint, Mich. by working-class parents (his father was a lumber salesman), Hamilton was a hyperactive hellion who at 12 discovered autographs and with characteristic daring wrote for Rudyard Kipling’s—”the hardest to get.” When the great man replied with a signature, Hamilton was hooked.

After a maverick career at UCLA, where he read five books a day and got a graduate degree in English, Hamilton served three years in the Army Air Corps and survived many more of random employment. (He once worked as a bookkeeper for a soap company called Hollywood Bath o’ Bubbles.) With the idea of raising a little money, at 40 he began to sell his document collection. Amazed at his profits, he became a full-time dealer and a happy man. All his life people had resented the eruptions of this volcano of arcane knowledge (“Are you aware that there were nine Jewish generals in the Civil War?”). Now at last knowledge became power.

Thanks to a fleck of random information, Hamilton recognized the text of an undelivered portion of Washington’s First Inaugural and for $50 bought a bit of paper that sold for $750. “Hypersensitive to scrawls,” he saw that a passage in Thoreau’s hand, labeled “facsimile,” was in fact a piece of original manuscript containing unpublished sections of Walden—and so was able to buy a literary treasure for the price of a good dinner. Having read somewhere that fine Spanish paper was available in Mexico in the 18th century, he suspected sight unseen that a Mexican design drawn on “rough native cloth” and dated “circa 1760-1800” must actually be older—and so acquired for $120 a now famous Aztec codex which he sold for $5,500.

As Hamilton’s reputation grew, magnificent specimens came his way. He once owned the note in which Queen Isabella discussed the jewels she sold to finance Columbus’ discovery of the New World. He has owned the first draft of the Bill of Rights and the only known letter Jesse James signed with his pseudonym, Thomas Howard. One of his funniest items was a letter in which history’s most celebrated prig, Queen Victoria, let her hair down and gave some advice for an unwed mother (“Let her wear a ring and no one need be the wiser”).

Success brought problems. When Hamilton entered the field, philography was about as prestigious as pretzel vending. Ethics were situational. A French collector extorted autographs from the famous by threatening to kill himself if his letters were not answered. An English collector swindled two letters out of Rudyard Kipling by driving his car across the writer’s lawn, knocking down a few trees, then leaving his card and a polite promise to pay if Kipling would send him the bill.

With fierce pride, Hamilton began to set standards. He was the first and he is still the only dealer in documents to guarantee “forever” the authenticity and clear title of every piece he auctions. Offered an item widely believed to be Napoleon’s penis—the doctor who did the autopsy is said to have kept it as a souvenir—Hamilton refused to auction it. “The years had not been kind to the object,” he explains, “and it was impossible to authenticate it as a part of Bonaparte. I understand the French government later acquired the thing and buried it with Napoleon in Les Invalides.”

In Hamilton, the document thieves who have long plagued dealers and collectors at last met their match. His prodigious memory for manuscripts and who owns them has helped police trap library robbers—among them the notorious Sam Matz and his wife, Elizabeth, who in 1962 pilfered $500,000 worth of historical papers from the National Archives in Washington.

In cases of forgery, Hamilton is even more deadly. “I can spot a fake at 40 feet,” he brags. Some are easy to detect. One knucklehead offered for sale “a lock of hair from the head of Charles the Bald.” Another showed up with letters he said were written by Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Alexander the Great, but couldn’t explain why they were written in modern French.

But some forgers are artists, and the greatest of these was a small-time jailbird from Syracuse, N.Y. named Martin Coneely, aka Joseph Cosey, who did his best work in the 1930s. Buy him a drink and Cosey would say thanks with a letter-perfect signature of Washington or Lincoln. Among his masterpieces were an early draft of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and another of the Declaration of Independence. The composition of the ink and how it bites the paper give these amazing deceptions away.

Hamilton has sent several of Cosey’s clumsier successors to jail, but he has spent far more fury exposing what he calls “the forgers in the White House.” Ever since Andrew Jackson, Presidents have appointed proxy signers. But recently, says Hamilton, “the situation has gotten wildly out of hand.” Despite White House denials, Hamilton proved that John Kennedy used at least seven proxy signers and a number of Autopens besides. (An Autopen is a writing robot that can replicate 3,000 signatures a day.) He attacked Lyndon Johnson for continuing the tradition and claims Richard Nixon used 14 robots as President. Hamilton also says—though a Nixon aide denies—that an Autopen made the journey to San Clemente with the ex-President.

What gets Hamilton’s goat is that when a citizen writes for his President’s signature, he gets either a robot reproduction or a “halting and puerile fake” supplied by a secretary, “who then has the gall to attach a guarantee that the signature is authentic.” Carter has put a stop to this practice, Hamilton believes, but he has evidence that guaranteed fake signatures of President Kennedy were sent out by the White House staff even after Kennedy was dead. “I’m old-fashioned enough,” Hamilton says fiercely, “to think Presidents shouldn’t lie to the people they represent.”

Presidents have a special importance for Hamilton. In his business their signatures, along with those of signers of the Declaration of Independence, are blue chips, and Hamilton advises collectors to stock up on them. Villains, he says, are a good investment, too; a Hitler letter is worth five times as much as a Churchill letter. One signed by John Wilkes Booth, who shot Lincoln, is worth $1,000. One signed by his brother Edwin, widely considered America’s greatest actor, is worth about $50.

Trends must be watched. “Black leaders are moving up fast,” Hamilton says. “A document signed by Martin Luther King can bring as much as one of Lincoln’s.” Feminists are on the rise too—”A Susan B. Anthony letter worth about a dollar five years ago is worth $75 to $100 now.”

Most surprising to Hamilton is the surging though selective interest in movie, music and sports celebrities. “Two years ago the only place these names were worth anything was on a check.” But suddenly “a good Greta Garbo letter” will bring more than $1,000. Last week a James Dean signature, no letter attached, was auctioned for $1,000. Letters handwritten by Elvis Presley are bringing $500 and up, and don’t throw away any old notes from the Beatles ($300 to $400) or Marilyn Monroe ($150 to $250). A strong market has also developed in oldtime baseball stars. A baseball signed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig is worth $300, and the signature of Honus Wagner is going for $50. O.J.? Dr. J? Tom Seaver? “Zilch.”

Hamilton welcomes newcomers from pop culture—”They shake up the fuddy-duddies.” Hamilton himself needs no shaking up. A sexy sexagenarian, he has an attractive wife, Diane (who was once his secretary), and three lively youngsters: Carolyn, 12, Chip, 4, and Cynthia, 3. After a full day at his Madison Avenue gallery he sits up till midnight in their eight-room, two-terrace apartment battering out chapters for new books—he is writing five at once about history and handwriting.

“I’m not going to quit this game,” he says with a grin, “until I’ve seen the order for Christ’s execution—though I just might settle for Richard Nixon’s letter of resignation.” But he knows he’ll never see one of his favorite documents because it was never completed. When Charles II was about to sign John Milton’s death warrant, the official presenting it explained with a sneer that Milton had gone blind. “Oh, in that case,” said the King, putting down his pen, “let him suffer.” He did. But he also lived to write Paradise Lost.

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