The Autograph Detective

By: Brian G. Kathenes, ISA, S-CAPP

So -- What's It worth?

Perhaps the most commonly asked question I hear is; "So, what's it worth?" The question may pertain to a four language ship's paper signed by James Madison and James Monroe, a signed photograph of movie star and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, or a hand-written letter by Union General (posthumously promoted) Samuel K. Zook. Frequently it is an innocent request for a "ball park figure" on a specific item. As a professional appraiser it is difficult to formulate a simple one-word answer. Each item has many different values. The Madison / Monroe document, for example, will be shown to have at least four different values -- and each one will be correct.

You are probably familiar with the term "market." A market is any place or system for exchanging property between buyers and sellers. A market can be a retail gallery or a flea market. It can be a bankruptcy liquidation sale or a mail order catalog. The internet and other on-line services are markets for the buying and selling merchandise. The "value" at which the item is sold may be different in each market. The term "Fair Market Value" is a legal definition used in a variety of instances. Charitable contribution, dissolution of marriage, or estate tax liability, may be circumstances when fair market value is required. "Fair Market" does not mean "reasonable". The term "fair" comes from old English law, meaning open and free market, as in a "market" or "fair" where goods are bought and sold. This value may be very different than retail value. In situations when someone is interested in insuring an item, a retail replacement value may be appropriate. It all seems quite confusing, but once you identify the reason you want to know "what its worth" then a value can be provided. The "reason one needs to know" is referred to in appraising as the "function" of the appraisal. It is also called the "intended use" or the "assigned use". With a known "use" the appropriate market can be researched.

Markets range form high-end, high quality retail autograph galleries to flea markets and garage sales. Various quality and all types of material can be found within any market. An example is the multi-million dollar copy of the declaration of independence found behind and old picture at a garage sale.
Here are some examples of situations where the value is dependent upon "use" or "need". The market researched is based on the use and value required.

Use: Value: Market:
To get insurance coverage Retail replacement value Gallery from where it was purchased
To liquidate a bankrupt business Forced sale value Liquidation auction or Courthouse-steps sale
To establish tax deduction from a charitable contribution Fair Market Value Well-advertised auction
A dealer reporting a theft Wholesale value Trade show, flea market,to his/her insurance company, garage sale, auction

The example used here is a Madison/Monroe four language ship's paper.

For example one: The owner and the insurance company need to know what it will cost to replace the item with a similar piece. To replace it from its original source a gallery might have a price of $4,500.00 on it. This may be the valid value for this need.

If that same gallery went bankrupt and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge ordered the sale of the item it may bring $1,200.00. This may be a valid value for this situation.

If the owner of this document decided to donate it to the National Archives it might have a value of $2,350.00. This may be a valid value for that appraisal "use."

Finally, if the gallery owner was robbed his insurance company would compensate him at his or her cost. This value could be $1,950.00. Perhaps an accurate value for this situation.

As you can see, the same item has four different values. Each may be accurate and appropriate for the "intended use" and "purpose" of the valuation. There is more to determining value than picking a price. Anyone providing values must understand the autograph, manuscript, and historical document market as well as the reason for asking the question; "So -- what's it worth?"

Have a question or comment? Would you like to see more articles on a particular subject? Let me know. Write to Brian Kathenes, National Appraisal Consultants, PO Box 482, Hope, NJ 07844. (800) 323-5996.