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October 5, 2003

Odd question
Posted by Teresa at 10:38 PM *

Some new neighbors up the block had a stoop sale, and were getting rid of a lot of good books. One I bought and have here to hand is called Bits of Travel by H. H. (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1872).

Written on the flyleaf in pencil are the words “Chester A. Arthur 1874”. Below that, in 19th c. handwriting, in ink, it says “above is the signature of Chester A. Arthur 1874”. The hand is reasonably similar to other specimens of Chester A. Arthur’s writing.

I don’t know the autograph trade. Does this inscription qualify as an autograph if I don’t know where it’s been and who’s owned it?

Comments on Odd question:
#1 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 12:12 AM:

My impression is that if it were a scrap of paper it wouldn't be worth all that much, but as an inscribed book it's probably quite valuable.

#2 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 01:04 AM:

What you're asking has to do with what's called "provenance" in the art world. If you discover a Picasso in a corner thrift store, does it "qualify as" a Picasso? Well, it either is or isn't a Picasso. But if you don't have provenance, that is, a record of ownership [Picasso sold it to this guy, who sold it to another guy, and when he died, his relatives, not knowing what the painting was, gave it to the corner thrift store--and all this reasonably documented], it becomes more problematic. How do you know it's a Picasso? Well, you look at the evidence, perhaps consult an expert, and make a decision. Yes it is or no it isn't.
Now, Picasso is a well-known artist, and people have forged his work. So you'd look extra carefully, maybe even x-ray it or chemically examine the paint. That is, if you were trying to sell it and get a good price. If you just wanted to hold on to it, you could simply decide for yourself, because you really have nothing to prove to anyone.
Now, it's hard to imagine anyone forging Chester A. Arthur's signature. In my experience (which includes checking hundreds of signatures on absentee ballots for the King County, WA Department of Elections), it's fairly obvious whether a signature is omeone's or not, assuming there's not a professional attempt at forgery.
I've encountered this problem several times. I bought a paperback of Brave New World Revisited with "To [whoever], Aldous Huxley" on the title page. I had a chance to look at Huxley's signature later and decided that the one in my book was not, in fact, his. Another time at a book fair I saw a Frank Belknap Long paperback with his name on the inside, in what looked more like printing than handwriting. But right down the aisle, someone was selling an expensive autographed Long book. I asked if I could take a look at it, then dashed back to the first dealer and bought the paperback for $1 or so. Seems Long printed his signature. And recently, I got a copy of Nashville Skyline, one of the few Bob Dylan albums I didn't have on vinyl, for $1 at my local Salvation Army. When I brought it home and looked at it, I saw that it was inscribed to someone from the great man himself. Or was it another joke like the Huxley book? Fortunately, there were photos of numerous autographed Dylan items on eBay. In this case, though there is considerable variation in Dylan's signature, I believe I have the McCoy this time.
In comparing signatures, one should look for something that looks like the sample you know is genuine, but not too much. In the 19th c., people generally had neater penmanship, which is harder to forge.
What you'd really want is for President Arthur to have written various things in the margins of the book ("How true!" and such). But what you have is an "association copy" and it's certainly worth something. How much depends on how rare Arthur's sig is, how rare the book is, its condition, etc. I'd love to see it sometime...

#3 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 01:39 AM:

Robert L. has most of the info correct.

There are folks who will certify signatures out there, but most of them are expensive. C. A. Arthur is _not_ one of the more expensive signatures, and there's very little reason someone would forge his signature -- particularly if it looks like it was done while he was alive (faking the aging of a signature is one of the more difficult parts to do right). Quick check on ABE shows a few Chester Arthur signatures, available for between $125 and $850 (the latter also signed by Robert Lincoln). (search method: author "chester arthur" and box for "signed" checked in advance search -- not guaranteed to catch everything. Searching similarly for "chester alan arthur" yielded no results.)

And _if_ it had been a faked signature, it would have been much more likely to have been sold to someone who would have paid much money for it and therefore much less likely to have shown up at a stoop sale. Especially by someone who didn't know who Arthur was, which seems likely from your description.

There are lots of bargains out there. Sounds like you got one! Love to see it sometime.

Tom Whitmore
(currently highly recommending OUT OF THE FLAMES by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, a book on church history, the rise of literacy, a really rare book and the fight between Michael Servetus and John Calvin for the soul of Protestant religion)

#4 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 01:27 PM:

In an additional synchronicity, Chester Alan Arthur is the President whose most notable memorial is a statue in Madison Square Park, right across the street from Teresa's office.

He is also the only President to have been a member of Psi Upsilon, the college fraternity whose University of Washington members, in 2003, waged a war of late-night noise and deliberate annoyance against the students and instructors of Clarion West from their fraternity house across the street. One suspects the elegant and well-mannered Chester Alan Arthur would have disapproved.

#5 ::: dave heasman ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 09:31 AM:

Something similar happened to a pal of mine who found, on an open-air bookstall, a copy of Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams" with copiuos marginal comments in pencil by Alasteir (sp?) Crowley. a32.50.

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 11:20 AM:

That'd be worth a bit.

Tom, want to tell your story?

#7 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 06:53 PM:

Tom Whitmore
(currently highly recommending OUT OF THE FLAMES by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, a book on church history, the rise of literacy, a really rare book and the fight between Michael Servetus and John Calvin for the soul of Protestant religion)

I read that right after I got home (I think I bought it in hospital in Germany, and I'm still kicking myself for not getting the book of T. Geisel's wartime cartoons).

It was a great read, and if nothing else will give one a great trivia question to ask people.

Terry K.

#8 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 08:37 PM:

Along those lines, I didn't mention the copy of Delany's Flight from Neve8rffon autographed by Chip Delany to Edmund White, which I found in a Paris bookstall. I mentioned this to Chip when I saw him (saying by way of consolation that it appeared White--or someone--had read at least some of the book), and suggested he do as George Bernard Shaw did when he found a book of his signed to someone, "With compliments, GBS": he bought it and sent it back to the guy, writing "With renewed compliments, GBS" below the original dedication...

#9 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 09:22 PM:

I wrote a poem once about how sad used books were, with all those loving inscriptions. The few I've gotten that had inscriptions from the author felt beyond sad.

#10 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 10:41 PM:

Books that are read, and appreciated, and then find a new home and new readers are not sad.

Sadness is the book with a loving inscription, but that was never read because the giver misguessed the recipient's tastes, or never had the chance to give it. Books that gather dust are sad. Books should be read.

#11 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2003, 12:20 AM:

Books should be read. Eventually.

#12 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2003, 12:34 AM:

If anyone doesn't already know the story about me finding an Aleister Crowley manuscript, googling on "Raiders of the Lost Basement" will pull it up.

On the other side of the inscription tale, there's Edward Gorey from THE UNSTRUNG HARP, where Mr. Earbrass finds a book that he'd inscribed "To Angus -- will we ever forget the bloaters." His thought -- "Angus? Bloaters?"

And I don't remember which prominent Sherlockian it was who, whenever he found one of his keepsake Christmas-card booklets offered for sale, would buy it and send it back to the person he'd originally sent it to (he kept lists of the numbers) with a note saying it was the last one they'd receive....

I was just helping some non-bibliophile friends look up information on an old history of Scotland they'd picked up -- binding falling off, but the bookplate was from a woman who was probably "Monk" Lewis's sister, who helped him edit later books so they wouldn't be so offensive, and the first volume had the signature of a very important (female) Scottish historian of the 19th century -- a book with really wonderful historicity.

And I have a friend who picked up a collection of Italian ghost stories while at a barn sale with a bunch of other Serious Weird Fiction collectors -- nobody else had looked at it closely enough to see that it was from H. P. Lovecraft's library, and presented by him to (IIRC) W. Paul Cook. Now that's a great find for $2.00....

I'll be offline for a few days. Don't get in too much trouble without me.


#13 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2003, 08:08 AM:

Oh, Vicki, from the book's point of view, you're right...

...but I have a book my wife gave me when we were starting toward life-long partnership, with a lipstick kiss and a loving inscription. How sad it is to find such a book for seventy-five cents!

#14 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2003, 12:52 PM:

Books may be sad, but I am happy when I find autographed books.

#15 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2003, 05:04 PM:

Did I say I didn't buy such books? I do--but the inscriptions still make me melancholy.

#16 ::: Elise Matthesen ::: (view all by) ::: October 09, 2003, 02:05 PM:

I bought a copy of one of Christopher Fry's plays that's signed by someone who used his name to do it. Might even have been him. It cost a couple of pounds, and is a favorite souvenir.

#17 ::: Kate Yule ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2003, 12:07 AM:

David-my-David once asked Somtow Sucharitkul to autograph a copy of a V novel he'd written. (V: The Alien Swordmaster.) Somtow happily obliged! He signed it "Isaac Asimov", he signed it "Harlan Ellison", he signed it "Gene Wolfe"....quite well, too.

Kate Y.

#18 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2003, 01:42 PM:

A friend once went to the Santa Cruz fire department's used book sale and picked up several old military books with Heinlein's signature in them.

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