Have you seen that PBS show they seem to run over and over where ordinary people have brought in an old duck decoy or weathervane they had up in the attic, and the Professional Appraiser tells them all the background on it they didn’t know … and the suspense is building … and somehow they even know the likely craftsman who made it, and that he was the great Nephew of Paul Revere or something … and the suspense is building … and then, finally, they reveal that this $15 flea market purchase would probably fetch at auction … the suspense is unbearable … about $4,500 to $6,500. Have you seen that show?
I’ve never seen it from the beginning, so I am not clear on who or what it all is, really. But it seems to be aired a lot.
Well, this column is, sadly, sort of the opposite of all that. It concerns a lovely woman who has an amazing trove of celebrity letters spanning decades, from the days when she and her late husband knew everybody. Many are just thank-you notes, some are gossip, but the crown jewel in the collection is a letter from Humphrey Bogart in 1954 saying some witty and earthy things I cannot repeat on a family web site.
She sent me a copy, knowing I might be interested in purchasing it.
“That’s a cool letter,” said the Beverly Hills expert I read it to over the phone, wondering what he thought it might be worth. “Well, whatever anyone wants to pay for it — it’s really kind of priceless. Bogart is very big.”
“Yeah?” Enough with the suspense-building. “What would you pay for it?” I asked.
“If I were in the right mood and I saw it someplace for $5,000, I’d buy it,” he said.
Which means he would then turn around and put it in his catalog for $10,000, or perhaps just call a client, offer it for $8,000, and take $6,500 — very likely receiving the $6,500, over the phone, on a credit card, even before paying the $5,000 to buy it. A very quick $1,500 return on a zero investment. Of course, he has rent, overhead, staff …
Anyway, that’s how the business works, and $5,000 seemed about the right ballpark to me, also.
But then I mentioned the letter was typewritten — which was so obvious to me, since I was looking right at it, that I had forgotten to tell him, whereas he had been assuming it was handwritten, as the three excellent Bogie’s he’d previously sold me over the years were.
That changed his tone real fast. He said if it was typed, it was almost surely dictated to his secretary — and that she signed most of his letters FOR him. I faxed him a copy, and he said it was her “Bogie,” not his — and consequently, in his mind, the letter was of essentially no value.
“Five hundred?” I asked him. “Not even that,” he said. “Nothing, really.”
This ended my interest in the letter. For the seller’s sake, I hope my expert is wrong. But it would appear this $6,500 early American duck may be just a $15 flea-market quacker. (Then again — like some stocks I know — it’s worth whatever anyone will pay for it, and not everyone would think to question the signature. The letter itself is clearly real.)
The three handwritten Bogart letters I’ve bought are:
- A short note to his press agent, Ken, handwritten, witty content.
- An angry 3-page handwritten to Jack Warner.
- A wonderful little handwritten note to actor Clifton Webb asking to borrow $200 so Mary and he — then aged 39, yet still no star — could pay the rent.
I like to think they’re all “right as rain,” as they say. But even then there are risks. A couple of years ago, the first of the three was stolen right off my wall.
Quote of the Day
In 1800, 75% of [an American's] working man's expenditures went for food alone. By 1850, that had dropped to 50%. Today it is a little more than 11%.~The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 1996
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