April 25, 2018
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Content, condition, authenticity drive value for letters and other signed memorabilia

Photo courtesy of www.ha.com
Photo courtesy of www.ha.com
The gold cape that Elizabeth Taylor wore as Cleopatra in the 1963 film of the same name recently sold for $59,375 at Heritage Auctions in Dallas.
By Danielle Arnet, Tribune Media Services

Q: Can you give me value on an 8-page letter from Alexander Graham Bell? It was written to my grandmother in the late 1800s and discusses deafness.

A: Smart collectors know that the inventor of the telephone was a noted teacher of the deaf.

Value on the Bell letter, as with all signed memorabilia, depends on authentication, content and other variables, including condition. Here’s an example regarding content: Bell on deafness is good, but Bell describing specifics and adding personal anecdotes, is golden.

Marco Tomaschett, specialist in autographs at Swann Galleries, swanngalleries.com, in New York, has sold Bell autographs in the past. He told us that there are recent auction results for letters written at about the same time as the reader’s letter. In those cases, content was neither “exceptional nor mundane.”

A pair of letters, amounting to five pages on hearing and deafness written by Bell in 1874, sold at Doyle New York for $1,000. Other prices realized at auction have come in higher — or lower.

Generally, he added, “letters are not always the most valuable autographs.” In 2009, Swann sold a Bell autograph that included his handwritten passage on the theme of “To thine own self be true.” The quote, signed by Bell and reflective of his thoughts, brought $1,400.

To sell, contact Swann or any auction house that has dedicated sales for autographs or printed material.

FYI: Reach Tomaschett at mtomaschett@swanngalleries.com.

Q: What can you tell me about my oak lady’s writing desk? It has a lot of carving on it.

A: The reader adds that she spotted the desk in an old barn in California, asked the owners for it, and they said yes. By the way, she knew the owners.

Seen in an image sent, our reader has a late Victorian lady’s slant-top desk from around 1900-1910. Made of golden oak, it’s a factory made product with machine, not hand carving. While attractive, the carving is simple, as such desks go.

Sometimes called spinet desks, lady’s desks are small in scale. Another common name is Queen Anne, for the desk’s curved legs. In contrast, men’s desks were big, heavy, often rolltop monsters.

Oak lady’s desks were made in the gamut of design, from simple to near rococo. Some had an upright mirror on the top. Others, such as the reader’s, had a drawer under the slant top.

In that market, purity of design was less important than a stylish look. Mass production did not lend itself to delicacy, so legs on standard lady’s desks of the period are simply made, with a rudimentary curve.

A comparison of sold desks can be instructive. Our reader should key liveauctioneers.com and worthpoint.com to view similar examples. The first site is free of charge. There, we saw realized prices at auction for $150-$290. Skip eBay: When we looked, sellers started with unrealistic prices. As a result, desks rarely sold.

I’d say this reader has a lovely gift!

Book it!

“Atomic Ranch: Midcentury Interiors” by Michelle Gringeri-Brown (Gibbs-Smith, $40) photographs eight standard ranch houses, showing how to use easily available materials to decorate period ranches ranging from a 1955 traditional ranch in Tulsa to a 1953 raised ranch in Alexandria, Va. Some improvements are high-end. Others are as simple as spray paint and Craigslist finds.

Auction action

The gold cape worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 film “Cleopatra” brought $59,375 in a recent Entertainment and Music Memorabilia auction at Heritage Auctions in Dallas.

Made to resemble the wings of a phoenix, the cape was worn twice, in scenes showing Cleopatra’s dramatic entrance into Rome and at her death, from the bite of an asp. Made of gold-painted leather with hand-stitched gold beads and sequins, it was first bought from a costume company that closed some years after the film. The cape remained with the same owner for decades, wrapped in tissue paper inside a bureau drawer.

Collector quiz

Can you match the modern pinball games with their years of issue?

1. Whirlwind/Williams a. 1998

2. Simpsons Pinball Party/Stern b. 1984

3. Vector/Bally c. 1990

4. Viper Night Drivin’/Sega d. 1982

5. Jacks to Open/Gottlieb e. 2003

A: Answers are 1-c, 2-e, 3-d, 4-a, 5-b. Source: “The Pinball Compendium 1982 to Present: Edition 2” by Michael Shalhoub (Schiffer, $59.99). Third in a series, the book covers games and people in the industry. An instructive, thorough text filled with inside info plus hundreds of color photos.

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send email to smartcollector@comcast.net or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Please include an address in your query. Photos cannot be returned.

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