Stuart Lutz was 21 years old and pondering law school, or perhaps a doctorate in American history, when he fell in love with a different line of work. Just graduated from Johns Hopkins, he was working for Kaller Historical Documents in Asbury Park, New Jersey, when a package arrived. He opened it to find two things. One was a small clay inkwell used by Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse when Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia and effectively ended the Civil War. The other was the only known letter written by Abraham Lincoln in which he discusses a second presidential term. Lutz held the two items, thought about who had held them 130 years before, and silently said goodbye to the idea of law school.
Lutz, A&S '92, now operates Stuart Lutz Historic Documents in Short Hills, New Jersey. He deals in documents, letters, and manuscripts handwritten or at least hand-signed by Abraham Lincoln, W.H. Auden, Aaron Burr, Andrew Carnegie, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, Mikhail Kalashnikov, Robert E. Lee, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and people you are less likely to have heard of such as Charles A. Magnuson, who lived in Alaska in the early 1900s, and a 19th-century Dakota Territory schoolteacher named Ella P. Starkweather, who wrote to a friend, "Pupils, thirty-two in number, a few would be rendered much more attractive by a vigorous application of soap suds but I will try just a mild discourse on cleanliness."
He finds documents for his business at antiquarian paper shows, book fairs, and estate auctions. He finds items on eBay. Sometimes other collectors call, seeking to sell what they have amassed. He has appeared many times on the History channel television program Pawn Stars and he has a website, so now and then, Lutz says, he gets this sort of call: "My uncle died, and he had three Jackie Kennedy letters. Do you want to buy them?"
Ninety percent of his business is in U.S. history, by his estimate, with the rest mostly Irish and British history. He has sold documents written in 1655 and a letter signed by Barack Obama. Over the last 15 years, Lutz has done business with every Ivy League university, the U.S. Naval Academy, and private collectors, some of them very rich, almost all of them men. One collector specializes in handwritten eyewitness accounts of historical incidents. Often Lutz comes across fascinating items that he hates to part with, but says, "You can't fall in love with it if you want to move it."
Knowledge of history is a major asset in his business. Lutz reads a lot of historiography and likes traveling to historical sites. John Tyler's house, for example. When you think "U.S. president," John Tyler probably does not spring to mind. He was a slaveholding Virginian elected vice president on the Whig ticket in 1840, and the Tyler in William Henry Harrison's presidential campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too." When the unfortunate Harrison won the election but died after only 32 days in the Oval Office, Tyler became president and was on occasion referred to as His Accidency. He served a single, undistinguished term before giving way to James K. Polk. In the mid-1990s, Lutz was sorting through a box of documents in New England. Sifting the paper, he found an invitation, priced at $35, inviting the "Honorable Mr. Tyler" to a Potomac River cruise on the USS Princeton. Because he had been to Tyler's house, Lutz knew enough about the 10th president to know he had accepted that invitation and been aboard the U.S. Navy warship when one of its cannons exploded, killing four and wounding 20. Tyler was below deck and escaped harm. (His Accidency indeed.) Recognizing what he held in his hand, Lutz contacted descendants of the Honorable Mr. Tyler and sold them the invitation for $2,000. His profit provided seed money for his company, which he founded in 2000.
Ten years ago, Lutz was looking through a case of documents priced at $50 each. He noticed a three-page letter dated 1852 and datelined "20 miles from Ft. Laramie." In 1852, the only thing 20 miles from Ft. Laramie was the Oregon Trail, and Lutz knew he had something worth much more than 50 bucks. Later he sold the letter to the University of California, Berkeley, for $1,500. "I always wondered how it got in that case," he says.
People who prosper in his business learn to identify handwriting. A woman once brought Lutz a framed letter by James Madison in which Madison discusses wine. When Lutz removed the letter from the frame, he found on the back a bit of docketing—that is, a notation that cataloged the letter. The docketing was not signed, but Lutz knew the distinctive hand—Thomas Jefferson. Sometimes his knowledge tells him who didn't sign something. He pulls out an antique edition of Homer's Iliad, the Alexander Pope translation, and points to the inside front cover signed by George Washington. Except it's not Washington's signature. The first president signed with a vigorous hand, and whoever forged his signature here wrote so slowly in making the long tail of the last N, his hand shook in a most un-Washingtonian way. Next Lutz shows a fake Henry Ford signature, the slow, careful creep of the forger betrayed by how much ink spread through the paper's fibers.
Lutz deliberately buys some forgeries, either to take them off the market or add them to his personal collection of fakes. The most commonly forged signature is Lincoln's; Lutz owns two. He once had to break the news to a bookseller that the Nathan Hale signature in a book was not by Nathan Hale. He opens a binder to show a photo of Gerald Ford, signed by the 38th U.S. president and complete with a statement of authenticity issued by a prior seller. Lutz pulls out a tool of his trade, a piece of clear acetate bearing the various machine-generated autopen signatures used by Ford's office on documents that did not require his personal attention. One of the signatures on the acetate lines up perfectly with the autograph on the photo. "No one can sign their name exactly the same way twice," Lutz says. Certificate of authenticity notwithstanding, the Ford photo was signed by a mechanized proxy.
As more and more documents exist only in digital incorporeality, will signatures or hand-written pages lose their significance? "I don't think so," Lutz says. "To me, there are two great things about letters and signatures. First, I know that Abraham Lincoln or Susan B. Anthony once held the same paper that I am now holding. Second, if it took George Washington 60 minutes to handwrite a letter, then I own one hour of a great person's life."
Lots of historical papers remain to be found, and Lutz never knows what will turn up next. Years ago, someone showed another autograph dealer the handwritten speech delivered by Malcolm X the night he was assassinated; the dealer did not buy it, and whoever held those pages vanished, along with the copy of the speech. A complete draft of George Washington's inaugural speech, different from the address he actually delivered, is known to have existed at one time but has never been found intact; individual leaves turn up from time to time, but key pages are missing. Documents from the U.S. Supreme Court sessions of 1790 are scarce, as is anything signed by Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, or Edgar Allan Poe.
The most expensive autograph in the United States, Lutz says, is anything signed by Button Gwinnett. The name may sound like that of the Gwinnett family dog or a socialite on the Upper East Side, but Button Gwinnett penned his name on the Declaration of Independence and only about 50 documents are known to bear his signature. The last one to appear at auction, dated July 12, 1776, sold for more than $700,000. So if you come across that unlikely moniker in a box of letters from your great-grandmother's attic, it just might be your big day. Give Lutz a call.
Dale Keiger, A&S '11 (MLA), is the magazine's editor.