The Value of Letters at Auction

I enjoyed this recent article from the This Is Money website discussing Bonham’s sale of Audrey Hepburn letters.  The article presents factor’s affecting the value of celebrity and political letters in the market:

Darling, that’s priceless! As Hepburn’s letters fetch £11,250 at an auction, here’s our guide to why notes from the past are creating a buzz for collectors  

Letters from a young Audrey Hepburn to her mentor Sir Felix Aylmer fetched £11,250 this month at auction thanks to the enthusiasm of collectors for the handwritten word.

Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at auction house Bonhams, says that authentic letters by famous or noted people have appreciated in value in recent years.

He cites the example of a letter by artist and poet William Blake, which sold for £35,000 in 2015, having previously made £15,000 in 1992.

Poster featuring Audrey Hepburn in 1957 musical romantic comedy 'Funny Face'

Poster featuring Audrey Hepburn in 1957 musical romantic comedy ‘Funny Face’

The Hepburn letters, which were auctioned by Bonhams, were particularly interesting because they documented the early part of her career.

They include a postcard from 1951 when Hepburn was filming Monte Carlo Baby. ‘This place is heavenly the best thing that’s happened to me,’ Hepburn writes, while another letter announces the breaking off of her engagement to British industrialist James Hanson, which she describes as ‘unhappy making’.

‘The letters are candid,’ Haley says. ‘Context is everything with letters, and this is a young Audrey Hepburn near the beginning of her career, with enthusiasm bubbling out of her.’

Hepburn’s letters are not the only ones to have fetched a high price at auction in recent years. A letter from author Virginia Woolf to a sick friend, urging him to ‘go on living’, fetched £1,150 last December. The letter was written the year before Woolf committed suicide.

Chris Albury, auctioneer and senior valuer at Dominic Winter auctioneers, where the letter was sold, says that the subject matter, as well as the fact that Woolf died relatively young, helped to push up the price.

The Hepburn letters were particularly interesting because they documented the early part of her career

The Hepburn letters were particularly interesting because they documented the early part of her career

‘Anything that gives a little buzz to it is good,’ he says. ‘If it had just been a letter responding to an invitation to give a talk and saying that she couldn’t attend, it would have been worth far less.’

Adrian Roose, of website JustCollecting, agrees that a letter’s value is down to its content as well as its author. He says: ‘Salacious gossip, discussing historical events, is gold dust.

‘A good example is Albert Einstein. He wrote to his wife on an almost daily basis. The content of these letters is pretty unremarkable and they tend to sell for a few thousand pounds. But find a letter where he discusses E=mc² and the price jumps to £100,000 plus.’

The auctioned Hepburn letters included a postcard from 1951 when Hepburn was filming Monte Carlo Baby

The auctioned Hepburn letters included a postcard from 1951 when Hepburn was filming Monte Carlo Baby

As a result of their content, letters are generally worth more than autographs, and even those that are not from famous people can be valuable if associated with historic events.

The last letter written from the Titanic, just eight hours before she sank, sold last year for £119,000 – and a letter from Wallace Hartley, the ship’s bandmaster, sold for £93,000 the year before.

Letters from soldiers in famous battles, such as Waterloo, also fetch a high price. ‘They give us a different perspective on history,’ Haley says.

Other factors affecting the value of letters include their rarity. ‘Letters by politicians are usually collectible,’ Albury says.

The last letter written from the Titanic, just eight hours before she sank, sold last year for £119,000

The last letter written from the Titanic, just eight hours before she sank, sold last year for £119,000

‘But the works of particularly prolific letter writers, such as British Prime Minister William Gladstone, are worth little because there are so many of them. A letter by Gladstone could be worth between £30 and £40 while one by Churchill could be worth more than £300.’

Potential pitfalls for collectors include buying letters that are in poor condition – and accidentally buying fakes or copies. Albury says that forgery is not a new crime, and that prolific writers such as Byron were forged in their own time.

Many popular figures also sent out lithographed letters that may look handwritten but were actually machine made. The best way to check this is to look through a magnifying glass, as those letters that are genuinely handwritten will look less uniform in terms of the distribution of the ink.

Expert valuers, such as those at auction houses, may also be able to help. Check any vendors for membership of trade associations – such as the Autograph Fair Trade Association – as they will face penalties if they sell fake items.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and George Peppard as Paul Varjak in 1961's classic Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly and George Peppard as Paul Varjak in 1961’s classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s

It is still possible to make amazing finds. One collector found an original US Declaration of Independence at a flea market. ‘From memory he paid $4 and sold it for $4million. A good day’s work,’ says Roose at JustCollecting.

Letters can easily be damaged by poor conditions such as damp or sunlight. If you want to frame letters, ensure you use a framer who is an expert and uses UV protective glass and acid free paper.

Albury says that for many collectors, letters are more exciting than first editions of books because they are unique.

He says: ‘A first edition – even if it is beautiful – is a machine made thing. Handwritten letters are so much closer to the creator.’


Read more: http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/diyinvesting/article-3682294/Darling-s-priceless-Hepburn-s-letters-fetch-11-250-auction-s-guide-notes-past-creating-buzz-collectors.html#ixzz4EUYmrK2d
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