UPCOMING ELECTION A GREAT TIME TO DISCOVER HOW POLITICAL MEMORABILIA CAN BE AFFORDABLE, REWARDING AND FUN
By David Seideman
Drew Hecht caught the bug as a 10-year-old during the 1964 election after asking his father to take him to the local headquarters of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, in Harrisburg, Pa. The goal: acquiring a pin with Goldwater’s picture. Hecht hasn’t looked back, amassing one of the nation’s finest political memorabilia collections, spanning American history from George Washington to Donald Trump.
His thousands of pieces include common political buttons, tickets, brochures, china and license plates. He even owns rare memorabilia from the third-party candidacies of socialist Eugene Debs from the early 1900s and communist Gus Hall from the 1970s. Portions of his collection have been displayed at both Republican and Democratic party conventions.
But one piece has a special place in the heart of the urologist who resides in the Philadelphia area. In 1952, Illinois governor and Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson was photographed cross-legged with one of his well-worn shoes showing a hole in a sole. The “common man” appeal resulted in a metal tack shoe-shaped campaign pin with a hole in its sole. “I love it!” Hecht says. “It’s meaningful but inexpensive.” How inexpensive? Try $20.
Almost tied for second is a William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt jugate button (two portraits side by side), featuring a full dinner bucket to highlight prosperity (about $85). “That’s a very common graphic, issue-oriented button and great piece for people to start collecting,” Hecht explains. “You don’t have to spend $10,000.”
But you can spend 25 times that amount, too. In November 2019, Heritage Auctions, the top purveyor of vintage political memorabilia, sold a mammoth 41-by-54-inch 1864 jugate Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson campaign poster for $250,000. “Without qualifications simply the best campaign display item for our 16th president!” declared the catalog description. “For the advanced Lincoln or political collector or someone who loves American history and wants to possess the premier Lincoln display item, this offering presents what may well be a literal ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity.”
Welcome to one of the most rewarding and affordable fields of Americana. You can enjoy it on any budget – from small to large – and collect in a multitude of ways, whether it’s candidates or causes. Political item graphics are often miniature masterpieces, illustrating the evolution of American fonts and design. And new discoveries pop up all the time. It’s one of the rare categories where collectors can still make significant scores at flea markets and antique malls. Above all, it’s patriotic because this particular category teaches our country’s history.
‘BIGGER IS BETTER’
Among the rules of the road is concentrating on memorabilia from 1964 or earlier, says Donald Ackerman, a Heritage consignment director. “Anything produced after 1964 is probably going to have very little value,” he says. Almost everything since then is abundant.
There are a few exceptions, of course. An oversized, 3½-inch Nancy Reagan color celluloid button recently sold for $982. (When it comes to all pins, including sports and entertainment, experts like to say bigger is better; Heritage in 2019 sold an “extremely scarce” 4-inch, 1922 Harry S Truman for district judge button for $5,500). A rare 1968 George McGovern presidential pin recently commanded $1,037, even though it had light aging.
All three of these pins have one thing in common besides being ultra-scarce. Face pins usually sell much better than those with just text. Also, as is always the case with collectibles, condition is key. Old pins are susceptible to “foxing,” or brown spots, and rusting on the back. If there’s a manufacturer’s paper label on the back, it should be intact and not torn.
If you’re a novice or buying from an unknowledgeable source, beware. Buttons, the most popular form of political memorabilia, are widely reproduced. Look for age, paper backs, and union labels. In addition, many companies such as Kleenex have advertised on the back of reproduction rims.
Today, specialists of particular candidates outrank generalists who want material from every election. “If the guy didn’t run for president or win, the value isn’t there,” Ackerman says. “Most people are not interested in governors. And 75 percent of people are post-1896 collectors because that year was the invention of the celluloid pin.”
Popularity, not surprisingly, matters the most. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan are the royal equivalents of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
Abraham Lincoln is in a class by himself, as the 1864 poster indicates. Nonetheless, the Babe Ruth of presidents sells for a fraction of the Bambino’s prices. In September 2019, Heritage sold a pristine Lincoln and Johnson ferrotype (a jugate button composed of tintype photos) for a manageable $3,250 (in lesser condition, they can go for half that amount). By contrast, a Babe Ruth bubblegum card at the height of his popularity in comparable condition would change hands for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Lincoln is relatively common,” explains veteran collector Tom Keene. “No one threw it away.” But the same logic applies to Ruth.
“It’s supply and demand,” Ackerman adds. “I guess there are a lot of more people who collect comics and coins.” American Political Items Collectors (APIC), an organization founded in 1945 to encourage the study, collecting and preservation of political campaign memorabilia, counts roughly 1,500 members. APIC hosts shows around the country and publishes a fun and informative monthly newsletter.
Heritage holds one auction early in the year and another later (the next is scheduled for September 2020). The most recent auction in February 2020 generated $2.3 million in sales.
‘TOWERING OVER ALL OTHERS’
Every hobby has its Holy Grail. For sports collectors, it’s the Honus Wagner tobacco card (the 1909-11 T206 Sweet Caporal). It’s believed only about 75 exist because Wagner either objected to smoking or not being compensated. Another is the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, which was produced late in the season in low quantities, with a large portion of the production run later disposed in the Atlantic by its manufacturer. About 2,000 remain. In the coin world, there is the accidental 1943 bronze Lincoln cent, of which about a dozen from the Philadelphia Mint survive. There are some 100 1918 Inverted Jenny stamps with their inadvertent upside-down airplanes.
In 1920, the Democratic ticket of Ohio Governor James M. Cox and Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future president Franklin D. Roosevelt held such a slim chance against the formidable Ohio Senator Warren Harding, following the unpopular presidency of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, that the campaign barely produced any paraphernalia. Ninety-eight years later, Heritage declared the Cox and Roosevelt juggle button in its auction listing a “Holy Grail” item.
“Of the celluloid buttons, the Cox and Roosevelt towers over all others as an iconic rarity,” reads the catalog description. “It has been estimated that perhaps 50 to 60 examples survive, an amazingly low number considering that six distinctly different designs were produced. With the exception of a few common, nationally distributed varieties, Cox buttons of any type range from scarce to rare. Undoubtedly, the poor prospects for the Democratic candidate led to a paucity of funds for niceties such as campaign buttons.”
The pin sold for $22,500. Like the Wagner card and other Holy Grails, the Cox and Roosevelt isn’t necessarily the rarest, but it has the most mystique. There are also certain variations. Last year a black and white version, rather than the more prevalent brown one, sold for $50,000 because only two are known to exist.
For my part, I collected political buttons as a boy – just like Drew Hecht – visiting George McGovern campaign headquarters in Scarsdale, N.Y., in 1972 when I was 11. I loved the Pop Art rainbow design of one of his pins, which cost me a 25-cent donation. Four years later, I helped move some boxes at Republican headquarters in nearby White Plains, N.Y., and received a free Gerald Ford poster in appreciation. I resumed collecting in my late 20s, attending APIC’s New York City shows. I still own my 1928 Al Smith derby and my 1912 Theodore Roosevelt Bull Moose tack pins from TR’s third-party campaign. I have an Adlai Stevenson shoe pin, too. Today, they all sell for about $25.
This doesn’t mean all Bull Moose items are cheap. I simply owned the most common version. Last September, Heritage auctioned a Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson (California governor) jugate pin featuring a cartoon design of the running mates shaking hands across a U.S. map. The hammer price was $7,500.
Here are prices realized for items associated with our five most recent presidents.
Today, I specialize in oddball Adlai Stevenson buttons, mostly because of my 21-year-old daughter Adelaia, whom I named after the witty and erudite politician. She’s particularly fond of buttons bearing the “All the Way with Adlai” slogan due to the current racy connotation and the “flasher” pins showing his photo and the slogan. At a recent political show, I acquired just for her an adorable “Adlai Likes Me” pin for $10.
BARGAINS TO BE FOUND
Richard Nixon really likes me. At an ephemera show in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, last September, I sifted through a wicker basket of political pins and didn’t think twice about an ordinary one with an $8 price tag that read “Nixon Press Boston Sept. 29, 1960.” On a whim that night, I looked it up on Heritage’s website only to discover that an example of this “rare one-day press event button” sold for $836.50 in 2010. The next day, I took the subway back to the ephemera show. A few months later in a Heritage auction, I sold mine for about the same price, including the buyer’s premium.
I happened to meet the auction winner, Tony Lee, at the annual APIC Super Bowl Sunday show the group’s Big Apple chapter hosts in New York City. Lee already owned a 1960 Kennedy press button and wanted a matching pair. The exciting 1960 election is part of the Kennedy legend and immortalized in Theodore White’s classic The Making of the President 1960. The Kennedy version sells for about five times more than the Nixon, which is not shocking given the relative popularity of the two men.
“You can still get bargains at flea markets and stumble on a piece that’s never been seen before,” Ackerman says. “That’s not possible with coins. Check out eBay every day. There are good buys.”
Ackerman, an avid collector in his own right, has had his share of finds. At an antique shop Lambertville, N.J., in 1972, he paid $2 for an Andrew Jackson snuff box that was easily worth $1,000. “I handed him a $5 bill and he gave me $3 back,” Ackerman told me. On the last day of a three-day antiques show in White Plains, N.Y., in 1992, he purchased a sewing notion, a thread box, promoting John Quincy Adams’ 1828 election for $45; it was valued at about $1,000.
In its most recent auction this past February, Heritage sold the rarest-known Lincoln campaign photograph. The jaw-dropping 1860 image shows a standing Lincoln and a marching band accompanied by young men, clad in shimmering black capes and soldiers’ kepis and stumping for the standard bearer of a revolutionary new political organization, the Republican party. When the consignor plunked down $25 for it at a Saratoga antiques shop little did she know that it was the fourth ever discovered or that it would soar to $18,750 in fevered bidding. “If it had been priced for $75, she wouldn’t have bought it,” Ackerman says.
At the Super Bowl Sunday show, I engaged in a long conversation with Tom Keene, a 68-year-old retired city court judge in Albany, N.Y. I learned that he followed a trajectory strikingly parallel to Hecht’s. In 1964, when he was 10-years-old, he convinced his father to drive him to the New York State political convention, where he obtained a trove of Barry Goldwater buttons. He hasn’t looked back since. “I bid on 200 items in Heritage auctions and win two or three or four,” he explains. “I do a lot of bidding because I can buy and resell.”
He was still on a collector’s high from snaring a Holy Grail item in a recent auction. It was listed as an “extremely rare and sought-after” portrait mug with James Monroe’s name misspelled as Munroe. The catalog described the circa 1825 mug as “one of the most iconic of early three-dimensional political/presidential items and an important opportunity for the serious collector of early political display items.”
The mug sold for $9,375. “I dreamed of owning it,” Keene exclaims. “It’s a wonderful, rare, tremendous piece. I died and went to heaven.”
KEEPING DEMOCRACY ALIVE
Ten feet from Keene’s booth, his granddaughter, Joan Stutzman Keene, who had just celebrated her first birthday, was happily sitting on the floor surrounded by campaign buttons and holding a Nixon and Agnew pin. A Bill Clinton button was resting at her feet. Her choice intensely amused grandpa and mom, Maureen.
“I would be really upset if she became a Republican,” says Keene, a self-described “left-wing” voter. Maureen has a collection of between 75 to 100 feminist buttons and used to work at a reproductive health clinic. She qualifies as a cause collector, which might include, for example, vintage pieces from the women’s suffrage movement.
One of the beauties of political collecting is that in these hyper-partisan times, it bridges the divide. Democrats collect Republican pieces and vice versa. Everyone within the tightly knit fraternity seems to know each other and they all get along.
During the 2016 campaign, two professors observed in The New York Times that “American political history – specializing in elections and elected officials – as a field of study has cratered. What was a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.”
Hecht has used parts of his collection to teach social studies to his daughter’s eighth-grade class. He and his fellow collectors are keeping the democratic discussion alive for the benefit of the next generation and the rest of tomorrow’s voters.
DAVID SEIDEMAN writes about collectibles as a senior contributor to Forbes. His work has also appeared in Time and Sports Illustrated.
This article appears in the Fall 2020 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.