Asked to name the most priceless antique in the world, artworks like Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, or Michelangelo's David, readily come to mind. Arguably, a badly faded 24 1/4" by 29 3/4" manuscript drafted by Thomas Jefferson between June 11, and June 28, 1776, belongs in that same class.

Valuable antique manuscripts constitute the most discarded and least understood category in all of antiques. For example, the Declaration of Independence reproduced in so many of our history books is a copy itself. That clear image is a commissioned print made by engraver William J. Stone in 1823 because the original, now maintained under the best archival conditions in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, had already begun to deteriorate.

Manuscripts are collected for their content and/or signatures. A document with John Hancock's distinctive signature can fetch $5,000. George Washington fetches about $4,000. A check signed by Ronald Reagan is worth around $300. A Charles Lindbergh letter can bring $1,000. Babe Ruth sells for around $500. I paid $90 for note Mickey Mantle signed on an Oxford, Connecticut restaurant napkin. Nixon's signature brings $150. A singed Jesse James note could bring $7,000. Ben Franklin books around $2,500, and Benedict Arnold is worth $6,000.

If you're wondering why an outlaw and a traitor's signatures fetch more than Ben Franklin's, it's more than just rarity. Antique paper collectors seem to attach special sentiment to articles associated to traitors, robbers,  murderers, and other scoundrels. They're also fond of documents describing freaks of nature, horrific accidents, famous disasters and other such subject matter. "Ephemera" collectors can be a little weird.

Years ago, people used to cut famous signatures from documents and save them. While a "clipped" signature is still collectible, it is not as valuable as a signed manuscript, photo, book, etc.. Fakes have always been a plague on the market. Remember the Mormon Papers, and the infamous Hitler Diary. 

Just as signatures are collected by category: American presidents, athletes, New York Yankees, famous woman, scientists, artists, writers, aviators, inventors, entertainers, signers of the Declaration, etc., so too are manuscripts collected by content. Lovers of the ocean are often attracted to ship and whaling logs. Civil war journals and letters are in great demand. Battle accounts of this century's World Wars will no doubt be highly collectible in future years.

Old folded documents have a way of appearing in the cubby holes of desks, behind picture frames, and packed away in boxes and suitcases. Consider all the yellowed letters and journals that lie in wait: undiscovered poems and songs, rare scientific notes, how a battle was lost, how a heart was won.

Whether you're an antique treasure hunter or a dedicated manuscript collector, it pays to do the paperwork. By the way, if you happen upon a parchment note with the ink-quilled signature of Button Gwinnett on it, don't throw it away. The Georgia pig farmer is the most sought after of all the "signers" (referring to the Declaration). It's also worth in the neighborhood of $20,000!  I told you manuscript collectors are weird.

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