History for Sale

Heritage Auction Galleries made a fortune selling rare coins. Now itís making a mint offering gems from Americaís rich past.

"If I ever retire I will get nostalgic about these things," Lee says. "But right now I am thinking of what I am going to do today and tomorrow."

Not only did the comics auctions attract high-profile consignors, coveted collectors also came to Heritage to snatch the titles that had been previously hard to find. Though Heritage keeps confidential its buyers and most of its sellers--save those who want or do not mind the publicity--an unabashed regular buyer at the auctions is actor Thomas Jane, who portrayed Marvel antihero the Punisher in the 2004 film of the same name. Jane specializes in horror titles from the early 1950s and insists it wasn't easy finding the good stuff till Heritage got in the game. He bought art in the Thanksgiving 2001 auction and even now does his own bidding over the phone or Web.

"When Heritage started, people said, 'It'll be good for three, four auctions, but what'll be available after that? The quality will go down,'" Jane says. "I don't think it will, because people know this bidding pool is opening up, they're reaching into the stuff they've had for 20 years and bringing it to Heritage, so it'll never stop. I will feel more comfortable selling something I would have hung on to 15 years, knowing it will come around again or that I can take the money and put it into a more desirable piece."

Richie for the rich: Ed Jaster expects the cover to the first Richie Rich comic to sell for at least $11,000 in May. The original art will go for no less than $17,500.
Mark Graham
Richie for the rich: Ed Jaster expects the cover to the first Richie Rich comic to sell for at least $11,000 in May. The original art will go for no less than $17,500.
Comics buying, without all the punishing: Actor Thomas 
Jane, center, is a longtime Heritage customer. He’s 
pictured with media director John Petty and one of 
Heritage’s many comics catalog assemblers, Mark 
Walters.
Mark Graham
Comics buying, without all the punishing: Actor Thomas Jane, center, is a longtime Heritage customer. He’s pictured with media director John Petty and one of Heritage’s many comics catalog assemblers, Mark Walters.


Alas, Heritage does not make all of its serious money selling funny books. With its Americana department, which includes a few items of note imported from Europe, it has become a sort of clearinghouse for important documents--real founding-fathers-in-the-Smithsonian stuff. A letter written by Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1860. A John Keats love letter to his mistress. Republic of Texas papers, some written by Stephen F. Austin, and all unseen even by scholars.

It was in fact the acquisition of legendary Pennsylvania collector and Lincoln enthusiast Henry Luhrs' collection that convinced Rohan the company was a legit player. Heritage got involved only after Luhrs had contacted six other auction houses; Rohan and Americana acquisitions director Tom Slater heard about it at the last minute, flew to Pennsylvania on their own dime, offered their proposal and ultimately got the consignment. If someone doesn't contact Heritage directly, this is usually how the company gets a collection: luck and legwork.

Doug Norwine recently read on the Internet that the James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, Indiana, was shutting down because of financial difficulties. He got on the phone, got on a plane and come this fall's signature auction, Heritage will sell everything--from James Dean's elementary-school homework to a piece of the car in which he died. People sell all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, but it often boils down to two things: They need the money, or they need the space.

Just two weeks ago, consignment director John Hickey was in John Petty's office showing him a tattered document that, if it can be proven to be authentic, is "one of the most significant documents of the 20th century," as Petty puts it. It was shown to me only with the understanding its contents not be revealed, but Petty and Hickey are right to be giddy. Should it be the real thing--and "there's a lot of research being done right now to prove that out," Petty says--it will cause an enormous stir among historians and garner Heritage the kind of media attention all of its other auctions combined haven't attracted. And make no mistake: If it is indeed the genuine article, it will be auctioned off, perhaps "for millions of dollars," Petty says.

"And that's what's so cool," he says. "That's what keeps us coming back in here day after day. We're just starting the research process now. It's exhaustive. It's amazing. As any kind of collector or just someone who appreciates American history, you've gotta look at that stuff and just be in awe of it."

Only last month, Heritage auctioned off the so-called Papers of the Republic of Texas Legation to Washington, D.C., that date from 1836 to 1839. It was acting as a sort of front for the Texas State Historical Association, which couldn't afford to buy the documents, which include some never-before-seen "250 items of highly important historical material documenting the mission to Washington, D.C., after Texas achieved independence," according to the auction catalog. So someone bought the papers for the TSHA...for $286,000.

In February, a single piece of paper upon which Abe Lincoln wrote a letter sold for $131,450.


Maria Elena Holly, short and sweet and dressed in a white pantsuit with matching cap, stands in the lobby of Heritage's building, watching a man play Buddy Holly songs. The man singing "True Love Ways" looks just like Maria Elena's dead husband, which doesn't seem to bother her at all. To the contrary; Maria Elena's wearing a broad smile on her creaseless face.

Doug Norwine straps on a sax and plays with the band--a Cricket for the night, a cheap thrill but a genuine one nonetheless. When Norwine moved to Dallas two years ago, he considered knocking on Maria Elena's door. Didn't have to. She went to an auction with a friend and returned soon enough with boxes of Buddy's stuff--old demo recordings, ties, wedding photos, his passport and that apparently indestructible watch. Over the din, she's asked whether selling off her husband's things is weird.

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