History for Sale

Pamela Ring Axelrod, W’77, considers herself a matchmaker. As executive vice president and director of the Las Vegas-based Gallery of History, she helps pair history lovers with pieces of the past. The company, founded by her husband, Todd Axelrod, in 1981, has the largest collection of originally-signed historical documents and manuscripts in the world. Through auction or direct sale, even ordinary folks can purchase, say, the autograph of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Marilyn Monroe’s check for a telephone bill, from their extensive, carefully-stored collection. “I like to call it the business of making love matches, because everybody has their hero or heroine, and it’s really gratifying when we can put our customers together with the people whom they’ve admired in history,” Axelrod says. Although some items in their inventory command thousands of dollars, others can be purchased for much less (Visit the Web site at www.galleryofhistory.com).
   Axelrod has been involved in the business since 1983 and is now studying to be a forensic scientist, apprenticing with a retired FBI agent and a police officer. “To check [document] authenticity,” she explains, “you have to know the handwriting of the individual, the idiosyncrasies of the person, and you also have to know the history of paper and ink, and the era in which that person was writing.” When someone recently tried to submit for consignment a signature of Abraham Lincoln, for instance, she examined it and found several inconsistencies, including paper “similar to what Warren Harding used for his Presidential appointments.” She had to tell the owner it was a forgery. The documents that the Gallery doesadd to its collection currently undergo close appraisal by independent experts; a certificate of authenticity signed by Todd Axelrod accompanies all items sold.
   Recently, Pamela Axelrod highlighted a few of the notable documents in their inventory of 170,000 historical items:

Papers with Penn connections —
   * Subscription receipt for The Pennsylvania Gazette (then a Colonial newspaper, not an alumni magazine), dated March 28, 1749, written out and signed by founding editor Benjamin Franklin: “Received of Mrs. John Paschall 15 shillings in full for the Gazette to this date. By Franklin & Hall.” Price, $5,175.
   * Penn alumnus Nicholas Biddle, as president of the Bank of the United States, writing from Philadelphia on October 28, 1828, to Charles S. Mercer, a Virginia lawmaker, about finance and canal building.
   * A 1954 handwritten letter from Ezra Pound, C’05, G’06, then in a Washington, D.C., mental hospital, to poet and critic Edwin Howard Friedman at American University, instructing him on when to visit.

Most valuable document —
   Probably a rare letter, signed in full, from outlaw Jesse W. James threatening a Pinkerton agent who had accused him and his brother of the mundane crime of horse-stealing to draw them out of hiding. James chose to protect his reputation by writing one of the few letters of his lifetime, worth “in the six figures.” The letter, dated June 5, 1875, reads, in part:
   “… I & Frank have been lied on and persecuted enough � they are no men in Mo who scurn horse thieves more than we do & if we were free men we would do all in our power to put it down. Clint Allen of Liberty made similar remarks about us to Sam Wardin a few days ago but he will probily regret it. if you value your life you had better retrace your Slander.”
Most comedic letter —
   Dated Dec. 17, 1957, from comedian Groucho Marx to film producer Jerry Wald, after attending the premiere of Peyton Place:
” … My DeSoto was whisked away from the front of the theatre so swiftly that I arrived at Romanoff’s in a Buick. There I rapidly got drunk, danced with Audrey Hepburn, looked down (and up) Jayne Mansfield’s knockers, had a fine lobster dinner, and spent a good half hour rubbing someone’s legs under the table …. which, on investigation, turned out to be my wife’s. It was a bang-up evening …. And that’s how I wound up.”

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