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Collecting the President 2012: Advice on Acquiring Campaign Memorabilia

by Tom Carrier (07/30/12).

Presidential campaign buttons are some of the most common campaign collectibles. This whole lot of 35 buttons sold for $50 in 2010.

In the United States, the quadrennial exercise of electing our president has been waged in earnest beginning with the primaries early this year. Naturally, the candidates have been jockeying for position earlier than that, but the official election season started when the Republican and Democratic parties both finally nominated those who would carry the banner in November.

For those just tuning in, the Republicans have nominated a former governor, Mitt Romney, and the Democrats have re-nominated the current incumbent president, Barack Obama, as their standard bearers once again. And, for the record, both are within a statistical tie of garnering the 270 electoral votes to be elected (why electoral votes and not popular votes is a Wikipedia question for now).

And there will be collectibles no matter who wins. But what type of collectibles? There are campaign collectibles, inaugural collectibles, and then official collectibles. Let’s take each of these, one at a time.

The Campaign

Actually, it was a very spirited primary for the Republican Party, with one candidate taking over as the front runner one week and a new one the next. Just about every one of them led the way for at least a little while. Finally, they settled on Mitt Romney, or will officially at the upcoming convention in August.

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As time goes on, the political buttons will be collected the most. Collectors prefer the official campaign buttons for sure, but because of the sheer number of them, the value of them can remain fairly close to the $5-and-less range. The sheer numbers of buttons outnumber the collectors.The collectibles, though, were so plentiful, particularly the signs, buttons, coins, posters, clothing, pins, stickers and all manner of unique novelties tied to each of the campaigns. Most, unless they are made in small amounts, may be worth no more than what was paid for them. So, again, what to collect?

However, collectors do want to see official campaign buttons that are very specific to a region, state, organization or interest group. And—this is important—all Democratic buttons must have the union “bug” on each one. This is the mark somewhere on the button that tells what union produced the button. It is not official without it. (Republicans tend not to worry about that as much).

One of the two fronts on an Eisenhower "I Like Ike" Lithograph campaign button.

A portrait of Eisenhower was the second “front” of the pin. It sold for $20 in 2007.

The button, which measures 2½ inches in diameter, also has the union “bug.”

For commercially produced buttons (those not associated directly with a party), they are done in a relatively limited quantity and, depending on artwork, message or design, they can be quite collectible. Look for those that have images of the candidates to start, then those with an interesting message. Also, try to determine how many were made of each. Condition will always matter. Together, these buttons are a good determination of future collectability. Any of these types of buttons can easily have a value beginning at $5 and reach into the hundreds well after the campaigns have ended.

All the early examples of campaign buttons—from their first production in the 1890 campaign up to about the 1940s—are quite collectible, with high historical and investment value. Earlier tintypes and others from any of the campaigns of the 1860s to 1890s will always have the highest collectible values, Lincoln particularly. Most of the campaign buttons from the 1950s to today will always be a well within the $5 to $10 range.

Inaugural Collectibles

Well, Nov. 6 has come and gone. We either have the same president for his last term or a new president just beginning his first one. Either way, the United States Congress Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies will conduct the official swearing-in at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. The president-elect gets his own inaugural collectibles in the form of an engraved crystal bowl, compliments of the U.S. Congress, as well as other historic keepsakes.

The rest of us can order official inaugural items through the official inaugural store, either online or through the mail. Many items are offered, from playing cards to crystal decanters to inaugural medals in bronze, silver and gold (yes, the 18k kind), and even official license plates. If you are looking just for a keepsake, any item will do just fine. If you’re looking for future collectability, the crystal and precious metal items will retain a value better over time. But, be sure you have the official inaugural seal, which has been in use since William McKinley’s inauguration in 1901.

The very first presidential inaugural license plates were issued by the District of Columbia on March 4, 1933 to commemorate what would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inauguration.

Over the years, inaugural items haven’t kept pace as high value collectibles, except for the precious medals. Unfortunately, the more recent collectible medals from the 1970s onward have been sold more for its metal content than for its historical event. Collectors must be sure the medals they do collect are not the ones issued by the U.S. Mint, as those designs are commemorative and are available on a continuous basis. Only the official medals are minted and sold during the time of the inauguration, never afterward.

So, which inaugural medals are the most collected? The early ones from 1901 through FDR in the 1940s are traded and collected with high collector value. However, the ones from Woodrow Wilson’s second inauguration in 1917Warren G. Harding of 1921Calvin Coolidge in 1923 and Herbert Hoover of 1927 are the rarest, because there were relatively few produced. Each, in good condition, have a value from several hundred to, well, hard to say.

The inaugural medal for Woodrow Wilson's second inauguration in 1917.

The inaugural medal for Warren G. Harding, 1921.

The inaugural medal for Calvin Coolidge, 1923

The inaugural medal for Herbert Hoover, 1927

There are other collectibles, naturally, from all manner of companies wishing to commemorate the occasion. In 2009, the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, brought out all manner of possible collectibles, such as buttons, clothing, stickers, books, toys, games, ribbons, and, of course, the newspaper. Most of these collectibles over time have not found a strong collectible market, even the “historic” newspapers. There were just too many produced or distributed. The rule of thumb is that if the item is advertised as collectible, limited edition or even of investment quality—it isn’t.

Official Items

After the new or reelected president is given the oath of office, the collectibles field goes into a higher realm. Each item authorized as a personal gift of the President now becomes more a part of history and is highly collectible.

Since President John F. Kennedy gave away a personalized set of his own cufflinks, presidents created their own versions to give away as a memento of a visit to the Oval Office. From Lyndon Johnson, a lover of gift giving, a die cast set of cufflinks featuring the full seal of the President of the United States and his signature began a tradition that included tie bars, lapel pins, small brooches, tie tacks, playing cards and all manner of official items. All jewelry is base metal, with some exceptions having 1/10k gold or being gold-filled, which may add about another third to the collector value.

A set of die-cast presidential cufflinks from the George W. Bush White House. Other presidential signature items available, such as the challenge coin, White House photos, official White House Christmas cards, glassware and items from Air Force One.

An example of the famous Chicago Daily Tribune issue proclaiming “Dewey Defeats Truman.” This sold for $776 in 2010. Newspaper issues you may pick up on Nov. 7 of this year will most likely never reach that value, but they are nice keepsakes nevertheless.

All these items are also freely distributed, but there are also other presidential signature items available, such as the challenge coin, White House photos, official White House Christmas cards, glassware, items for Air Force One, HMX-1 (the presidential helicopter), all with an engraved or printed image of the presidential signature.

The collector value for each of these items depends on scarcity and whether it actually bears an actual signature, a printed signature or a machine-signed signature. The closer to the president the item has been, the more collectible it becomes. Many of these items, such as an early tie bar with an engraved signature can have a value of $75 to $150 to a collector, while signature glassware can be nearer to $200 to $300 each.

Nowhere else in the world are items associated with our ruling president collected, traded or auctioned as much as they are in the United States. Why is that? Probably because we feel a close, personal connection to our head of government. Whoever holds the office comes from us, not appointed or inherited or placed there on the whim of a small group. They are us. As long as we feel this personal connection, the campaign, the inaugural and the official items will always have a history and a life of their own as collectibles.

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Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects, including vexillology, or the study of flags.

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