Collecting JFK: A Second Look at what is Valuable and what is Just Memorabilia?

President John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One leather bomber jacket is among the many JFK-related items to go up for auction at the John McInnis Auction Gallery on Feb. 17, 2013.

The upcoming auction of John F. Kennedy memorabilia at the John McInnis Auction Gallery on Feb. 17, 2013, led me to look more closely at an earlier blog I wrote for WorthPoint called “Collecting JFK.” That blog showed the different levels of collectibles and their values, depending on their associations with JFK himself. Ever since it appeared in April of 2008, I have received more than 200 comments asking about the value of a family heirloom or collectible item connected with JFK.

One of the more recent JFK items to be asked about was a matted engraving of the White House with a personal inscription and signature of John F. Kennedy. It was found at the bottom of a box of other ephemera that was bought at a local auction for a few dollars. It was later sold to a collector for about $300 with the understanding that it is more than possible the signature was signed by a staff member and not by JFK himself, a not unusual occurrence.

Even with that uncertainty, 50 years after his assassination, interest in all things JFK is still very strong. But since there is so much out there, what was the most collected type of item to date? Let’s break down the 200 or so blog comments from that original post and find out what items are more common verses the more unusual items that deserved more collectible attention, then compare the values for long-term collectability.

Images were the Most Common to be Evaluated
A good 30-percent of all the comments received related to images taken of JFK, Jackie or the family either by family members or professionals that were photographs, on slides, negatives and even on a reel-to-reel tape. Unless the image is of an unusual situation not seen before, the value of individual camera shot or professional White House images may have a value of no more than $2 each up to maybe $100 for the professional ones.

The most collectible are the signed images. But is it the signature of JFK? That has always baffled experts, since JFK was notorious for not signing very many items himself throughout his career, even to his closest friends, or staff or cabinet members. How to be sure? Having it personalized in the same handwriting as the signature isn’t always a guarantee. It simply has to be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity that it has been evaluated by an expert.

John McInnis (left), the owner, and John McInnis Auction Gallery historian Dan Meader, stand with some other items form the JFK auction include the presidential seal, a campaign poster and a flag.

Newspapers and Magazines were Second
Another 25 percent of all comments related to the newspapers and magazines that families have kept in closets and boxes since 1963. If you realize that more than 90 percent of all the newspapers ever printed have a value less than $50 (the older they are the higher value), you won’t be surprised to learn that any JFK-related newspaper or magazine will have a value to a collector of no more than $2 to $10, and it still has to be complete. Of course, the early edition of the Dallas Morning News that first reported the assassination will have a special collector value, just as the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline issue of the Chicago Tribune does. For more of a primer on newspaper collectibles, click here.

Letters and Correspondence came in Third
It doesn’t matter if it’s during his time in congress, a campaign or while at the White House, many have some sort of correspondence featuring the signature of JFK, Jackie or even Evelyn Lincoln. Most are general letters of support, encouragement, thank you or fundraiser-types, usually with a printed or secretarial signature with a value of no more than $20 to $50. The ones that should be considered authentic are ones that make reference to anything historic, personal, handwritten, private thoughts or with a personal notation. Letters like these have a much higher value, depending on content. A copy of any letter has no collector value.

A lot of Miscellaneous Items
These included books, stamps, plates, records, posters, spoons and all manner of inaugural, campaign and general ephemera, all of which had value no higher than $20. Curiously, except for a PT-109 lapel pin, there was hardly any mention at all about the value of political buttons, which could conceivably have higher values. Still, most are usually within the $10 to $35 level.

Personal or professional presidential images may have a value of no more than $2 each up to maybe $100 for the professional ones. If it’s signed, it just means you need to do more homework, as JFK was notorious for not signing much during his presidency.

The most unusual collectibles included:

• A door taken from the original Georgetown home where the Kennedys lived just before being elected president. Since there was limited documentation, an exact evaluation wasn’t possible, but could have been worth about $2,000 to $3,500 if documented correctly.

• A pair of binoculars used by JFK at a military demonstration then handed over to a sergeant standing next to him during the demonstration. Since there was no documentation to prove they were used by JFK, even with a photo showing him using them, no value could be determined beyond that they were 1960-era set of military binoculars, something a military dealer can determine.

• A typewriter with gold initials JFK etched on the front of the typewriter. It was said to have belonged to the estate of JFK and bought by renowned JFK collector Robert White, but had little documentation other than that story, so an evaluation could not be completed.

• A presidential automobile flag from the limo in Dallas is actually a more common question for evaluators. There have been several of these flags thought to be from the same car, but Robert White was supposed to have collected the originals. Along with the accompanying U.S. automobile flag, together they were sold at auction for near $400,000.

• A complete scrapbook of newspaper clippings from throughout his public life, including the White House, the assassination and the funeral. Without seeing it, it’s hard to know. Usually, clippings—no matter how complete—wouldn’t have a clear value for a collector. However, it might help define a collection overall, place some of the items in context and help provide provenance, too, and so would have a value of less than $50.

JFK-related newspaper or magazine will have a value to a collector of no more than $2 to $10, and it still has to be complete.

Most are general letters of support, encouragement, thank you or fundraiser-types, usually with a printed or secretarial signature with a value of no more than $20 to $50.

So, from the above examples, what should you be looking for when it comes to auctions or just buying one-of-a-kind JFK-related memorabilia? It’s the provenance! Any historic item has to include as much background information as possible. A signed and dated certificate of authenticity (COA) should accompany every piece of memorabilia from any reputable auction house or dealer. The guarantee should be simple: if the item is ever found to be not what it is described by a reputable and licensed appraiser, a full refund must be provided at any time.

It is safe to say that a lot of generic JFK items—such as newspapers, magazines, records, photographs, spoons and other items—are very common and come with values of less than $100. But it is the unusual, one-of-a-kind items that bring consistent, long-term, higher collector value. Those items should always be considered important to collectors for long term collectability.

But then, that is true with just about any historic item, isn’t it?

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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