Q & A with Harry Rinker: Pres. Lincoln Letter Copy, Mark Twain Voice Record

QUESTION: I own a printed copy of an 1864 letter that President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Bixby. My dad found it in an Ohio attic about 45 years ago. The printed notation on the bottom left reads: “An engrossed copy of this facsimile letter of President Lincoln to Mrs. Bixby, hangs on the walls of Brasenose College Oxford University as a specimen of the purest English and most elegant diction extant. It is said that as a mode of expressive English, it has rarely, if ever, been surpassed.” The paper is signed by John A. Key (1871-1954), a member of Congress from 1913-1919. I believe he made this copy because he was a printer by trade. Is there any value to my copy?

– GD, Parker, Colo., via e-mail

ANSWER: This letter has a colorful origin and history. It was written in November 1864 to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow living in Boston whose five sons were supposedly killed during the Civil War. Lincoln wrote the letter at the request of Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew. It appeared in print in the November 15, 1864, issue of the “Boston Evening Transcript,” the same day Adjutant General of Massachusetts William Schouler delivered it to Mrs. Bixby.

Harry RinkerAs it so happened, Mrs. Bixby only lost three of her five sons. Furthermore, Mrs. Bixby’s sympathies ,and that of at least some of her sons, rested with the South rather than the North. Private Arthur Edward Bixby, who Mrs. Bixby claimed was underage when he joined and was discharged, actually deserted. Captain George A. Bixby was captured at Petersburg and may have deserted to the enemy. Mrs. Bixby, who had moved from Richmond, Va., to Boston, is alleged to have been a member of the Copperheads (Northerners who were sympathetic to the South) and manager of a house of ill repute. A great-great grandson reported that Mrs. Bixby destroyed the letter upon receipt.

Scholars question whether Lincoln wrote the letter. They believe the letter was written by John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary. Hay supporters cite Lincoln’s lack of time to write letters in November 1864 and the use of certain words favored by Hay as opposed to Lincoln.

Several handwritten copies have surfaced, but all have proven to be forgeries. When F. Lauriston Bullard, a Lincoln scholar, investigated the Brasenose College attribution, the original could not be found nor any record of Brasenose College ever owning it. The most recent “period” copy was supposedly uncovered in a Dallas museum in 2008. Attempts to authenticate the letter led to a wide variety of pro and con opinions. In the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan,” Harvey Presnell, who portrayed George Marshall, read the Bixby letter to his offices before giving the order to find Private Ryan.

Researching an object helps makes it come alive. Your copy has more conversation value than collector or historical value. The John A. Key signature is worth more than the document. Further, it is unlikely Key printed it.

Alas, your letter is in poor to fair condition. The pictures that accompany your e-mail show the document is heavily creased from folds and mishandling and has a water stain along the bottom edge, a dirt band across the top, and rounded corners with especially heavy rounding of the upper left edge.

In Ohio, your document is worth between $25 and $35; this value based on the Key signature. Outside of Ohio, value drops to $5 to $10.


QUESTION: I have an old Victor 78 rpm record featuring Mark Twain reading a passage from one of his stories. The record label has these numbers: 50576-R and 3415A. Does my record have any value?

– K, Reading, Pa.

ANSWER: Credit goes to Fr. Dan (Daniel), a priest at St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church, Bethlehem, Pa., for providing me with the information to answer this question.

First, the number 50576 indicated the record was made after 1921 and before 1923. The number 3415 is the matrix number; a number that provides the exact date on which the record was recorded but not pressed.

Second, Samuel Langhorne Clements (Mark Twain) died on April 21, 1910. The Victor Talking Machine Company began in 1901. Hence, the recording had to be done between 1901 and 1910. The initial release was on cylinder. The flat record was a re-release.

Third, your “Diamond Disc” record is ¼ of a inch thick. It is not a “78” rpm but an “80” rpm record. This slight change in speed meant the record could only be played on an Edison machine. At the appraisal center of the “New” Atlantic City Antiques and Collectors Show, I had the chance to examine an early Edison disk machine. It had an adjustment control that allowed the owner to adjust the speed upward or downward from 78 rpm. While the upper limit was not marked, I am certain it included 80 rpm.

I tried to find a Victor Talking Machine Company discography and a “spoken word” discography. I am certain one exists. I also was curious if other authors recorded readings from their works between 1901 and 1910. If a reader knows, please e-mail the information to me at harrylrinker@aol.com. I will share it in a future column.

Historical value is one thing. Resale value is another. If your record is in playable condition, its value is around $3. The cylinder version would retail for $2.


QUESTION: I have collector plates from Beauties of the Red Mansion and Poetic Visions of Japan. I purchased them from the Bradford Exchange. A set of Beauties of the Red Mansion sold on eBay for $200. I cannot store them anymore. Should I dump them?

– PF, NYC, via e-mail

ANSWER: Poetic Visions of Japan featured designs by Yoshiharo Kathoh and were manufactured by Ketsuzan-Kiln. Ahao HuiMin did the designs for the Beauties of the Red Mansion series, manufactured by Imperial Jingdezhen Porcelain. This series appears to consist of 12 plates issued between 1986 and 1989.

“Dump” is a relative term. If you mean should you send them to the city dump, the answer is no. You already have discovered that a secondary market exists. If you divide 12 into 200, you get $16.66. In today’s secondary collector plate market, any plate that brings this amount falls into the minor miracle class.

Value is what someone is willing to pay. Internet research uncovered a storefront Web site specializing in the sale of collector plates offering Beauties of the Red Mansion series plates at prices ranging from $59 to $105 per plate. This dealer wins my “Please, God, send me a buyer with no sense whatsoever” award of the month. Why would anyone pay these prices? The same plates sell on eBay for a 15- to 25-percent of these asking prices.

Poetic Visions of Japan plates appear more frequently on eBay than do Beauties of the Red Mansion plates. Poetic Visions of Japan plates sell between $5 and $7.50. Offerings with an opening bid request of over $10 fail to attract a bidder. A patient buyer will have all the opportunities he needs and more to buy any Beauties of the Red Mansion collector plates.

Every time I hear “when will they ever learn” from Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowing in the Wind,” I find myself thinking of individuals who buy contemporary collector edition collectibles believing they are investing in a piece of art that will appreciate over time. These plates and other forms are not works of art and will not appreciate over time. In reality, they are every executor’s nightmare.

Should you dump, meaning sell, them now? Absolutely! Take any money you can get and put a smile on your face.


QUESTION: Are Wee Forest Folk “doomed” collectibles in terms of value? Some of them sell well, but others do not. Any insight you can provide is welcome

– J, via e-mail



ANSWER: Just as there will always be an England, there will always be a contemporary collectible that catches the imagination of optimistic individuals who believe in instant and profitable collectability. As memory of the Beanie Baby debacle fades, the lessons it taught are forgotten.

Annette Peterson created Wee Forest Folk, a handcrafted line of miniature mice sculptures, more than 30 years ago. The Peterson family, which now includes Willy and Donna, continues to design new products. The family-owned business is located in Carlisle, Mass. Check the Web site weeforestfolk.com.

The promotional literature contains all the key words one expects—meticulous, carefully selected, delicate, patience, personal pride, retired and workmanship. One does not have to be a genius to read between the lines. These are nothing more than mass-produced castings of cutesy-pooh sculptures.

These little buggers are expensive. This is the only clue a buyer needs to recognize that long-term collectability is problematic. The secondary market will not sustain these values, a fact proven over and over again when 1980s-, 1990s- and 2000s-collector editions of any form are tested in the secondary auction marketplace.

Some of the earliest examples do sell above their initial purchase cost, only because enough new collectors who want discontinued (another word that indicates danger) examples are entering the marketplace. This will not last.

The secondary market for Wee Forest Folk is another speculative bubble waiting to burst. The secondary market value will follow the same course as it did for Dept. 56 and similar items.

If you own examples that are selling for more than they cost new unload them now. In 10 years, you will be able to buy them back for a fraction of what you received.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site: http://www.harryrinker.com.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 22 Stillwater Circle, Brookfield, CT 06804. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2010

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