The Most Expensive Autograph You’ve Never Heard Of

By Nolan Moore on Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Button_Gwinnett
“Fame sometimes hath created something of nothing.” —Thomas Fuller (1642)

In A Nutshell

Chances are pretty good you’ve never heard of Button Gwinnett. While he signed the Declaration of Independence, he never achieved the legendary status of men like Benjamin Franklin. However, despite his obscure spot in history, Button Gwinnett’s autograph is worth more than any other signature with the possible exception of William Shakespeare.

The Whole Bushel

All right, it’s pop quiz time. How many of America’s Founding Fathers can you name? Everybody knows the big dogs like Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, and who can forget guys like John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton? But have you ever heard of Button Gwinnett? If you check out the Declaration of Independence, you’ll see his impressive scrawl all the way to the left. Admittedly, he’s one of the more obscure Founders, but even so, Gwinnett’s signature is more expensive than any autograph by George Washington or Benjamin Franklin.

Gwinnett was born in Gloucestershire in 1773, making him one of only two signatories of the Declaration born in England. In 1765, he sailed to Georgia where he started an import/export business. After that little venture fell apart, he leased St. Catherines Island, tried his hand at farming, and struggled with debt throughout his life. Eventually, he represented Georgia at the Second Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and got himself killed in a duel in 1777.

So why is his signature second in value only to Shakespeare’s? Because it’s so incredibly rare. By the 1800s, the Gwinnett family line had totally disappeared, and there was no one around to care for Gwinnett’s possessions. Button also had the misfortune to live in Savannah, Georgia, a city that was ransacked in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Plus, Button died at 42, cutting his letter-writing career kind of short. Add all those factors together, and it’s a perfect recipe for missing historical documents.

In total, there are only 51 Button Gwinnett signatures known to man, most of which are IOUs. Forty-one of these autographs are in libraries and museums, and that’s a problem for autograph collectors, especially people interested in gathering the signatures of all 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Since there are only 10 autographs in the world you could possibly buy, the demand is incredibly high. The most recent Button Gwinnett signature was sold in New York for a staggering $722,500.

To put things into perspective, let’s look at a few other famous autographs. A Dallas newspaper signed by John F. Kennedy on the day of his assassination was valued at $39,000. A photo signed by all four Beatles was priced at $43,758. A contract signed by Jimi Hendrix is worth $200,000, and a baseball signed by the legendary Babe Ruth was valued at $388,375.

Granted, a George Washington autograph once sold for $9.8 million, but that’s because it was attached to a leather-bound book containing Washington’s personal copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, complete with annotations. The average Washington autograph, on the other hand, is chicken feed next to a Button Gwinnett IOU. While his accomplishments were dwarfed by many of his contemporaries, the name of Button Gwinnett has become more special, more unique, and more valuable than any other Founding Father, simply because he didn’t write as many letters.

Show Me The Proof

New Georgia Encyclopedia: Button Gwinnett
Radiolab: Buttons Not Buttons
RR Auction: Button Gwinnett
MSN Money: World’s most valuable autographs
RAAB Collection: George Washington Autographs