Autograph May 2010

A typical issue of Madigan’s weekly sales catalogue, this later life example is a mere three pages and 18 items. The most expensive item appears on this page: a one-page George Washington ALS of 1798 priced at a then considerable $375.

Chances are that if you were a well-heeled autograph collector in the early decades of the 20th century, or even a middle- or low-heeled collector, you had dealings with Thomas F. Madigan in his gallery at 2 East 54th Street in New York. Along with fellow autograph dealer Walter R. Benjamin and a small number of high end antiquarian booksellers who also handled fabulous autographs (such as the famous “Dr. R.”— A.S.W. Rosenbach of Philadelphia), there were few players around with whom to deal. As a collector, your mainstay publications were Madigan’s weekly Autograph Bulletin and Benjamin’s monthly The Collector—few other publications existed.

Madigan was born in New in 1890, two years after his father, Patrick Francis Madigan, opened an autograph shop in New York City. It was here that Thomas cut his teeth in the autograph business. According to Donald C. Dickinson, in his enjoyable Dictionary of American Antiquarian Bookdealers,

His early training consisted of what might be called “road work.” He traveled up and down the East Coast, searching through barns, garrets, church offices and courthouse basements, looking for letters, signed documents and diaries of writers, politicians, clergymen and soldiers. Over the years he found letters signed by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Robert E. Lee and original manuscripts by such noted literary figures as Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen Crane….

Madigan was gracious to collectors at all levels. Here he writes to 20-year-old Arnold F. Gates (1914-1993) to tell him the autographs he sent “have no great commercial value.” Gates went on to become a respected Lincoln and Civil War scholar.

Eventually Thomas took over his father’s shop and began to make a name for himself. Naturally he came to the attention of wealthy industrialists of the day whose collections are now legendary and are the center of famed institutions—Henry C. Folger, Henry E. Huntington and the like. Surely buying on behalf of such men helped Madigan’s reputation, not to mention doing wonders for his bottom line. Yet it seems he never lost the common touch and he worked at providing material for collectors of all means. For this reason he featured a “Bargain Counter” at his shop where items could be bought for a relative pittance. Our own version of this, a “Who Dat?” box, debuted here just last week.

In the early 1930s Madigan also sought to popularize of autograph collecting by giving a series of radio addresses, titled “The Autograph Album,” on Station WOR in New York. Apparently he afterward published each in pamphlet form—I own a copy of The Signers of the Declaration of Independence and Their Autographs, the tenth talk in the series.)

Madigan was only 26 years old when he published A Biographical Index of American Public Men, a 246-page hardbound checklist of names useful for autograph collectors. Continental Congressman, American Revolution and Civil War generals, signers of various historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence and others are all listed here. A copy rests on my reference shelves, and while I’ve seldom used it, it’s a piece of American autograph collecting history and I’m glad to own it.

Word Shadows of the Great

Promotional leaflet for Madigan’s 1930 masterpiece, Word Shadows of the Great.

In 1930, Madigan’s place in autograph collecting history was secured with the publication of Word Shadows of the Great: The Lure of Autograph Collecting. Frederick A. Stokes Co. was the publisher of this large clothbound volume, which was available in both a regular dust jacketed trade edition ($5.00) and a deluxe “Collector’s Edition” limited to 300 signed, slipcased copies—each with a different original historical document tipped in, priced at $25.00.

Copies of this latter edition can usually be found for sale, at prices ranging from $500 to $125 depending on the scarcity of the historical letter added. At the moment, I find copies for sale with tipped-in documents from Joaquin Miller, Alexandre Dumas pere, William Cullen Bryant, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Charles Reade, Anthony Hope Hawkins and Donald Grant Mitchell. Madigan himself liked to add “Yours for rarer and better autographs” when asked to inscribe copies.

Word Shadows of the Great was the 20th century’s first general interest introduction to autograph collecting—the first to appeal broadly to collectors or would-be collectors. Despite the Depression into which the country was sinking, sales of the book warranted at least a second printing of the trade edition. Similar titles on autograph collecting had been published before, but most catered to high-end, highbrow literary material. Madigan truly introduced the American public to the notion that the average citizen could afford to collect worthwhile historic material. It’s alcasic in the field, and any historical autograph collector today worth his sale should strive to own a copy—and read it!

On April 19, 1936, the autograph world lost its brightest star when Madigan died at age 45 at his home in the New York suburb of Pelham.