Presidents and Their Limited Editions

[Boston Globe]

I’m a little late in linking to this, but I wrote another story for the Boston Globe‘s Ideas section — this one on the crazy, opulent history of deluxe presidential memoirs, books that typically come with autographs, artificially limited print runs, and price tags as high as $1,500.

Along with my text, you’ll find some great photos from Jim Hier, a Portland man who works in finance — and who owns more than 400 different volumes autographed by presidents. Hier filled me in on the rise of presidential book collecting, and, while there wasn’t room for that in the story, I’ll sketch it here.

Nineteenth-century autograph hounds lusted after George Washington’s signature, so there is a history here. Still, for most of that history, collectors didn’t care about an autograph’s context. Hier remembers that, for a long time, books with presidential autographs actually came cheaper than letters or random squibs. “A lot of dealers looked at books as a bit of a nuisance,” he told me. “They were bulky, heavy, and hard to transport. One time, I got Eisenhower’s two-volume set at the end of a show for a big discount, just because the dealer just didn’t want to pack it home.”

Two things changed this. First, in 1982, Stephen Koschal published a book titled Collecting Books and Pamphlets Signed by the Presidents of the United States. It helped focus and drive the interests of collectors like Hier. The second change was the Internet, and websites like eBay and AbeBooks helped Koschal’s readers connect with each other. Rare and autographed presidential books still make up a small part of the book collecting universe, but Hier says interest (and prices) have grown substantially. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hier found new items all the time. “Now, I’m lucky if I can add one or two good books a year.”

That’s partly because Hier already owns so many amazing titles. (In addition to the mass produced books I talk about in my story, Hier owns unique books like a copy of Benjamin Henry Harrison’s This Country of Ours that the president signed for his wife.) But that’s also because, today, Hier has plenty of company.


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