Three things make a paper document valuable: Rarity, Historical Value, and Condition.

Rarity

Over time many items made from paper are either just thrown away or disintegrate due to the poor quality of paper pulp.  Limited editions and the originals of the printed matter most assuredly become scarcer with the passing of time. Many vital documents are thrown away just because people that take care of their deceased family member’s estate do not understand the value of a paper collectible.

Broadside of George Washington’s Farewell Address Part 1, 19 September 1796 http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel06.html

If you are interested in viewing old original documents, the Library of Congress is an excellent source. The topics include a large array including maps, manuscripts, prints and photographs to name just a few collections. http://findingaids.loc.gov/

Historical Value

Many institutions such as museums, colleges, and libraries, as well as individuals, save the printed matter of significant events from history such as world wars, presidential elections, the signing of world-impacting documents, auspicious births and deaths. The older these documents are, the more they are worth. It is important to have these papers or documents appraised as to their authenticity if you are collecting as an investment. Reprints and “anniversary issues” are often made of historical documents. If you are buying from a reputable source, the organization or seller should provide an authenticity document for you. If it is a “found” item (garage or estate sale, flea market, etc.), you can have it appraised. Here is a link to a list of appraisers https://www.appraisersassociation.org/, http://www.professionalappraisers.org/, http://www.isa-appraisers.org/.

Condition

Printed matter, especially on paper manufactured in the late 19th century, is inherently acidic and over time the acids yellow and disintegrate the paper. Acid is one element that causes paper decomposition, but so do handling and exposure to sunlight. Handle important documents with cotton gloves, so dust, dirt and finger oils don’t come in contact with them. Keep everything in acid-free boxes or rooms with UV protection on the windows and fluorescent lights. These precautions make your valuable paper collectibles more likely to stay in excellent condition for years to come.

 

Question: How can I find out if my document is valuable and who can do that evaluation?

Answer: This is called getting an appraisal. The definition of an appraisal is: An estimate or considered opinion of the nature, quality, importance of something or someone.

Appraisals of old documents, newspapers, books, etc., can be done by businesses such antique bookstores, appraisal services, and antique stores. Appraisals are done for the purpose of putting a value on an item when donating to charity or getting the item insured for loss or replacement. An appraisal is also excellent information to offer when you are putting an item up for auction.

Question: What’s the difference between appraisal and authentication?

Answer: The definition of authentication is: To establish as genuine. To establish conclusively or unquestionably the “authorship” of an item by scholarly techniques. Authentication can be an involved process depending on the age of the document. You need the guidance and verification of a professional curator and conservator. Having a document authenticated guarantees to a buyer that what they are purchasing is original. This should garner the seller top price at auction.

 

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