A Born Sleuth
Bill Panagopulos knows a fake when he sees one, whether it’s a very good forged signature or a reputedly authentic artifact.
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Research is a big difference maker for Panagopulos. Another is content. His early interest in isolated autographs cut from documents was soon superseded by a realization that an autograph could be far more valuable when connected to the right content.
“You can buy a Harry Truman letter for $100 if he’s thanking someone for a box of smoked oysters,” he notes. “You get a letter from Truman explaining his reasons for firing that bum MacArthur, or dropping the Bomb, and it’s the difference between $100 and $30,000. Content, content, content.”
Sometimes the content can be quite attention getting. A letter from Jackie Kennedy to her then sister-in-law, Ted’s wife Joan Kennedy, is full of indignation at Teddy’s philandering ways and an unconscious mirror of what Jackie herself might have experienced: “What kind of woman, but a sap or a slave, could stand that & still be a loving wife … & care about him & work like a dog for him campaigning,” Jackie writes. “It’s so old-fashioned.”
That letter got attention from newspapers across the country when Alexander Autographs acquired it last year. It had been found in a storage locker, apparently discarded by Joan’s maid who didn’t pay the requisite fees.
A riveting read, to be sure, but not one read without qualm. Doesn’t this violate poor Joan’s privacy?
Panagopulos says no. “What I’m selling is a piece of paper with writing on it, not the reproduction rights,” he maintains. “I’ve never seen someone sue for a letter. Once you send a letter, it becomes that person’s property. Once it’s discarded, thrown in the trash, it becomes anyone’s property.
“There’s an old saying: Don’t write down anything you don’t want someone to know.”
Fortunately for Panagopulos, they do.
For him, it’s a good business, but business isn’t the only consideration. To make his point, he tosses on his desk a glassine envelope filled with hair. As the envelope is inspected, he reads a letter dated 1865 from Karen R. Wright, wife of a former governor of Indiana, thanking Mary Todd Lincoln in part for the gift of her husband’s hair.
“Yes, that’s right,” says Panagopulos. “That’s Lincoln’s hair you have in your hands.”
A single follicle pokes out the side of the envelope and bends slightly at the touch. It’s hard not to feel something surge within you at such a moment, the polar opposite reaction from that experienced a few minutes before when noticing one’s business card was touching that framed portrait of Hitler. The business card was moved, quickly. The finger stays, caressing the reputed follicle from the same head that pondered and directed so much.
Panagopulos notices and lets out one of his throaty, infectious chuckles.
“Now maybe you begin to understand what it’s all about, eh? Now just make sure you put that in your article!”