Collecting political losers

Amongst the circus of fortune tellers, prognosticators and pundits predicting the outcome of the 2012 presidential vote was a lesser-known last-minute showdown between two autographed footballs. Just a week before the election, Dallas-based Heritage Auctions held out a sliver of hope for Mitt Romney. His signed pigskin sold for $800, fetching $100 more than President Obama’s scribbled ball.

Heritage, which bills itself as the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer, doesn’t claim to forecast election results. But its sales timing was impeccable. Odds are that a Mitt Romney-signed football today would not generate a much higher price than a brand new one at your local sporting goods store.

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As with sports, second place in politics is often a ticket to obscurity. In a recent random sampling on eBay – one of the cruelest (if unbiased) popularity indexes – only 17 of 327 Mitt Romney autograph listings had attracted bids. The highest active bid for his signed 2012 autobiography “No Apology: The Case For American Greatness” was $10.50, a dime more expensive than Amazon’s bargain price for an unsigned hardcover.

Bob Eaton, owner of RR Auction in Amherst, N.H., has seen this pattern repeat itself during every presidential election cycle since 1976, when he first started selling historical memorabilia.

“A signed photo of Senator John Kerry was fetching $300 to $400 when he was the Democratic nominee,” he says. “Now, you’d be lucky if you could get someone to pay $10 for it. It’s the same with John McCain and Al Gore. As for Walter Mondale, we can’t even give his signature away.

“Once a candidate becomes president, everyone assumes that the price goes up,” Eaton says. “When Barack Obama was running for president, a signed copy of ‘The Audacity of Hope’ would get $800 to $1,000 at auction. Now we get about half that. The market is oversaturated. As with most everything else, it all comes down to supply and demand.”

Washington’s Capitol Coin & Stamp, at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street, claims to be the city’s only remaining historical memorabilia shop (the Political Americana store at Union Station deals mostly in tourist souvenirs). Owner Nelson Whitman, who sells buttons and campaign items dating back to President William McKinley, says the collectible fate of Mitt Romney is sealed.

“Let’s put it this way, I’m not selling too many Mike Dukakis buttons any more and people barely remember who he is,” he says. “Romney will go by the wayside just like the rest of them.”

Although it may be true that casual collectors mostly gobble up the winners’ memorabilia, die-hard history buffs occasionally do gravitate to the losers.

“George McGovern remains extremely popular with collectors,” says Mark D. Evans, the membership services director for the American Political Items Collectors organization. “Part of it was his cult status within the anti-war movement. But 1972 was also a very colorful hippie period with wild designs.

“It’s not always about who wins,” he says. “Sometimes it comes down to, does the candidate inspire people? Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson are both not popular with collectors. But [1964 Republican nominee] Barry Goldwater is still hot.”

Goldwater memorabilia often had fun playing with his name. Campaign buttons featured watering cans and drinking glasses filled with gold-colored water and some cleverly referenced the chemistry symbols for gold (Au) and water (H2O). Conservative activists still relish items with their bespectacled hero touting “extremism in the defense of liberty” and belittling “moderation in the pursuit of justice.”

Turns out that Goldwater, too, was a collector of political memorabilia – and an extremely good sport. According to Heritage Auctions, he displayed a personalized photo from Democratic icon John F. Kennedy in his office for the rest of his life, despite losing to JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, in one of the most lopsided elections in U.S. history (LBJ won the Electoral Vote 486-52).

The photo, which sold for $17,925 in 2010, was personally inscribed: “For Barry Goldwater — Whom I urge to follow the career for which he has shown such talent — photography! — from his friend — John Kennedy.”

The further you go back in American history – experts pinpoint the 1824 election as the first time campaign items featured a candidate’s image – the more likely it is that the runner-up’s memorabilia will have value.

“In 1936, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt crushed Alf Landon, I’ll bet there were 25 FDR buttons for every Landon,” says Tom Slater, the historical Americana director at Heritage Auctions. “He was perceived to be the loser early on, so they made much less of his stuff. For collectors, often times rarity trumps name recognition.

“The same thing is true about Lewis Cass, who lost to Zachary Taylor in 1848,” Slater says. Slater says Cass, who served in the cabinets of presidents Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan, was a household name in his time. But he was almost entirely forgotten after he lost. 

“Lewis Cass items are very rare,” he says, “and often sell for more than Taylor’s.”

In a recent Heritage auction, a pewter-rimmed Cass campaign medallion fetched $7,767, while the same style Taylor medallion sold for $4,182.

Even if Romney had won the White House, says the American Political Items Collectors’ Evans, his autograph still likely wouldn’t have sparked a future bidding frenzy.

“Let’s face it, Mitt is no Kennedy,” he says. “He’s no Lincoln. For those of us who don’t focus just on price tags, a lot of what we collect ultimately comes down to charisma. 

“Yes, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry are not hot,” Evans says. “But then again, neither is President George W. Bush or even the first President Bush. Personality matters a lot.”