Kenneth W. Rendell: The World’s Preeminent Dealer in Historical Letters, Autographs, Historical Documents, and Manuscripts

Our History

Kenneth W. Rendell standing by vault door   In the 1950s, I traded my collection of English medieval coins to a friend for his collection of Presidential letters and immediately became enthralled by the feeling of intimacy with history that these letters gave me. At the time I was a specialist dealer in American colonial coinage, but within a matter of a few months I knew that my life was rapidly heading toward a different path in my pursuit of history. Carried away by my new passion, at a New Hampshire auction of the estate of an autograph dealer, I bought most of what was offered and instantly became a dealer to pay for my purchases. I have loved every day since then as the temporary possessor of the written record of mankind's greatest heroes and villains as well as the countless individuals who wittingly or unwittingly became a part of the dramas of history.

In 1959 I published my first catalog, consisting entirely of American presidents. During the period from 1960 to 1965, my catalogs began to offer historical letters and documents in many areas of American history, beginning with the Revolution and gradually moving forward in time as I expanded my knowledge of the historical facts, the lives of the participants, and, most important, the autograph material—its rarity, the kinds of letters people wrote, the types of documents they signed, whether anyone ever signed for them, and the dozens of other details that are necessary for the accurate evaluation of autograph material. During the last five years of that decade, I continued to include more areas—first American literature, then English history and literature, and finally Continental history and literature.

It was also during this time that I began to appraise archival collections, a part of the business that was to become very important in the late 1970s. In the following twenty years, I evaluated virtually all of the major collections donated to American institutions, including the literary archives of Random House, the archives of the Northern Pacific Railroad (ten million pieces), the Franklin D. Roosevelt family papers, the papers of Samuel L. Clemens, Johannes Brahms, Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Admiral Byrd, the archives of RKO and Paramount Pictures, and literally thousands of others. Appraisal clients included every major library and museum in the country, including the Library of Congress and the National Archives as well as the National Archives of Canada, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Internal Revenue Service. In the 1970s, two appraisals set the legal standards for determining the fair market value of historical letters and documents: in the first, the Otto Kerner case, I represented the Internal Revenue Service; and in the second, I represented the taxpayer, the Northern Pacific Railroad. In both cases my evaluation was upheld with no compromise. These are the only cases to date in which the Tax Court has not compromised between two conflicting values. I write about appraisals in the past tense because in recent years my time has been devoted to working with collectors, leaving little time for institutional appraisals. However, in the 1990s, I evaluated Richard Nixon's White House papers comprising forty-four million pieces and forty-five hundred hours of tapes—a challenge worth getting involved in! This appraisal was done for the former President and the final agreed upon evaluation, settling his lawsuit over the taking of his White House papers, was within ten percent of my appraisal.

The second half of the 1960s was also a period of developing and expanding ties with scholarly groups. I began speaking regularly at the annual meetings of the Manuscript Society, the Society of American Archivists, the American Library Association, the American Museum Association, and the Association of College and Research Libraries and writing articles for their journals. (Later, I was to become president of the Manuscript Society and the International League of Autograph and Manuscript Dealers and was unanimously nominated president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America).

The 1970s might be termed the European Decade." In the early years I opened offices in London and Paris, and for most of the decade, I literally commuted, averaging eighteen trips a year. This was the last period when catalogs of historical letters and documents that comprehensively illustrated the history of the major periods could be published by a dealer. I began with The Ancient World. Several others followed.

  The Ancient World: Early Writing from Mesopotamia and Egypt 3100 BC - 800 AD

The Medieval World Renaissance Europe French Artists and Authors The American Civil War
The Medieval World
285 pages
Renaissance Europe
354 pages
French Artists and Authors
205 pages
The American Civil War
190 pages

There was also a three-volume series on the American frontier (729 pages).

The American Frontier - Volume 1 The American Frontier - Volume 2 The American Frontier - Volume 3

These were the most comprehensive catalogues ever published on these subjects. Unfortunately, none of them could be rivaled today; the material is simply not available.

Catalogue 50 (82 pages), Catalogue 100 (114 pages), Catalogue 150 (237 pages) were devoted exclusively to American Presidents.

In 1979, I was involved as co-editor of Autographs and Manuscripts: A Collector’s Manual (560 pages), sponsored by the Manuscript Society and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Selected by the American Library Association as one of the outstanding reference books of its year, it was the most comprehensive reference book ever published to that time on the subject.

  Autograph Letters, Manuscripts, Documents - The President of the United States

If the 1970s was the “European Decade,” the 1980s seemed to be the decade of “going public.” In 1983, I was hired by Newsweek as their special consultant on the Hitler diaries. Many weeks were spent trying to determine how these outrageous forgeries had become such an international news story, and all of the publicity had a tremendous effect in making the world of historical letters and documents much better known to the general public.

Newsweek: Hitler's Secret Diaries Newsweek: Forgery, Uncovering the Hitler Hoax Newsweek: Forgery, Uncovering the Hitler Hoax Newsweek: Forgery, Uncovering the Hitler Hoax Time Magazine: Forgery, Uncovering the Hitler Hoax

Two years later, historical letters and documents were back on front pages of newspapers as Mark Hoffman, the Mormon forger, killed two people in an attempt to cover up his forgeries. This extremely complex case remained in the news for the next two years.

In 1987, the New York department store that had pioneered the idea of offering framed historical letters and documents to the public, B. Altman & Co., was sold, and the new owners closed the departments that did not conform to their retailing concepts; this included the autograph department. As Altman's largest supplier, I knew the great success they had had in offering material to the general public, and I therefore opened my own gallery in New York. Originally, it was across from Carnegie Hall on 57th Street; shortly afterward, I moved it to East 57th Street, and in 1993, to our present location at 989 Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th streets.

By the late 1980s, the entire business of historical letters and documents had very significantly shifted its focus from institutional to private collectors. This was a result both of decreased institutional budgets, particularly as the availability of major collections declined, and my own personal preference for wanting to share more directly in the enthusiasm and fun of building private collections.

  Kenneth W. Rendell Window on Madison Avenue
 
Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery interior

The first few years of the 1990s saw a continuation of efforts to introduce more people to the idea that historical letters and documents can be collected for relatively modest sums. In 1990, we were invited to exhibit at New York's Winter Antiques Show, the most prestigious antiques show in the United States. During the next two years, we began exhibiting at leading antique and art shows, including those in San Francisco, Palm Beach, Chicago, Dallas, Basel, and Europe's leading art and antiques show, Maastricht. This has given us the pleasure of meeting many new collectors who never knew of the availability of historical letters and documents.

Kenneth W. Rendell Natick Exterior  

Also in 1990, we converted a bank building in the historic town of South Natick, Massachusetts, where John Eliot preached to the Indians in the seventeenth century, to an office building where we do all of our research, cataloging, conservation, and administration. Our reference library is unrivaled, and we also have the most sophisticated conservation and questioned documents library laboratory in the field.

In the fall of 1992, shortly after opening the gallery on Madison Avenue in New York City, we opened a second gallery on North Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had been very careful in selecting an affordable street parallel to Rodeo Drive, but ten years later when our lease was up we were flanked by national stores and the new rent was unaffordable.

Time Magazine with Bill Gates on cover  

The mid and late 1990s rivaled the 1980s for a sense of "going public". A number of collectors with whom I had been forming collections of letters and documents wanted to expand into printed material on the same subjects and this led to forming many fascinating libraries. We have never mentioned our clients publicly but when Bill Gates in his first major interview, which was a Time Magazine cover story, discussed my building his library and collections, it became public knowledge and few articles about me, since then, don't mention the Bill Gates collection.

What about the future? The trend in the past few years has certainly been one of new people discovering the field and being astonished at what they can acquire relatively inexpensively compared to other collecting fields. Several new dealers have put great emphasis on investment. I have never offered autograph material as an investment—although it has clearly been a very good one—because the material is so difficult to find that I do not wish to simply sell it someone for his or her "portfolio." My pleasure is in building collections and friendships with collectors, not in developing their investment portfolios.

 

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Historical Letters, Manuscripts and Documents - Renaissance Times to the Present

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