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Friday, January 2, 2015

Value of Historical Items Associated with the Wright Brothers

(Updated December 1, 2019) The "monetary value" of a collectible is based on supply and demand. The greater the number of collectors interested in the item, the greater the value. The fewer available examples of the item, the greater the value, assuming the number of interested collectors vastly outnumber the available items. The historical value of the item doesn't necessarily equate with the amount of money a person is willing to pay for the item. There are collectible items that have a high monetary value, but a low level of significance or historical value. This is really evident in coin collecting for example. A certified modern mintage coin of which millions to billions of the coins were minted, can go for a high price simply because is has been certified as the finest mint state coin of that type, year, and mint mark, but in the end, it is still only a modern struck piece of metal. Why does it have any value at all, beyond its face value? One example, PCGS(1) lists a 1995-D Red, MS-69 Lincoln penny at $4150. This cent was minted 24 years ago, one of 7, 128,560,000. Yep, that's one of 7 Billion plus. Why there is such a supply of collectors willing to pay this price, I don't know. But that is how value is placed on collectibles, supply and demand.
Imagine a museum is burning down. You can run in and grab one item off the shelf to save from the flames. A piece of copper plated zinc stamped as a penny in 1995, or a historical typed letter written by Orville Wright in 1939 discussing details of flights performed at Huffman Prairie in 1904 and 1905 of the development of the world's first practical airplane. Which would you grab? Based on monetary value alone, you'd grab the useless piece of zinc valued at $4150. After all, it's one of the prettiest shiniest example of 7 Billion of these metal chunks minted that year! The Orville Wright letter, though unique, in monetary value is less than $3000.

Documentation of sales of coins provide a great advantage of establishing a trusted value base for the hobby. PCGS and NGC(2) websites provide free price guides for coins based on year, type, and condition, with these guides constantly updated based on current sales history. For those interested in collecting historical items associated with the Wright Brothers, similar price guides are not as readily available. Rarity of an item is not as easily determinable. Historical price information is available, but it has to be gathered over time, and from various sources. I follow items as they sell on E-bay, and make note of the final sale price. I'll also check sale history on auction sites such as-

Cowan's Auctions
Swann Auction Galleries
Bonhams 
Heritage Auctions
RR Auction
Christie's 

Obtaining a record of previous sale of an item doesn't necessarily establish it's current worth. Just because an item sold for a high amount, doesn't mean that similar items now have that value, for a number of reasons. The buyer may have simply paid too much. The buyer may have competed against other buyers in an auction, and made an emotional purchase, paying more than a similar item could be obtained elsewhere. This makes it difficult in establishing values on collectibles. An example, "The Shop That Became a Shrine", a neat booklet printed by the Dayton Chamber of Commerce in 1928 for the 25th anniversary of first flight in fine condition sold at auction in 2013 for $240. Yet, I was able to obtain a nice copy for my collection at $16, and a second example at $12. A copy with a discolored front is available on E-bay currently for $70. So what is the fair value for a clean copy? Maybe $35 to $50?



"The Shop That Became A Shrine", December 17, 1928 publication by The Dayton Chamber of Commerce, author's copy.
When researching the value of the collectable, don't be thrown off by the asking price. Often the asking price is fair, but just as often, the asking price is inflated, and at times ridiculous.  A major irritation of mine is when I observe a collection of historical aviation documents sell at auction, and then watch as this collection is split into it's individual parts, and re-listed item by item by the purchaser at asking prices three to five times (or more) over their original purchase price. I have specific examples, but I'll not list them here, as these items are currently being offered for sale, and I suppose any dealer has the right to make a profit of 600% or more. But as a buyer, I won't be paying those prices. Additionally, I believe it is so unfortunate that certain collections are divided in this way, in that much of the historical information that could be gleaned from the full collection is lost in the individual items. Without giving the specifics, I watched a collection of over 150 drawings and notes sell at auction, and then individually resold by the buyer at a great profit. The collection as a whole told a story, but the items individually do not. Fortunately, I preserved that story by saving a jpeg of every item as they were listed for sale by the dealer, and I have a folder of the complete collection in digital format such that the history is not lost.

I find quite unfortunate the division of collections of documents for profit that historically should be kept together. I understand that individuals are simply trying to make a living, and purchasing and then reselling at a profit is just part of the collectible market. However, when the historical item is actually destroyed, shame on the seller, and equal shame on the buyers. Historical letters are actually being cut up into tiny pieces with individual words or letters sold. Buyers are excited to obtain a sliver of a document with a word or few letters in the hand of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln for example. The seller is able to make a profit on the destruction of the document, and buyers enable the process. I've yet to see this happen with a letter of Wilbur or Orville's, but I don't doubt it will happen if it becomes apparent there is a profit to be had. As collectors and preservers of history, please don't participate in this type of destruction.


Post Cards- Prices vary depending on age, content, condition, and rarity. I suppose the more valuable are the mint condition, unused cards, however, I prefer the postmarked cards with related messages. I'm not an expert on post cards, and I don't feel confident that I could always recognize a modern reprint from an original period card. With a postmark and message, I'm more confident of authenticity. Additionally, if the message happens to be an eyewitness account of the event, why would an unused mint condition card be more desirable? I've seen asking prices vary from $1 to $250 or more, and have been able to obtain some really nice cards with eye witness accounts in the range of $5 to $35 each. Cards signed by Wilbur or Orville of course have higher value, and are covered later under Signatures.

Postmarked, and signed October 10, 1908, Wilbur Wright in flight, Nice early card, $35 (4)
Period card, Wilbur Wright Camp d'Auvours, postmarked 1908, "We are glad we were here when these interesting experiments were going on so near by. Greetings from Paris" Purchased at $10. (4)
Two postcards with note from eyewitness of Orville Wright's 1909 Ft Myer flights, purchased for $5. (4)


Press Photos- Price appears to depend on age and content. Press photos from 1908 to 1912 picturing Wright flyers, and/or Wilbur or Orville Wright can sell in the $100 to $500 range or more. Press Photos from the 1920's through the 1940's showing Orville Wright at various events can be purchased in the $10 to $45 range.

Press photo- Orville and Wright's Flying Students at Deerborn Michigan, 1938, purchased at $15. (4)
Original Flying Students
Nice period press photo of Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk in 1911, purchased at $28. Damage to photo at right does not effect the image. I believe the photo has more value than the purchase amount.(4)

Newspapers- First flight newspapers are very desirable. Asking prices are generally in the hundreds of dollars. A complete newspaper would have more value than a single page. Complete newspaper with a front page story would be more desirable than one with the story located within the paper, as display would be more difficult. A complete Chicago Sunday Record-Herald dated December 20, 1903 with an inside page single column headline "A Flying Machine That Flies" and a 1/4 column "Early Report of the Birth of Aviation- the First Flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, NC", has been offered for sale at $400 since 2011, still available at AbeBooks.com. For other first flight papers, see photos below.
Laminated pages preserve the paper, but the process is irreversible and deemed undesirable by many. I've purchased laminated pages because of content. Newspaper clippings can be collectable, though I'd prefer the uncut original page. The Wright Brother's themselves saved clippings in lieu of complete newspaper pages. Many historical newspapers with Wright Brother related news can be obtained in the $20 to $50 range.

January 17, 1904 laminated newspaper page, inaccurate account of first flight, The Denver Republican, purchased at $21. Seller had intended to list at $100, but sold in error at $21. As a laminated page, not sure of fair value, but nicely preserved.(4) The same story appeared in the Dallas Morning News, January 17, 1904; appearing on page 17, this single page sold at Cowan's Auctions September of 2017 for $570.

The Troy Times (NY) December 18, 1903 First Flight news recently offered for sale for $800. Item was later listed as no longer available, so actual value not determined. Was indicated as the complete newspaper, but number of pages not known.

The Omaha Daily Bee, Nebraska, December 19, 1903, currently being offered on E-bay for $380. Account is on page 7 of this complete 16 page paper.

New York Tribune, December 19, 1903 with account on page 5 sold for $50 in August of 2014. Page 4 and 5 had some damage with tears and tape mends.


Dayton Daily News June 16, 17, 18, 1909 Home Celebration issues. Purchased for $93. Papers experienced some paper loss at folds. I repaired these with acid free archival tape. (4) These are the only issues I've been aware of offered for sale over the past eight years.


Magazines- Early aviation magazines appear to be quite common. There are specific issues that are more desirable, and thus command a greater price. Issues are generally offered in the $15 to $50 range, though an issue of La Vie Au Grand Air and Le Petit Journal with aviation news from 1909 recently sold for $328 for the two. I obtained the issue below for $20. So determining reasonable value can be confusing. 
La Vie Au Grand Air, Sept 19, 1908. Nice cover art with full page pictures of Wright flyer inside. $20 (4)
Specific magazines of interest include
  • Gleanings in Bee Culture issues March 4, 1904, January 1, 1905, and January 15, 1905. A March 4, 1904 issue recently sold for $123. March 31, 2019, a March 4, 1904 issue sold for $102.  A March 4, 1904 issue is currently being offered at $1400; good luck with that. A grouping of 1904 and 1905 Gleanings magazines including the January 1 and January 15, 1905 issues offered through Swann Auction Galleries September 28th 2017 with estimated value between $1500 and $2500 sold for $5000. I have been searching for the January 1&15 issues for a number of years, but not at that price!(3) An issue of January 15, 1905, with water stain damage, sold on E-Bay September 22, 2018 for $444.99. In my opinion, the January 1 and 15, 1905 issues should not exceed $500 each, and even that price is high in my mind compared to the average cost of a first flight newspaper which sells in the $350 range.
  • The Independent February 4, 1904, February 25, 1904, and March 10, 1904. An article "The Experiments of a Flying Man" claimed to be written by Wilbur Wright, was published in the February 4th issue, with retractions in the February 25, and March 10 issues. Wilbur did not write the article. A February 4th issue sold recently for $600, but that was likely overpriced. 
  • The Independent October 22, 1903 with article "The Outlook for the Flying Machine" by Professor Simon Newcomb. Newcomb provides reasons why mechanical flight is impossible, just two months prior to the Wright's December 17th flights at Kitty Hawk. 
  • Magazines from estate of Orville Wright, stamped such and signed by co-executor  Harold S. Miller. 
  • Magazines with news of December 17th, 1903 first flight, such as L'Aerophile Decembre 1903, Scientific American December 26, 1903, etc.
  • Der Motorwagen issues with Rozendaal prints of the 1908 Wright Flyer.
  • And many others.
Signatures- Wilbur Wright died in 1912, and Orville Wright in 1948. Wilbur's signature is more valuable, again due to supply and demand. Orville's longer life provided him the opportunity to sign photographs, checks, postcards, anniversary of first flight envelopes, etc. His signature on such an item tends to sell for around $450 to $850 or more. However, his signature on the famous first flight photo will sell for much higher. Currently, a stained first flight photo with Orville's signature is being offered on E-bay with a buy-it-now price of $10,800. I guess the seller, or the possible eventual buyer would have to explain why the item would have this value vs. a much lower value of six similar first flight signed items sold over the past few years, at $1256, $1383, $1674, $2078, $2881 and $2932. If the photo could be established as an early copy, processed within a decade of first flight, and signed by Orville on a known date or event, then perhaps this would push the desirability of the item higher, but there is no mention of such a history in the item description.

Orville Wright signed first flight picture, sold for $1851, October 10, 2018, RR Auctions.

Orville, Wilbur, and Katharine's 1911 signatures on a blank page removed from a book recently sold for $19,102. Wilbur's signature on a menu for a dinner hosted by the Aero Club of France, November 5, 1908 sold for $8125 at the September 2019 RR Auction. A copy of Fred Kelly's "The Wright Brothers" signed by Orville Wright recently sold on E-bay for $432, a bargain for the buyer, multiple bids. A word of caution- I have seen many forged Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright signatures on photos, postcards and envelope covers. Don't make the mistake of comparing the signature to those seen on other postcards and envelope covers, as you have a good chance you're looking at another forged item by the same hand.  And just for clarification, by many, I mean I see dozens of forged items offered for sale every single day I check, resulting in hundreds of forged items in collector's hands.
Signatures on checks, postcards, and letters are discussed below.


Checks- There are many available original checks in the hand of Wilbur, Orville, or Lorin Wright. Many checks are fully in Lorin Wright's hand, including the signature of Orville Wright. Lorin would often place his initials under Orville's name, but not always. Many checks are in secretary Mabel Beck's hand, but with original signature by Orville. Value will be dependent on a number of factors.
  • Date of check.
  • Who's signature appears on check.
  • If signature is full, or just initials. 
  • If check is fully in Wilbur's or Orville's hand, or just the signature.
  • If check is made out to another significant historical individual, for example, Charlie Taylor, and endorsed by that person on the backside of the check.
  • Historical significance of the check.
  • Condition of check.
  1. Checks in Lorin Wright's hand can be obtained in the price range of $150 to $350. 
  2. Checks in Mabel Beck's hand, but with Orville Wright's signature can be purchased in the range of $350 to $850. 
  3. Checks in Wilbur Wright's hand signed Wright Cycle or Wright Brothers with Wilbur's initials sell in the range of $1800-$2500. I've seen them listed for higher asking prices, but I doubt they sell in that higher range.
  4. Early checks in Orville's hand written to Charlie Taylor sell for $1200.
  5. Checks in Wilbur's hand written to Charlie Taylor sell for $2500. 
Postcards-
  1. French postcard photo by J. Bouveret of Wilbur Wright and Mrs. Hart O. Berg seated in a Wright aeroplane signed “8 Nov, 1908, Wilbur Wright.” Sold for $10,005, September 2016.
  2.  Real photo postcard of the Wright Model A in flight, signed on the reverse, “Lemans, 12 Nov. 1908, With my compliments, Wilbur Wright.” Sold for $15,943, April 2016. 
  3. Hotel Esplanade postcard, postmarked May 6, 1911. Letter to Georges Tharel, director of the Compagnie Generale de Navigation Aerienne, sent by Wilbur Wright. “Many thanks for your letter and the very amusing enclosure. I have laughed very much over it.” Also included photo of Tharel posing by a flyer, signed in pencil by the photographer, Henri Manuel; three different vintage photos of the ‘French Wright’ from 1911; and 1911 C. G. N. A. leaflet advertising flight performances as well as the planes. Sold for $10,779, November 2013.
  4. French postcard showing Wright Flyer at Le Mans "La Conquete de L'air", signed 8 December 1908 Wilbur Wright sold at Bonham's September 17, 2019 Air and Space sale for $5325. This is far less than the cards above sold for, which shows a previous auction sale doesn't necessarily set future prices. This card is currently being offered for resale on E-bay for a "buy it now" price of $12,500.
  5. Another French postcard showing Wilbur airborn in the Flyer at Le Mans, "La Conquete de L'air", signed Wilbur Wright across the hangar roof sold at Bonham's September 17, 2019 Air and Space sale, also for $5325.This card is also now being offered for resale on E-bay for a "buy it now" price of $12,500.

Letters- Content is important- aviation related content will be more desirable than non-aviation content. Earlier letters are likely to have more value than later dated letters. If Wilbur Wright was the author, the letters will have more value simply because Wilbur died in 1912, and fewer letters are available in his authorship. Some examples of letters sold within the past few years-
  1. I'm very envious of the individual who obtained this letter by Wilbur Wright dated, January 25, 1912, to Mr. W. de Hevesy in Paris. This letter has been quoted often in a good number of books on the Wright Brothers, and I was amazed when it became available. “During the past three months most of my time has been taken up with law suits and I have been away from home most of the time. I am hoping to be freed from this kind of work before another year has ended. It is much more pleasant to go to Kitty Hawk for experiments than to worry over law-suits. We had hoped in 1906 to sell our invention to governments for enough money to satisfy our needs and then devote our time to science, but the jealousy of certain persons blocked this plan, and compelled us to rely on our patents and commercial exploitation. We wished to be free from business cares so that we could give all our own time to advancing the science and art of aviation, but we have been compelled to spend our time on business matters instead, during the past five years. When we think what we might have accomplished if we had been able to devote this time to experiments, we feel very sad, but it is always easier to deal with things than with men, and no one can direct his life entirely as he would choose. Yet these years have not been without their pleasant spots. And we look back with much enjoyment to the friendships made during this period. If you should come to America do not forget Dayton.” Included original mailing envelope addressed by Wilbur. Sold for $13,316, April 2016. In my opinion, this letter has more value, but then I am most interested in personal content, and this letter is about as personal as they get, written just months before Wilbur's death.
  2. Partial typed letter on Wright Cycle Company letterhead, October 9, 1905, signed for both by Orville,  "Wilbur & Orville Wright, O.W." sent to Captain Ferdinand Ferber, discussing the October 5, 1905 flight. Also a partial letter dated the next month was included. Sold for $15,303, December 2014.
  3. Typed manuscript of an essay entitled “What Clement Ader Did,” which was published in the May 1912 edition of The Aero Club of America Bulletin, 10 pages, 8.5 x 11, signed on the last page, “Wilbur Wright,” with a couple of additional ink notations by Orville Wright. Sold for $67,333, May 2014.
  4. Four pages on two adjoining sheets, personal letterhead, June 6, 1909 to Paul Tissandier in response to his letter sent to Wilbur on May 18, 1909. In full: “We were very glad to receive your nice letter, and to know that you are having such good success with your flying work...." Included mailing envelope in Wilbur's hand. Sold for $40,045, May 2013.
  5. Single page, 8.25 x 11, Wright Brothers, 1127 W. Third Street, Dayton, Ohio letterhead, March 25, 1910. Short letter to M. Paul Tissandier. “We are hoping you will not fail to make a trip to America some time this year...." Sold for $64,507, May 2012.
  6. Typed 2-page letter on The Wright Company letterhead, November 10, 1911, sent to Lieutenant H. H. Arnold with nice aviation content signed by Wilbur Wright. Sold for $59,134, September 2011.
  7. Three pages on two sheets, personal letterhead, December 22, 1909. Letter, written from Dayton, Ohio, to J. M. Beck, Jr. “Some time ago while at College Park I received a copy of your school paper containing an article by you regarding my flight at the Hudson-Fulton Celebration....” Included mailing envelope in Wilbur's hand. Sold for $14,055, November 2012.
  8. Typed single page letter on Wright Cycle Company letterhead, March 3, 1902, sent to Edmund Doyle in San Francisco, several sentences, signed by Wilbur Wright, including original envelope. Sold for $11,262, May 2010.
  9. Final typed page signed by Orville on behalf of both brothers, “Wilbur & Orville Wright,” Wright Cycle Company letterhead, November 17, 1905, sent to Georges Besancon.  “The claim often made in the 19th century that the lack of sufficiently light motors alone prohibited man from the empire of the air was quite unfounded. At the speeds which birds usually employ, a well designed flyer can in actual practice sustain a gross weight of 30 kilograms for each horse power of the motor, which gives ample margin for such motors as might easily have been built 50 years ago.” Sold for $3259, November 2013.
  10. Typed letter on Orville Wright Dayton, Ohio letterhead, June 15, 1927 about a current aviation event at Wright Field, one paragraph, $1640
  11. Typed letter on Orville Wright Dayton, Ohio letterhead, March 16, 1931, turning down chairmanship request on historical exhibit of aircraft, half page, $1490
  12. Typed letter on Orville Wright Dayton, Ohio letterhead, February 7, 1929, non aviation content, half page, $748.
  13. Hand written partial page letter by Orville Wright on The Wright Company stationary to Mr. Woodhouse, sold for $1054, RR Auctions, October 10, 2018. Mentions negatives damaged in flood (1913). I would have liked to have bid on this, but was cash poor at that moment. Not dated, but would date between 1913 to 1915.
  14. Typed on The Wright Company stationary, dated November 23, 1916, a letter by Orville Wright to Samuel G. Colt, in which Orville writes, "I have lately found some of the parts of the 1911 glider, which Mr. Crane was trying to set up. I think it probable that more of them will be found in time; but I do not know whether enough will be found to be of any use to you. I have a pile of old parts, which I will some time go through." Sold on Heritage Auctions October 2018 for $1312.
  15. Typed four page letter on The Wright Company letterhead, April 7, 1915, from Orville Wright to Frederick Epplesheimer of The New York Herald. Orville writes at length concerning soaring flight. Content is everything, as this letter sold on RR Auction, September 2018 for $10,000.
  16. Orville Wright typed letter to John W. Wood, author of Airports, Elements of Design. Letter dated September 25, 1939, with great content on 1904/05 flights at Simms Station, Amos Root, and John McMahon's book. Included with letter was 1906 Aero Club of America bulletin report of  the Wright's 1905 flights, $3000.
Original letter by Orville Wright to John W. Wood, author of Airports, Elements of Design. Provides facts of Huffman Prairie flights of 1904, 1905. $3000. This letter included the original insert from Orville Wright of the 1906 Aero Club of America bulletin as mentioned in the letter. (4)



1903 Wright Flyer Fabric Remnants- Small 1" square fabric remnants from the 1903 Flyer from fabric removed at time of restoration of the Flyer in 1916. This fabric was saved by Orville Wright, and after his death, was divided in small squares and applied in various formats for distribution to acquaintances of Orville Wright. Single page document with 1" square fabric prepared by Lester Gardner sold 5/14/19 by Heritage Auctions for $9375. If the fabric piece was flown to the moon on the Apollo 11 mission, the value increases a bit.......


Unique items- Difficult to place a value on unique items, as each item would need to be compared to a similar item of equal importance, of known value. Recently, items from the Neil Armstrong Estate were sold at Heritage Auctions, and included fabric and wood from the 1903 Wright Flyer that had been flown on the Apollo 11 mission, and to the moon's surface in the Lunar Module "Eagle". Though all out of my price range, the dark fabric in the middle of first row below is the more desirable piece in my opinion. The 1903 Wright Flyer was under 12 feet of water and mud during the 1913 Dayton flood. The soiled piece of fabric is more representative of this than the clean pieces. The 1903 Flyer fabric was removed and replaced with new fabric during the 1916 restoration. The fabric was again removed and replaced prior to the Flyer being sent to the Science Museum in South Kensington, England, in 1928.(5)


Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions from November 2018 Space Exploration Signature Auction featuring the Armstrong Family Collection

Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions from May 2019 Space Exploration Signature Auction featuring the Armstrong Family Collection Part II

Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions from July 2019 Armstrong Family Collection III Space Exploration Signature Auction

Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions from November 2019 Armstrong Family Collection IV Space Exploration Auction




Hand drawn map by Lorin Wright, prepared by Lorin in 1915 and presented to Earl Findley and John McMahon for preparing their history of the Wright Brothers. The map indicates locations of homes of the Wright family. Findley and McMahon's manuscript was presented to Orville Wright for review, and was rejected as too personal. Reverse side of map includes notes by John McMahon on Wright family genealogy.(4)

I believe the greatest value of a historical collectible is in the satisfaction of preserving history. The monetary value is very subjective, and really depends on the given day, how well the item has been advertised, the number of interested bidders, and often, the state of the economy. 


(I will be continuing to update this post, adding pricing information on a variety of Wright Brother material. Please check back. Any input is welcome.)




Check out the related posts,
 "Collecting Historical Items associated with the Wright Brothers"


"Buyer Beware When Collecting Wright Brother Items"

Index of Topics


Notes:
1. PCGS- Professional Coin Grading Service.
2. NGC- Numismatic Guarantee Corporation.
3. Amos Root wrote the first published eye witness account of a Wright flight. Refer to my post
Amos I. Root Much A Buzz About the Wright Brothers 
4. From Author's collection.
5. I'm curious how some of the Flyer fabric is stained so thoroughly from the 1913 mud, and yet other sections of the fabric are so clean. The Flyer was disassembled in 1903 and crated at Kitty Hawk, and then shipped back to Dayton, where it was stored in the crate(s) until the 1916 restoration. During the 1913 flood, the Flyer was under water and mud for several days. I don't know if immediately after the flood, if the Wright's removed the Flyer parts from the crate(s) and washed it off thoroughly. It would make sense they would have done that rather than let the Flyer remain caked with mud. During the 1916 restoration of the Flyer, the fabric was removed and replaced, and the old fabric was likely washed by hand to remove any remnants of the mud, but not the permanent stains that resulted. Rather than discard the fabric, it was saved and stored. 

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