Significant moments in history are often misremembered, even forgotten. Artifacts may be misplaced or discarded. For people like Nathan Raab, the misplaced and forgotten are his métier.
Raab is a principal at The Raab Collection, a Pennsylvania-based business that specializes in discovery, purchase, and selling of rare historical documents and artifacts. Those pieces have ranged from George Washington’s presidential address to Theodore Roosevelt’s “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” letter to Stephen Hawking’s first signed publishing contract.
Earlier this year, he was presented with an extreme rarity.
“The issue of discovery is that the rest of the world doesn’t know. It was sitting in some proverbial attic or basement,” Raab said. “It comes to us from the front line of discovery by people who find it themselves, and we identify what it is and why it is important. Then we alert the world. In cases where the world would have an interest.”
The Raab Collection has alerted the world to a photograph of a family of eight taken during World War II. The Raab Collection is selling it for $100,000―first come, first serve.
It can be argued that nine (or 10) out of 10 people would not be able to identify one person in the photo. But it is less about the image than what surrounds it. Along the matting are dozens of signatures, including those belonging to Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clement Attlee, and Bernard Montgomery.
“The pricing of any artifact like this is a function of the identities of the signers, the rarity of the piece, and the historical importance of the event it symbolizes,” said Raab, who has written about his adventures in finding artifacts in his book “The Hunt for History.”
“In this case, the incredible combination of signatures, from two prime ministers to president and first lady, is something we’ve never seen before.”
But what does the image symbolize? At first glance it appears to simply be a family photo with numerous and varied signatures, from political leaders to celebrities to individuals unknown.
To understand the image and its significance, one must know the patriarch of the family, who stands top left. This is John H. Jones, a steel worker-turned-steel industry representative who would become the protege of Labour Party leader Ernest Bevin. Jones would eventually be elected to Parliament shortly after the war ended in Europe.
In 1943, America and Britain collaborated on a worker exchange, sending four workers to survey their ally’s industrial landscape and capacities. The four Americans were hosted and guided by the four British workers, and vice versa.
Jones, who joined the expedition of industrial goodwill, brought the image along with the intent of having people he met sign it. One of the first people he met when arriving in America was the mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia. Jones also met the actor and naval officer Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; Anna Roosevelt Boettiger, the Roosevelts’ daughter; and several reporters for the Associated Press, Life Magazine, and the New York Herald Tribune. Through his travels in his home country, among numerous high-level politicians, he met and ascertained the signature of the champion boxer Jimmy Wilde.
The eight delegates from the two nations signed the photo as well. Among the other signatures, Raab said there are about a fifth of them that have not been identified, and most likely never will.
“They visited some line workers. People whose names would have been lost to history otherwise. People we may never be able to identify with any specificity,” he said. “It’s frustrating. Obviously, you want to identify everybody. I think what that shows is the extent of their visit. The diverse nature of the people they visited.”
The photograph, however, is not diverse. It is a one-of-a-kind, hence the reason the artifact is going for such a large sum.
“It’s a little-known incident that was very exciting and interesting to me. I knew nothing about it. It’s basically been lost to history, which was an exciting moment for me to realize that there is this cool thing that happened that has slipped through the cracks,” Raab said. “And then to see the combination of signatures, which one never sees. We’ve never seen Churchill together with FDR and Eleanor with the dominant Atlantic alliance team of that era. I’ve never seen that combination of signatures and I don’t expect to again. I can’t imagine a scenario in which it would happen.”
The item is part of the Raab Collection’s celebration of what they call “Churchill Week,” scheduled purposely to coincide with D-Day celebrations. There is another item being sold. It is Churchill’s original letter of thanks to the English people after victory over Nazi Germany. It is going for $200,000.