NEW YORK – Widely considered one of the world's foremost experts on rare American documents, Seth Kaller has built a career (and many museum-quality collections) by securing, authenticating and appraising some of the most important artefacts on the market. Documents he has worked with have been exhibited at or acquired by notable institutions including the Gettysburg National Civil War Museum, Mount Vernon, the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Museum, and the Gilder Lehrman Collection, which he has represented since its inception in 1989. Ahead of Sotheby's 25 May auction Two Centuries of American History auction, which includes many documents Kaller himself worked with including the 13th Amendment and Emancipation Proclamation, we asked him about his career and why these two documents in particular carry such importance.
SETH KALLER. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF SETH KALLER INC.
How did you first begin collecting historical documents?
I started out as a collector and collection-builder in good part because of my interest in and reverence for documents of freedom. In 1989, when I really got into this field and decided to focus on historic documents, I was utterly amazed by the fact that iconic documents could be bought. (I think that is actually a major barrier to new collectors – it’s hard to believe that this market exists, and that all the truly great things aren't already in museums. But the museums we have today didn't exist back then, and the greatest of institutional collections started out with individual collectors.) I don't think I could have just been an autograph dealer. It was the content that hooked me, and then hooked my first clients. We were very lucky to be entering the field at a time when unbelievably important documents, like the 13th Amendment, were available to us.
What do the 13th Amendment and Emancipation Proclamation, which together helped end slavery in the United States, signify today?
Today, when people talk about "making America great again," I don't know what they mean. We started with the greatest of ideals – "that all men are created equal" – but that was never meant to be an accurate description of the way things actually were. It was a vision of what America could be. By 1863, America was already a powerful nation, but it wasn't the great nation that it became. The Emancipation Proclamation marked the most profound turning point: before Lincoln's Proclamation, we might have somehow reconnected as "a house divided," or more likely split into many houses that would have continually been at war. Though it took 87 years to get from our founding to the Proclamation, it was only another two years before passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery once and for all, throughout the entire nation. Without that, would we have been the one nation able to "save the world for democracy" in the 20th century? I don't think so. Americans and people around the world justly can speak about America as a great nation, but that wouldn't be the case if not for these two re-founding documents that put us back on the path envisioned by the Declaration of Independence.
AN EXTREMELY RARE MANUSCRIPT COPY OF THE THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT TO THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION, SIGNED AND ENDORSED BY ABRAHAM LINCOLN. ESTIMATE $2,000,000–3,000,000.
Does the 13th Amendment hold personal significance for you and your career?
The 13th Amendment was the first great document that Lew Lehrman and I discussed, and the Emancipation Proclamation was the first great document that Lew and I talked to Dick Gilder about. I know whatever I said was incidental. I think it was the spark from those two documents that inspired the whole Gilder Lehrman Collection and my first exhibits at Gettysburg College and the New-York Historical Society. Then Gilder and Lehrman partnered with Gettysburg College on the Lincoln Prize, which led to so many other great endeavours, including the Frederick Douglass and George Washington Prizes, and Gilder Lehrman affiliate programs in thousands of schools.