SAVANNAH, Ga. -- He was neither the most well-known signer of the Declaration of Independence nor was he the most successful, but more than two centuries after his death, Button Gwinnett is the most revered signatory among one enthusiastic population — collectors.
The signature of the English-born Savannah planter-turned-politician on a 1773 document is the key piece in a collection containing all 56 declaration signers being auctioned this weekend by a New Hampshire firm.
Gwinnett’s signature, said Bobby Livingston, the vice president of RR Auction, is the rarest signature sought by collectors in the country and holds more than half the value of the entire Proctor-Sang-Newell collection, which is likely to fetch more than $1.2 million.
In 2010, a 1776 Gwinnett-signed document sold for more than $720,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York.
"You can’t get your hands on a Button Gwinnett (signature),” Livingston said by phone Friday.
“Our auction has been selling autographs and manuscripts for 32 years, and this is the absolute first time we’ve ever had the opportunity to offer a Gwinnett signature. We’re very proud of this.”
Only 51 of Gwinnett’s signatures are known to have survived, Livingston said, and only 11 of those are privately owned, including the document associated with the collection offered by RR that was initially assembled by Utica, N.Y., by collector Thomas Proctor in the early 1900s.
The lack of Gwinnett signatures, said Stan Deaton, senior historian at the Savannah-based Georgia Historical Society, is likely because of his short life. Less than a year after signing the Declaration of Independence, Gwinnett was mortally wounded in a duel with political adversary Lachlan McIntosh in Savannah.
“He just didn’t live long enough to sign a lot of things,” Deaton said.
The document in the collection — an agreement between Gwinnett and the creditors to whom he was severely indebted to give up his plantation on St. Catherine’s Island — is especially interesting, Livingston said, because that transaction was a major turning point in his life.
“This example is from the period where Gwinnett — because he blamed England and tariffs for losing the property — decides to join the (revolution),” Livingston said. “To me that aspect, the importance of this document makes this all the more exciting.”