A Profile of Rare-Document Expert and Firm Owner Seth Kaller of Scarsdale
Nobody knows rare American documents like Scarsdale resident Seth Kaller.
The authentication experts of Antiques Roadshow have nothing on Seth Kaller
It’s well known that, in 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery and forever changing the course of American history. What is less well known is that, the following year, Lincoln signed 48 copies of the document to be sold for $10 each (a little less than $2,000 in today’s currency) to raise funds for sick and wounded Union soldiers. While Lincoln certainly was thinking of the troops, his charitable action created a treasure trove for future historians and document collectors alike. That is where rare-documents doyen Seth Kaller comes in.
In June, the 47-year-old Scarsdale resident, who is the owner of White Plains-based rare-document firm Seth Kaller, Inc., made news when he represented the seller of a Lincoln-signed Emancipation Proclamation at auction. The document sold for $2,085,000 to billionaire David Rubenstein.
“There was definitely excitement,” Kaller says. “The under bidder [i.e., the second-highest bidder] was on safari in Africa and emailed that his bid could be raised. Meanwhile, David Rubenstein wasn’t sure if he would bid, but decided to stay on the phone. He jumped in at the last minute.”
As a nod to Lincoln, Kaller used the auction to raise funds for today’s troops. He created a keepsake catalog, copies of which sold for $15 each. He donated the proceeds (just over $1,000) from the sale of the charity brochures—plus a matching donation—to the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that works with injured veterans.
This Lincoln-signed Emancipation Proclamation sold for more than $2 million
In the realm of rare historic documents, Kaller is no stranger to working on high-profile collections—and even participating in a little drama of his own. Considered one of the largest buyers in the field of rare American documents, he has facilitated the development of collections at, among others, the National Constitution Center, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens, and several presidential libraries, which all have either displayed or acquired documents he has sold. Documents he procured just for the 60,000-piece Gilder Lehrman Collection, which is housed at the New-York Historical Society, include Benjamin Franklin’s signed copy of the US Constitution; George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s letters on the Revolutionary War, religion, slavery, and government; and Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech manuscript. In 2003, he even joined in an FBI sting operation to recover North Carolina’s original manuscript of the Bill of Rights.
In his personal life, Kaller is a dedicated family man. Living in Scarsdale with his wife, Lyn, and their three children (ages 8, 10, and 12), he seems at ease discussing the joys of parenthood. But when it comes to his professional persona, Kaller is considered by his peers to be a master of rare Americana. “There are only a handful of individuals in the world with Seth’s level of expertise,” says Selby Kiffer, international senior specialist for the Books & Manuscripts Department of Sotheby’s. “He was instrumental in putting together the greatest American history collection ever assembled, The Gilder Lehrman Collection. He is one of the most significant and innovative collectors in the world of rare Americana.”
Born into the rare-collections business, Kaller got his start working at Myron Kaller & Associates, Inc., his parents’ rare stamp and coin business in Asbury Park, New Jersey. But, while he shared his parents’ interest in historic American artifacts, he discovered his true calling was rare-documents when, at the age of 11, he first saw the Declaration of Independence during a family trip to the National Archives. “Documents are a connection to our history and to the past leaders who made the tough decisions that make our country great today,” he says. “You can’t shake Jefferson’s hand, but you can hold a piece of paper that he held.”
In 1988, upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Kaller struck out into the field of rare-document appraising, authentication, and collection. In 2003, he opened the doors to his White Plains office.
As for the future of his business, Kaller believes that the number of privately owned rare American documents is declining, because most are eventually donated to public institutions, and contemporary presidential documents are now off limits. After Nixon sued and won the right to sell his archives back to the US government, Congress passed a law giving ownership of presidential documents to the National Archives. “Collectors fifty years from now won’t have the same access to historically significant documents.”
Still, Kaller feels his future in rare American documents remains bright. He just published a new catalog entitled “Washington, the Revolution and the Founding,” which contains more than 100 historic documents for sale, ranging from a voucher for tea priced at $25 to items with a price tag of over $1 million.
And, in spite of the potentially dwindling market, Kaller remains passionate about his work. “Documents help create a personal connection between you and your favorite historic event, figure, or idea,” Kaller says. “For me, that’s Lincoln. I think Lincoln was the greatest president. During Lincoln’s presidency, there were a hundred different times that he had to make a critical choice. If he hadn’t made those choices, our country would be very different today.”