DALLAS, Pa. — Throughout his childhood and early adult life, Larry Cook dabbled in collecting presidential memorabilia such as campaign buttons and bumper stickers.
But 25 years ago, Cook’s hobby took a serious turn when he walked into an antiques shop in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.
Inside, he spotted a document from 1901, signed by President William McKinley. He purchased the piece for $200. Since then, Cook’s presidential collection has expanded to more than 8,000 items.
And, it’s not all buttons and bumper stickers.
So far, Cook’s collection includes the signatures of 27 presidents, personal items from the White House, vintage photographs, a rare Teddy Roosevelt Rough Riders toy and even a wooden pitchfork made by Jimmy Carter.
Some of the items offer a glimpse into the daily life, and personality, of each president. Cook has two letters that Teddy Roosevelt sent to a furniture company expressing his displeasure with the quality of a desk he ordered for the White House. There’s also a letter that Ted Kennedy sent to the ushers in John F. Kennedy’s wedding instructing them where to get fitted for their tuxedos.
Many of the items offer historical significance as well, such as an 1861 military commission signed by Abraham Lincoln at the onset of the Civil War.
Still, Cook, 59, never expected his collection to become a lifelong passion when he began collecting campaign buttons as a kid.
“It all started when I was 11, and my parents and grandmother would get me campaign buttons and I would look up facts about each president,” Cook said. “I didn’t really have plans for it. I just had an interest in presidents.”
That interest has evolved to the point where Cook, along with his wife, Diane, recently sold his estate liquidation business to become a full-time presidential historian. He currently travels around the country conducting presentations on presidents and various items in his collection, which continues to grow.
Years ago, Cook acquired most of his items at garage sales and flea markets. Today, Cook utilizes the contacts he made through his estate liquidation business to provide him with leads for interesting items. For example, a friend who is a real estate agent recently informed Cook about a family who was selling their house and had something of potential interest to Cook.
When Cook met with the family, he was shocked to learn they had an 1861 military commission signed by Abraham Lincoln, along with a Civil War orders book and other items pertaining to the 16th president.
Cook purchased the collection and uses it in his presentations, but the commission isn’t the oldest piece in his collection.
He has a book about George Washington that dates back to 1800, and he also has a land grant from Nov. 3, 1806, signed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
“I never thought I’d have items signed by the likes of Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Many of these documents possibly sat on their desk in the White House,” Cook said. “That always amazes me.”
In addition to his own contacts, Cook also utilizes the services of “pickers” to obtain items for his collection. Most of the pieces come from New England, New York and Virginia — the birthplaces of many former presidents — and Cook said the internet has made it possible to find items from anywhere in the country.
Cook authenticates the items himself, relying on a lifetime of experience. With a trained eye, it’s not that difficult to verify a signature, he said, and he determines the legitimacy of other items through his own research.
As with any collectible, there are small details that differentiate between a fake and real item.
“Almost all authentic campaign buttons from the 1940s on up are union-made. If you see the union label printed on the back, it’s probably real,” he said.
While campaign buttons aren’t the most valuable items in Cook’s collection, he said it’s hard to place a monetary figure on many of the pieces because they are so unique.
A typical Lincoln-signed document might bring between $5,000 to $7,000 at an auction, he said, but Cook’s signed military commission could be worth much more due to the history and rarity of it.
Cook searches for comparable items that sold online and at auctions to estimate the value of certain pieces, but sometimes that doesn’t help, either, he said.
“The Roosevelt Rough Riders toy, I can’t find one anywhere. I really don’t know how to place a value on it,” he said.
Sometimes, the value lies in the story behind the item. Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who are personal friends with Cook, have provided many items for his collection. Among them are the programs and gift bags they received from President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008.
“Those are some of the unexpected things the Carters have given me, and it means a lot because of the friendship we have,” Cook said.
As far as what his entire collection is worth, Cook said he’ll never know until he puts it up for sale.
And that’s not likely to happen in the near future.
“I have no plans to slow down my collecting, especially as long as I’m able to work as a historian. But I don’t look for common items now, like I used to. I’m interested in things that have a personal connection to a president,” Cook said. “And I’m always on the hunt for any presidential signatures that I don’t have.”
With Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt signatures already in his collection, Cook said the biggest name to elude him, so far, is George Washington.
Anything signed by the nation’s first president would be the “holy grail” of presidential signatures, he said.
“A signed document by Washington might be in the $35,000 to $40,000 range,” Cook said. “They’re out there, and it’s the hunt for such items that I really enjoy. It’s like an endless search because there are so many unique items when it comes to presidential memorabilia.”