A Born Historian
Basil Panagopulos may deal in valuable historical memorabilia, but the stories he shares are priceless.
Photograph by Stacy Bass
In a world of cyclical economies, Basil Panagopulos rides an industry of endless growth. Someone’s always making history, and someone’s always buying it.
“I’ve got a Japanese flag signed by all the defendants of the Tokyo War Crimes Trial of 1947,” Panagopulos begins. “An American guard took it home with him. What else? Nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Here’s a World War I poster, a cartoon of a Greek spitting on a Turkish soldier. And here’s a signed manuscript copy of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ by the song’s author, Sabine Baring-Gould. That should bring about $4,000.”
Panagopulos’s third-floor corner office in a building along I-95 overlooks Canal Street in the South End of Stamford, where a horizon of derricks and scaffolding for new condominiums is fast replacing the dilapidated warehouses that long gave this area its rundown character. Alexander Autographs is likewise on the rise in just its second decade of operation, noted for well-stocked online auctions and accompanying catalogs jammed with hundreds of historical curiosities. Autographs are a specialty, though hardly the limit.
Looking for a doctor’s kit used for hacking off mangled limbs during the Battle of Gettysburg? Panagopulos is your man. A note from a dying P. T. Barnum could be yours for $400 to $600; a penny shot through by Annie Oakley for eight to ten times that.
In spite of the recession? “What recession?” Panagopulos laughs, only half joking. While he has seen a downturn in lower-value items, say from 20 to 25 percent in pieces ranging in value from $500 to $700, it has been offset by a rise in buyers and prices for what he calls higher-end material.
“People are buying rare, and they’re buying quality,” he says. “We had a letter of state signed by Mao Zedong in the last auction, which I estimated would fetch between $10,000 and $12,000. It brought $33,460.” In fact, economic turmoil may be helping his business as the wealthy look beyond traditional investment options like stocks or land.
Over the last two decades, memorabilia has moved from attics to a world stage known as the Internet. Riding this wave, Panagopulos, a garrulous giant from Cos Cob known to all as Bill, has established himself as one of the trade’s most enthusiastic middlemen.
“Some think it’s a passion, some think it’s a disease,” he says. “It all depends on the level of the passion.”
The state of Panagopulos’s office suggests that passion can run high indeed. A row of antique slot machines stands along one wall. Framed on the wall is a white armband with gold stenciling worn by Nazi air commander Hermann Göring to commemorate the successful airborne invasion of Crete in 1941. “I found it somehow fitting, since I had a lot of relatives fighting those German paratroops,” Panagopulos explains. “I’m going to enjoy it for a while, then send it to the Greek government so they can have the last laugh.”
There are also framed autographs of everyone from William Tecumseh Sherman to Frank Zappa. Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly are represented too, but their signed glossies are actually addressed to Panagopulos, gestures of gratitude for items he helped them acquire.
A Lifelong Student
Panagopulos’s father, Gene, a Greek immigrant, inculcated a deep love of history in his son. Typical dinner-table conversation might center on the Moorish invasion of France in the year 732. Gene also had a strong interest in the history of his adopted homeland and took his son along to visit famous battlefields. “While other kids went to Disney World, I went to Little Bighorn.”
Gene provided the seed; Ken Burns, the fertilizer. After taking in the epic documentary The Civil War, directed and produced by Burns, Panagopulos found himself one day in the early 1990s away from his job at a family-run shipping firm, poring over a collection of autographs at a store on 60th Street in Manhattan. His eyes lit upon a slender band of paper bearing the signature of William Tecumseh Sherman, the famous Union leader who burned Atlanta and uttered the famous words “War is hell.”
Panagopulos made his purchase but found he couldn’t stop there. Next on his shopping list was the signature of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, which actually cost more, but by then it was too late. Panagopulos was hooked. He now had to have every Civil War general, North and South, even those unfortunate enough to die on the battlefield, making their John Hancock rarer than John Hancock’s. For example, a Stonewall Jackson signature that includes his rank cost $5,000. “That was a lot of money, and it was just one of 500 signatures I needed, if not more,” remembers Panagopulos.
To fund his burgeoning hobby, Panagopulos partnered with an autograph auctioneer in Maine, who helped him find a few autographs to sell at a profit. Panagopulos then used the proceeds to nab his generals. Whenever he eyed something promising, he’d check with his friend. A thumbs-up, and Panagopulos made the purchase.
“I’d buy it, consign it to his auction,” he says.
“I always made money. I took that profit and purchased more autographs for my collection. It was self-sustaining.”
With all this buying and selling came greater expertise and interest in the deals. When a falling-out between partners had Panagopulos leave his job at the shipping firm, the autograph business was waiting.
In the decade and a half since then, Alexander Autographs has emerged as one of the premier auction houses in the country for the sale of autographs and memorabilia. Some of the famous items include:
Every piece of merchandise Panagopulos sells comes with a guarantee: If an item sold by Alexander Autographs proves to be inauthentic in the buyer’s lifetime, Panagopulos will refund the money. It’s a guarantee not made by many, including auction houses Christie’s or Sotheby’s. “I’m confident in what I do,” Panagopulos says.
This approach can backfire. “I purchased a Clyde Barrow letter,” he recalls. “It was in all respects perfect. It was a forgery that had been made by his nephew, a good forgery. I even had the lead graphite tested. It wasn’t consistent, but it could have deteriorated. Long story short, I had to eat $4,000 to $5,000. Next time I will be more careful.”
Panagopulos has not been burned a lot, though. He has gotten quite familiar with many of the famous people whose signatures he collects. Abraham Lincoln, for example, had a distinct style of writing his name, including a slight elevation in the last two letters of the last name that Panagopulos refers to as “the Lincoln lift.”
With John F. Kennedy, Panagopulos not only can identify which signatures are real, but if they were signed by one of his personal secretaries, he can tell you which one. “Now here are some secretarials,” he says, pulling out a trade guide. “This one, secretary number one, fools a lot of people.
“I’m very good at Kennedy,” he adds, “and I’m very good at Hitler.”
Panagopulos says the World War II market has exploded in value in the past couple of years, and Hitler memorabilia has not been an exception. A recent framed photograph of Hitler, signed to one of his top generals days before Hitler fired him, brought a top price of $65,725 in his last auction.
How does one explain selling memorabilia associated with such a man? Panagopulos shrugs. “You can’t ignore what he did,” he says after a pause. “But he is as much a part of history as are Mao and Stalin. Some dealers … when they get his material or any Third Reich material, routinely burn it. I tell them they are out of their minds. When they burn it, there goes another vital record of the war and the Holocaust.”
He rejects the notion that he traffics in evil this way. “Whether it’s good or bad, it’s still history. And history isn’t all Cinderella and glass slippers. There’s a lot of Grimm’s Fairy Tales too, or just grim.”
Panagopulos pauses for a moment, then lets out a deep chuckle. “That’s good, put that in your article,” he says.
A scheduled hour in Panagopulos’s company can run much longer, in the same way one might click on wikipedia.com and subsequently while away an afternoon. Not only is Panagopulos thoroughly engaged in what he’s doing, but he also relays that engagement with an arsenal of unself-conscious inflections and gestures. He also loves to talk.
“He’s a very jovial person,” says Paul Gibson, a Tennessee-based collector of high-end Civil War items. “But if you want to see him get serious, lay a Robert E. Lee or an Albert Sidney Johnston on his desk. It’ll flip like a light switch.”
Gibson is one of many in the memorabilia business who readily speaks on Panagopulos’s behalf. James Lowe is the man whose Manhattan store supplied him with that Sherman signature. While Lowe can’t place the year, he still remembers the look in Panagopulos’s eyes.
“I saw that passion in him right away,” Lowe says. “His catalogs are full of good material in every category he covers, whether it’s presidents, authors, sports, or rock and roll. And the professionalism. Many other auction houses don’t spend the time describing a letter from the Civil War to the extent he does. He really gives you a sense of history.”
Take James Buchanan, our fifteenth president, perhaps best known as the guy who left Lincoln to pick up the pieces of a House divided. Historians call him “the bachelor president,” the one about whom many speculate as to why he stayed a bachelor.
A possible answer to the Buchanan question can be found in a letter offered for sale in which a contemporary recalls how Buchanan was devastated after a woman to whom he was betrothed committed suicide after breaking their engagement. It’s “third-party material” in the Panagopulos vernacular, priced at a modest $700 to $900, but of the kind that makes footnote reading so captivating.
“When I can add something to the cause of historical research, that’s a great thing to me as well as part of my job,” he says. “When you find a connection no one else has found, that’s what got me into this business.”
A letter by a Southern soldier to his lady back home notes his shocked indignation at having to fight a recent engagement against “Negroes armed with guns.” His line took no prisoners, the soldier relates with satisfaction.
“I spent five minutes of research, discovered it was the 54th Massachusetts, the regiment in the movie Glory, in their very first engagement of the war,” Panagopulos says. “July 16, 1863, James Island. I gave a guy $1,500 and can sell it for $3,000. All because I spent fifteen minutes researching it. It went through three hands before it got to me, and no one took the time to read it.”
Research makes a big difference for Panagopulos. As does content. His early interest in isolated autographs cut from documents was soon superseded by a realization that an autograph could be far more valuable when connected to the right content.
“You can buy a Harry Truman letter for $100 if he’s thanking someone for a box of smoked oysters,” he notes. “You get a letter from Truman explaining his reasons for firing that bum MacArthur, or dropping the bomb, and it’s the difference between $100 and $30,000. Content, content, content.”
Sometimes the content can be quite attention-getting. A letter from Jackie Kennedy to her then sister-in-law Joan Kennedy, Ted’s wife, is full of indignation at Teddy’s philandering ways and is an unconscious mirror of what Jackie herself might have experienced. Jackie Kennedy writes: “What kind of woman, but a sap or a slave, could stand that & still be a loving wife ... & care about him & work like a dog for him campaigning. It’s so old-fashioned …”
That letter got attention from newspapers across the country when Alexander Autographs acquired it three years ago. It had been found in a storage locker, apparently discarded by a maid who didn’t pay the requisite storage fees.
A riveting read, to be sure, but not one read without qualm. Doesn’t this violate poor Joan’s privacy?
Panagopulos says no. “What I’m selling is a piece of paper with writing on it, not the reproduction rights,” he maintains. “I’ve never seen someone sue for a letter. Once you send a letter, it becomes that person’s property. Once it’s discarded, thrown in the trash, it becomes anyone’s property.
“There’s an old saying: Don’t write down anything you don’t want someone to know.”
Fortunately for Panagopulos, people do. “When I find something scandalous, there is something appealing in it,” he admits. “It makes these larger-than-life figures a little more human.”
Items on Panagopulos’s wish list include one of the final drafts of the Declaration of Independence “in Thomas Jefferson’s hand,” the draft of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration of war against Japan and a sword carried by George Washington. “One of Lincoln’s drafts of the Gettysburg Address, for me, that would be a jaw-dropper,” he says.
Business isn’t the only consideration. To make his point, he tosses on his desk a glassine envelope filled with hair. As I inspect the envelope, he reads aloud from an 1865 letter from Karen R. Wright, wife of a former governor of Indiana, thanking Mary Todd Lincoln in part for the gift of her husband’s hair.
“Yes, that’s right,” says Panagopulos. “That’s Lincoln’s hair you have in your hands.”
A single follicle pokes out the side of the envelope and bends slightly at the touch. It’s hard not to feel something surge within at such a moment, the polar opposite reaction from that experienced a few minutes earlier when noticing that one’s business card was touching that framed portrait of Hitler. The business card was moved, quickly. But the finger stays, caressing the follicle reputed to be from the same head that pondered and directed so much.
Panagopulos notices and lets out one of his throaty, infectious chuckles. “Now maybe you begin to understand what it’s all about, eh? Now just make sure you put that in your article!”