When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office with his presidential brethren recently, he had already agreed to take part in one of this exclusive fraternity’s secret traditions: autographing a limited number of copies of the photograph that captured the moment.
The former, current and future presidents’ pact — to create only 250 copies of the photograph with all of their signatures — upped the ante on an image that was a keepsake before it was even taken.
Early estimates value the signed pictures at more than $6,000 apiece, based on the rarity of such a meeting and how few copies of the photograph will be circulated. That value could push higher when collectors factor in Obama’s popularity and historical significance as the first African-American president.
“You’re going to see these valued and collected and sought after in a similar fashion as the previous ones, and when you’re talking about a president that’s very popular at the moment, that has to help,” said Steven Hoskin, president of the Professional Autograph Dealers Association.
This curious practice dates back to 1981 when all four living presidents gathered at the White House before Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat's funeral and later autographed copies of the photo. But it turned into a more coordinated effort, with a pre-set limit on the number of copies, when the presidential club gathered in 1991 for the dedication of Ronald Reagan's library in Simi Valley, Calif.
In this recent instance, Obama, along with presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, agreed to sign 250 prints of a staff photograph. Each president will eventually receive 50 copies that have been signed by all five of them, according to a White House official and an Obama transition aide.
The effort was coordinated by aides to the presidents and president-elect.
“Generally these photos must be sent around to each president’s office to be signed,” the White House official said.
Obama will be the last of the five presidents to sign the photographs. His aides expect him to receive them some time over the next few weeks.
“The president-elect will sign the photographs once the former presidents sign,” the transition official said. “We are still determining what we will do with the photos.”
The practice is not without controversy. After the Reagan library event in 1991, the exact number of photographs the five presidents agreed to sign was never clear, although there were reports of up to 500, with each receiving 100 copies. It was enough for them to individually recoup over $1 million, if they had chosen to sell them in the open market.
But the public didn’t learn about the deal until two years after the meeting. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Carter, George H.W. Bush and Reagan were criticized as secretly concocting a money-making plan.
It prompted some of them to publicly say they were donating the money to charities or to their own presidential libraries. And the presidents apparently stuck to their promise not to sign any other photographs together.
“One of the things that they did with it was they made it so it could be reproduced, like a lithograph,” said Jenny Mandel, an archivist at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.
An 8x10 autographed image that recently came up for auction was accompanied by a letter from Ford explaining that he couldn’t autograph an unsigned copy of the photograph someone had sent him.
The signed photographs from 1991 were worth $5,000 apiece at the time – at 100 photos each, a president was poised to make $1.5 million. Today they’re worth slightly more, about $6,000.
Restricting the number of copies is what drives up the price of the photographs and instantly turns them into valued collectors’ items.
“300 copies is nothing compared to the population of the country, even the collecting population,” Hoskin said. “It’s enough to have a nice demand initially. But after that, after that supply is gone, they’d be traded on the collectors market.”
As ghoulish as it may sound, the harsh truth is that these photographs won’t sell for top dollar until all the presidents pictured in them are dead. Generally as long as a person is still alive and signing autographs, collectors won’t pay a premium.
Autographs of John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, Hoskin points out, are the highest sellers among presidents.
Gerald Rafshoon, a former Carter spokesman, said it’s his understanding that arranging for the presidents to sign photographs for each other on the rare occasion when all of them get together is “something that the White House has set up, and they did then and did now.”
“The tradition that doesn’t happen very often,” said Rafshoon. “It’s a very valuable thing.”