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Wild and Wacky World Of Arcane and Glorious Political Memorabilia

Campaign mementos attract collectors by the thousands, who trade in America's presidential-election circus

On the night Harry Truman won the presidential election in 1947, he held up a copy of a Chicago newspaper that made a very big mistake. The headline proclaimed, "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN."

Collectors of political-campaign material in those days might not have guessed the blunder would eventually turn into gold, or at least silver. Find a complete copy of the newspaper in good condition today, and a collector might pay between $700 and $1,000.

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Or, according to Ted Hake, author of "Hake's Guides to Presidential Campaign Collectibles," if you find a rare, tin lithograph button of Truman behind an eight ball, a dealer might offer you between $5,000 and $6,000.

Welcome to the apolitical world of collecting presidential campaign memorabilia. Here the leftovers can become prime cuts.

Right now, thousands of professional and amateur collectors are not following President Clinton and likely Republican opponent Senator Bob Dole because of political issues. They want the campaign buttons, placards, pens, delegate credentials, or anything new or goofy that will spill out of a heated national campaign.

Should Ross Perot enter the race, many collectors will rejoice. As the nation's most successful third-party candidate ever, not only would Perot's new material be collected, but memorabilia from the previous election would gain heightened interest.

"There are more people collecting political memorabilia now than ever before," says Morton Berkowitz, a New York collector and button manufacturer, "and because the presidential campaigning starts almost the day after the election, collecting is almost nonstop."

At the Museum of American Political Life here at the University of Hartford, visitors can spend hours looking at what may be the premier collection of political memorabilia in the United States.

Some 60,000 artifacts were collected by former chairman of the Travelers Insurance Company, J. Doyle DeWitt. For more than 50 years he scoured the country, and even sent "pickers" to the conventions to gather as much campaign material as possible.

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The result is a wondrous exhibition of the symbols and shards of political history stretching from a George Washington inaugural button to a Bill Clinton doll.

In between are such items as metal torch lights from the 1860s, an Abe Lincoln campaign ax, dozens of oilcloth banners from the turn of the century, a six-inch-tall windup Jimmy Carter tin peanut made in Japan, and a 70-foot-long "history wall" of presidential campaigning with 1,000 campaign artifacts displayed near it.

What motivates serious and amateur collectors? "I can't own the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence," says Steve Gibson, a collector and dealer from Carrolton, Texas, "but with a little hustling around I can own a piece of history like the 1908 Teddy Roosevelt button I have. I like the idea that someone wore it in l908, and probably went to a Roosevelt rally."

Some collectors focus simply on color and design of artifacts; others collect memorabilia of a particular candidate or party. Some collectors start gathering items from the first year they were eligible to vote.

"Collectors are stockbrokers, lawyers, teachers, doctors," Mr. Hake says, "and there is material available for any budget."

Hake says campaign buttons from 1896 are available for as little as $10. But in the last 20 years or so, some campaign buttons have become "blue chip" items for the serious collectors who see the buttons as investments.

Although interest can increase and wane like any other aspect of American culture, in the political-button universe a few presidents and candidates remain historically popular with collectors: any of the founding fathers, Abe Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Al Smith, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and William Jennings Bryan.

"Also what is popular are the buttons or items that are devoted to a single event, like Clinton day in Canton, Ohio," Hake says. "Not all that many are made, so supply is limited and that makes the value go up."

Among the most sought-after buttons is a 1920 James Cox and Franklin Delano Roosevelt button. Cox was the Democratic candidate for president and Roosevelt was then on the ticket as vice president. Only a handful of the buttons picturing both men are known to exist.

Because items are scarce from the 1920 campaign anyway, and early FDR items are desirable, New York labor lawyer Joe Jacobs paid a staggering $30,000 for the button at a 1981 auction, the highest amount ever paid for a political item.

"This is a nickel piece of celluloid," says Mr. Berkowitz, "but Jacobs had amassed a collection of 40,000 items of Roosevelt memorabilia, and he had to have it."

Some other examples of what buttons are worth because of scarcity according to top collectors:

*A button picturing LBJ with FDR during his first congressional campaign: $1,200

*JFK picture buttons from his campaign in Nebraska: $300

*A 1964 anti-Barry Goldwater button proclaiming, "Mets rooters, Edsel owners, back a real loser. Goldwater," sold recently at an auction for $1,300.

*A set of Ross Perot buttons with a Star Trek theme ("The Next Generation") with Perot pictured floating in the cosmos: $300

While posters, placards, and buttons are part of all national campaigns, most of them are made and distributed at state and local level.

"The posters and buttons are just trappings," Hake says. "In fact the serious money all goes to buying TV time these days."

According to some dealers, button manufacturers with clever and graphically handsome buttons can make five-figured sums at the national conventions. "You look for events to go to and start collecting and trading," says Gibson. "I had one guy follow me into the restroom. He had five Kentucky delegation pins he wanted to trade."

And others take advantage of perfect timing. At the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans, a vendor produced a Bush-Quayle button some 20 minutes after Quayle was announced as the vice presidential candidate. At $10 a pop, he sold hundreds of them.

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