Signs of the Times: Bob Eaton of RR Auction

Q&A with Bob Eaton



Space junk? This piece of landing gear, meant as a relpacment part for the Apollo 15 moon mission, is one of thousands of historical artifacts that cross Bob Eaton's desk each year.

Photo by P.T. Sullivan

If the Smithsonian Institution wanted to open a New Hampshire branch tomorrow, curators would be wise to send a moving van (and credit cards) to Route 101A in Amherst, home of RR Auction.

Since 1976 owner Bob Eaton has been shuffling crates of autographed memorabilia and historical artifacts in monthly auctions - the auction photo catalogs themselves are gorgeous coffee table books rich with surprising stories and nostalgia. The Spring 2012 Space & Aviation catalog reveals that New Hampshire astronaut Alan Shepard once jokingly autographed a photo of himself to himself, wishing himself well.

Guests in the RR Auction conference room sit in the shadow of a pilot's license signed by the Wright Brothers and one of the keys to Harry Houdini's handcuffs. Over the past few months Eaton has been the temporary custodian of a locket owned by one of the richest families on the Titanic, the wax figurine head of 1960s starlet Diana Dors (the Beatles' favorite actress) that appeared on the album cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and a 6-foot-long NASA lunar module surface probe that was a replacement part for the Apollo 15 mission. To the casual observer, the chunk of moon landing gear looks like scrap destined for the recycling bin. But it is Eaton's researched backstories that sell the goods. That spare part fetched $23,115.60.

When you think about it, autographs are just scribbles on paper. Why do people collect?
It's a personal connection between you and someone you admire, and it's like getting a trophy to display on your wall. A lot of the thrill is in the chase.

Do you feel like you're overseeing your own temporary Smithsonian?
After over 30 years in the business, I still can't wait for the FedEx guy to show up. The novelty never wears off.

What's coming up next?
We're going to start doing auctions live in Manhattan for the first time. We'll still have our monthly catalog/Internet auctions, but the last day will be a live auction with streaming video. There's nothing like seeing a bidding war in person. Our first one will be in September, devoted to "Outlaws, Gangsters and Lawmen." We have the pistol that Bonnie from Bonnie and Clyde fame strapped to her inside thigh. What man was going to search her there?

How often do you come across fake autographs?
People try to pass off forgeries - often unknowingly - every single day. We have a lifetime guarantee on everything we sell and always get a second opinion in addition to assessments from our own team of experts. We even have an expert on European popes, kings and queens. I just sold an Edgar Allan Poe letter for $165,000. It had better be real because it's my money on the line. And the reason we're able to sell it for $165,000 is because of our reputation.

Anything that you refuse to sell?
No mass murderers. We won't sell Charles Mansons or Jeffrey Dahmers even though there is a market for that stuff. We also won't sell Ku Klux Klan memorabilia or any Nazi stuff. We used to sell material related to Hitler because he is part of history, but not anymore. It just doesn't feel right.

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