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Brothers 'Document' History by Tracking Down Historical Documents

January 4, 2007 By:
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Nathan (standing) and Jonas Raab learned the historical manuscript business from their father.Photo by Jordan Cassway
Among the treasure trove of historical papers that adorns the walls of the Raab Collection's new Center City office are: a letter from King George IV to Czar Alexander I; another from General George Washington to one of his spies; and the executive order signed by President William McKinley appointing Jacob Trieber to the federal bench, the first Jew to achieve the position. And that's just the beginning.

The Raab Collection, which moved last month from Ardmore to Center City, is a family business that deals in historical letters, autographs and documents, often acting as the conduit between buyer and seller. The business made headlines last month when it facilitated the sale of more than 140 letters written by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to his brother Edgar to a private collector who founded the Web site Americanhistory.org.

Two brothers in their 20s, Jonas and Nathan Raab, direct the Philly office, while their parents Steven and Susan Raab run a separate site from their home in Bar Harbor, Maine.

So how does one enter such a rarefied world? For starters, it helps to be weaned on history -- and it doesn't hurt either to have a father who's always been obsessed with historical objects.

Lincoln, Washington and Churchill were the heroes of the Raab boys' bedtime stories. And while other parents took their kids to the beach or amusement parks during vacations, Steven and Susan Raab dragged their sons, who both grew up in Havertown, to historic sights and battlefields.

"I like to think of it in terms of the 18th century, when somebody who was learning to be a printer would literally apprentice under somebody," said Jonas Raab. "In that sense, we learned on the job by watching our father work."

For several decades, Steven Raab amassed a collection of historical documents and artifacts. In 1989, he then left the legal profession in order to transform his hobby into a full-time job.

Neither Jonas, 26, nor Nathan, 28 -- both of whom became Bar Mitzvah at Adath Israel in Merion Station and graduated from the Haverford School and the University of Pennsylvania -- expected to join their father's business.

(The Raabs also have a college-aged sibling, Sarah Raab.)

After graduating from Penn with a degree in international relations and foreign languages, Nathan Raab entered the world of politics. First, he worked as a press secretary for former U.S. Rep. Robert Simmons (R-CT). Then he worked on Republican Sam Katz's failed 2003 mayoral campaign.

Jonas Raab earned a degree in literature and became a reporter at a weekly newspaper in California. He then moved over to public relations. Both of them suffered burnout in their respective careers, and several years apart agreed to give the Raab Collection a try. Before long, the fallback option transformed into a labor of love.

"It requires a love of history, attention to detail, and an eye for the finest material," said Nathan Raab, who earlier this fall spent seven weeks in Rome studying how to read paleography, outdated script in Latin, Italian and French.

"I think we play a very important role in preserving history," he added. "A lot of pieces would get lost if they don't find their way to the market."

Jonas Raab admitted that he still gets a kick out of telling new acquaintances that he deals in historical artifacts, something like Nicholas Cage's character in "National Treasure."

"Two questions I always get is 'How do you know the things are real' and 'Where do you find them?' " he said.

The two said the business is offered thousands of autographs a year from descendants of historical figures; they also purchase material at sales.

"Hunting down the truly rare manuscript is the great search in our field," said Nathan Raab.

What about telling the difference between what's real and what's fake?

"You get used to what the ink looks like, and what the aging and paper look like," said Jonas Raab.

"You can go on eBay and buy an Abraham Lincoln signature for a few thousands dollars," said Nathan Raab, chiming in again. "But the chances they are real are not likely."

He said that it helps to know certain things, like the fact that the 16th president signed all official documents Abraham Lincoln and all personal letters A. Lincoln.

"He hated being called Abe and never signed his name Abe Lincoln," Nathan Raab added.

But have they ever been fooled? Maybe at first, but the brothers said they spend so much time researching a piece before they buy it that they've never wound up with a fake.

What about acquiring something they were sure was a gem, but no one else wanted?

"We have a saying that if you buy the best, you have the best," Nathan Raab wrote in an e-mail. "There are worse things ... than spending an extra six months with a letter from Washington to his spy master during the Revolutionary War."


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