BOOKS / Cheques in the Post: Is the signature on that letter worth only the paper it is written on? To some collectors its true value could be much greater - but who really owns it?

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HERE'S a true story. In the 1960s, a young American poet, Anne Stevenson, started to write to an older and more famous American poet, Elizabeth Bishop. The two women met only twice, but across the next decade their correspondence grew, until Anne Stevenson's bundle of letters, badly typed on thin yellow paper, made up an extraordinary record of distant friendship and the close meeting of literary minds. Bishop (who lived mostly in Mexico during this period) wrote about the nature of art, about her own work, about life, dreams, self-exile and creation. They were the very model of an artist's letters, a precious hoard for anyone who cares about poetry.

At the time, Stevenson was living with a lecturer whom we shall call W. The relationship foundered, and in 1974 Stevenson moved away, but the small stack of thin yellow paper accidentally stayed behind. In 1980, soon after Elizabeth Bishop's death, Anne Stevenson was asked to write an obituary appreciation of Bishop for the Times Literary Supplement, in which she quoted extensively from photocopies of her letters from the senior poet. Why photocopies? Because, as she mentioned in her article, to her sorrow the originals had disappeared at the time she left W.

At this point, the postbag of the TLS, and of Stevenson herself, became very lively. 'I was surprised', wrote Holly Hall, librarian of Washington University Library in St Louis, Missouri, when she read Stevenson's article. The letters, Ms Hall wished to assure us, had been safely in their collection for the past five years, acquired from a 'highly respected London bookseller'. It emerged that, without Stevenson's knowledge, W had sold them, although in the belief that he was entitled to do so. Not only that, but both the TLS and Anne Stevenson were informed in round terms by Elizabeth Bishop's executrix, and her lawyers, that neither of them had any right to quote the letters: the copyright rested with the Bishop estate.

So although Anne Stevenson was the addressee of the letters, she had, apparently, no right either to the physical objects (which she could have redeemed only by expensive law suits) or to share with anyone else, in print, what they contained. The letters had been sold, and sold again, without Stevenson's permission, even though both the writer and recipient were still alive at the time.

Everyone is shocked by this story. It feels like a cold wind whose blast could knock any of us off our feet. At the same time, we are aware of that conflicting tug of higher intellectual interest and baser curiosity which letters from the great elicit in us, and - if we remember The Aspern Papers - how it can get out of hand. In Henry James's story, the biographer of the fictitious poet Jeffrey Aspern, obsessed with getting hold of some of the man's love-letters, develops a mania for stalking his prey. He revels in the physical thrill of being able 'to look into a single pair of eyes into which (Aspern's) had looked or to feel a transmitted contact in any aged hand that his had touched'. The story is a full-blown parable of temptation, lust and greed, and, since this is Henry James, the narrator gets his come-uppance.

Even for letter-hunters who have their urges under better control, there is a frisson in touching - owning - anything that your heroine or hero has written. A literary manuscript is unique, but somehow it was always destined for the public eye; letters give us the vaguely illicit pleasure of reading something which was never intended for us, even when writer and recipient are sanctioned by the smoothing forces of time, and mere snooping has been laundered into a more acceptable interest.

All this means, of course, that autograph letters are worth money - not a huge amount, by the standards of the art market, but money nevertheless. The fame and interest of writer, addressee and subject all affect the price. A few years ago, a four-line draft letter from Churchill to Stalin was sold to a private buyer for pounds 18,000. On the other hand, a bundle of 14 letters from George V to his 'dear Evie' sold last year for pounds 2,500: this was considerably higher than the estimate its auctioneers, Bonhams of London, had made, but it still seems cheap for the documents of the Camillagate of the time. Philip Larkin's correspondence with his friend Jim Sutton made pounds 30,000; they were bought by the University of Hull, against fierce competition. With this kind of loot in prospect it is hardly surprising if writers - always a self-conscious breed - become vividly aware of the value, as well as the content, of their letters. Autograph hunters who fire off pointless letters to their current idols purely in order to get a signed reply have always been around - a friend of mine spent half her schoolgirl years writing fervently to her pash of the moment, Noel Coward, but her patience went unrewarded until she stopped signing herself Henrietta and called herself Henry.

Some celebrities hate the idea of anyone else cashing in on their signature. One or two are rumoured to communicate only by fax (there is as yet no market in faxes, but it's sure to come). A recent obituary of Leslie Charteris revealed his bizarre practice of using 'Note-O-Grams' with a tear-off strip which held his signature: this part had to be returned with the reply, so that the autograph couldn't be sold. The playwright John Osborne, an enthusiastic letter-writer and in this, if in nothing else, obviously a more generous character, has been known to suggest that friends hang on to his postcards and nip down to Christie's with them when they're a bit strapped for cash. But the mortal blow to any false modesty is dealt by Barry Humphries, whose writing-paper carries this sound advice in small print: 'However trivial in content or stylistically ill-wrought this memorandum may seem, the recipient is warmly urged to preserve it until such time in the far distant future when Mr Humphries' Literary Executors solicit, in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, examples of his correspondence for incorporation in a definitive work. At such time you will feel pathetically grateful that you had the wisdom and foresight to retain this valuable ephemera.'

Such self-consciousness is bound to affect whoever is composing the letter, especially in an age when the life-blood of our business and personal lives no longer flows through the post, and writing a personal letter at all is for many people a rare and perhaps awkward activity. Would John Keats have written to Fanny Brawne with such careless rapture if he had known that, perhaps even before the year was up, the letter would be catalogued in some distant library? There are writers (Gore Vidal, for instance) who sell their papers to academic institutions during their own lifetime, and at the end of each year solemnly parcel up that year's batch and send it off. It must make their friends a lot more careful about what they write in their Christmas cards. But it's a pension, of a sort, and at least the writer can be sure where the papers will end up.

As for collecting letters on an individual basis, it can seem slightly too private a pastime for comfort. It smacks of dusty filing cabinets, solitary libraries. While your Louis the Something scent bottles or your Welsh Gaudy china are things to be shown and shared, letters are neither decorative nor sociable. Except, perhaps, to the aficionado: Roy Davids, head of the books and manuscripts department at Sotheby's, reports that some individual collectors do frame the best letters.

In recent years, Mr Davids has noticed a 'greater awareness' of autograph documents, which means that the number of private collectors has increased even as some heavy-weight institutional buyers have found their budgets cut. Sotheby's annual turnover in his department has grown, in the last 20 years, from about a quarter of a million pounds to nearer pounds 5 million. It is a market, according to Michael Ludgrove, head of Bonhams' books department, dominated by a 'small but exclusive circle of connoisseurs' who are, lucky them, 'never affected by things like recessions'.

We all probably have our own version of the collecting bug: it might be a quest for something in the hand of every signatory of the American Declaration of Independence, for instance, or every American president. The significance of the document matters, too: next month, Bonhams are auctioning Charles I's order of execution on the murderer of the Duke of Buckingham (his father's lover), and here the connotations should produce lively bidding (the estimate is pounds 3,000- pounds 5,000). The best buyers, apparently, are still the Americans - not because they just have more money but for the more agreeable reason, in Roy Davids's view, that, unlike British cynics, they 'haven't lost their sense of wonder' in the face of a significant squiggle.

The collectors' passion always has its murky side, though, and letters are complicated objects in the matter of ownership, and therefore in the business of buying and selling. If you receive a letter, you own the piece of paper, and you can sell it, but you have no right to reproduce any of it in print, because the writer keeps the copyright. And unlike other copyrights, the copyright in letters doesn't expire in a certain number of years after the writer's death, but remains, in theory, for ever.

In practice, though, once letters are published, or many years have elapsed, the copyright question is pretty academic; while they remain unpublished, and so probably unknown, they can change hands without too many questions being asked. There are rumours, particularly among scholars researching the not-so-long dead with a high price on their heads (Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and the like), of shady practice by people posing as bona fide researchers, who track down the ancient nanny or, best of all, the long-lost lover and persuade them to 'lend' their precious document for a short while - but they never see it or the 'researcher' again. Who or what is at the bottom of this? That mythical, rich, anonymous collector, supposed instigator of so many art heists? Or just a petty trade in autographs?

A few well-known cases that started shady ended up with sunny endings. The long and magnificent set of letters from Evelyn Waugh to Lady Diana Cooper disappeared for many years, and the mystery remained unsolved until after Lady Diana's death, when her son, John Julius Norwich, was contacted by Bertram Rota, a firm of London booksellers, who wondered whether he'd be interested to know that they had been offered a trunkful of his mother's letters. A number of lawyers were busy for some time, but the letters are now safe in the British Library.

Not everyone is so lucky: viz, Anne Stevenson, whose story is not only shocking but also intriguing. Just how easily can that sort of thing happen? Dealers can't possibly check the ownership of every item they handle, of course, but compared to other art objects modern letters are unusually clear in the matter of ownership: they're written from one named person to another. But it's also the case that auctioneers are never held responsible for handling stolen goods, so if the worst later comes to the worst they can get away with it, and keep the commission.

I decided to try a little experiment. I persuaded a friend to lend me some temptingly saleable letters from a contemporary writer who is beginning to fetch high prices. The owner of the letters, though less well known, is herself a person who would not be hard to contact. I had a fair idea of what they were worth. Armed with a blonde wig, a large pair of sun-glasses and a feeble cover-story, I set out to 'sell' what was not mine.

Well, of course it was not all that dramatic. I felt like a certified criminal, but nobody tried to slip me wads of used fivers, and nobody called the police either. Everybody was interested, with varying degrees of caution. At the smarter end of the market, smooth-as-silk manners covered any little awkwardness (most people were, as I intended, suspicious of me and my wares) by letting me know that the 'cataloguing' process would include 'researching' the letters. One dealer found a tactful but clear way of telling me that he might contact the addressee. At the less grand end of things, I wasn't aware of any such scruples, but my dodgy goods were, it seemed, surprisingly hard to price. One price-tag if you're straight, perhaps, and another if you're not? A cash offer made on the spot seemed ridiculously low, and when I remonstrated the dealer looked at me quite nastily and referred to 'the circumstances'. I ran, deciding that I wasn't cut out for this kind of thing.

The results of my little experiement, though inconclusive, did what experiments often do - ie, it told me what I already knew. People are just about as honest as you can expect them to be in the circumstances, and, when collectable objects beckon invitingly, you can't expect the best from human nature. -

(Photograph omitted)