Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE HUNT FOR HISTORY by Nathan Raab Kirkus Star


On the Trail of the World's Lost Treasures—From the Letters of Lincoln, Churchill, and Einstein to the Secret Recordings Onboard JFK's Air Force One

by Nathan Raab

Pub Date: March 10th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-5011-9890-8
Publisher: Scribner

A leading dealer in historical documents and artifacts delivers a delightful account of his business.

Raab, who writes the “Historically Speaking” column for, begins with an account of his education under the guidance of a father whose fascination with antiquities persuaded him to give up a prosperous legal career. “I had found my way to the emotional yet intangible heart of this trade in history,” he writes. “I came to understand what binds people to the physical traces of our history and its great men and women, why these artifacts and pieces of paper have such power. This isn’t an easy lesson, and no one can teach it to you. You have to learn it yourself.” The author emphasizes that it’s not a career for the faint of heart, requiring a scholar’s knowledge of history, a keen nose for fakes (a thriving industry), genuine-but-not-priceless items (many famous people’s letters were signed and often written by a secretary), and a sense of what will sell to collectors. A Benjamin Franklin letter discussing the Constitution brings a king’s ransom; another apologizing for arriving late for a meeting would attract far less interest. As skilled in satisfying readers as clients, Raab knows how to tell a story, chronicling how descendants of great historical figures invite him to their homes and reveal treasures. A survey report signed by the young George Washington looked like a bonanza until Raab’s research turned up another, identical including the corrections—and then another. An undistinguished collection of John F. Kennedy memorabilia included a tape of lost recordings from the plane carrying Kennedy’s body to Washington, D.C., after his assassination. In that case, the author’s joy was cut short when a government lawyer called him to demand it. The book also contains plenty of sad tales about certain family heirlooms, preserved for generations, that turned out to be reproductions.

Though the anecdotes are unconnected, they are unfailingly entertaining.