Of all the famous people who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – Adams x 2, Franklin, Hancock, Jefferson, etc. – the most sought after signature for collectors is a guy who you’ve probably never heard of: Button Gwinnett. Yes, that's his real name. Button. Seriously. Anyway, Gwinnett has what is considered by many to be the most valuable signature in the world due to its rarity.
Button Gwinnett, 1735 - 1777
Gwinnett was born in England in 1735 and moved to Georgia in 1765 where he started – and failed – several business ventures. Despite his failures as a businessman, he still managed to make a name for himself in politics and by 1769 he was a member of the Provincial Assembly. By the time revolutionary activities had begun in the north in 1775, Gwinnett felt Georgia wasn’t doing enough to rebel against England.
As a member of the Provincial Assembly, Gwinnett found himself in Philadelphia in 1776. He voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence on July 2, and signed the document on August 2 along with 55 other individuals. So why is Gwinnett’s signature the most famous out of all 56?
Most of the other signers were prominent statesmen and signed letters and documents regularly. Gwinnett, however, was relatively unknown prior to signing the Declaration and therefore very few of his signatures exist from before 1776. To add to the signature’s rarity, Gwinnett was killed in May 1777 three days after he was wounded in a duel with a local political rival, Lachlan McIntosh, with whom he had a bitter history. In other words, Gwinnett went from relative obscurity to signing the Declaration of Independence to death in about a year.
As a result, his signatures have been extremely difficult to find. Only 51 known copies of Gwinnett’s signature exist, ten of which remain in private collections. The signature started becoming extremely valuable in the 1820s when the last remaining signers of the Declaration began dying, and collectors started looking to compile complete collections of all 56 signatures.
To this day, Gwinnett’s 'John Hancock' is more valuable than that of Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, and even George Washington. According to the December 2014 RadioLab podcast, "Buttons Not Buttons", the last version of his signature to sell was sold for $722,500 in New York City.