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Missouri auditor revels in Hollywood, history

October 25, 2014

CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) — It’s just a few weeks before the election, and Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich is talking animatedly about a big success that’s been years in the making. The subject isn’t his re-election, which appears all but assured.

Rather, Schweich is excited about buying a rare autograph and photograph of early 20th century movie star Greta Garbo, a reclusive Swedish-born actress who was particularly stingy with her signature.

“That is the hardest autograph to get in all of Hollywood!” Schweich said, showing off a slightly yellowed album page bearing a swooping signature given to a prominent Hollywood makeup artist in 1928. “It’s extremely rare!”

Perhaps even rarer than a Republican statewide official skating toward re-election with nary a token Democratic opponent.

Schweich, 54, is being challenged Nov. 4 by Libertarian Sean O’Toole and Constitution Party candidate Rodney Farthing, neither of whom has reported spending money against him. Democrat Jay Swearingen dropped out of the auditor’s race before the official filing period even began, and no one stepped up.

Although Schweich is running some TV ads, the lack of a challenger allows him to conserve some of the $1.2 million he’s accumulated. It could be useful later.

He’s not publicly discussing it before the election, but Schweich may soon decide to join the 2016 gubernatorial race, which already features Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster and Republican Catherine Hanaway, a former state House speaker and U.S. attorney.

While politics is his profession, collecting stuff is Schweich’s passion.

The Garbo autograph and a separate photograph — a rare original index print from a professional photo shoot — are just the latest additions to his extensive collections, much of them stored at a St. Louis-area bank.

He started gathering old coins at age 8 and now owns thousands of them. He has hundreds of autographs, photos and posters from the golden age of Hollywood, including about 60 Ronald Reagan items. And Schweich has dozens of historical documents, including ones signed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and every chief executive of the 20th century.

For each item, Schweich has a story about its historical significance and how he came to own it.

He has Washington’s signature on an envelope addressed in 1798 to a Boston publisher with whom the president apparently was trying to resolve a subscription mix-up. Schweich bought the envelope from a European collector. He believes the letter is at the University of Virginia.

A signed letter from President Lyndon Johnson to Texas newspaper executive Amon Carter Jr. thanks Carter for sending Johnson photos of their time together earlier on the day that President John F. Kennedy was shot. An “exceedingly rare letter” because of the assassination reference, Schweich said; he bought it from Carter’s estate.

Schweich has purchased much of his movie memorabilia from New York City autograph dealer Tom Kramer, who describes Schweich as a “rational” collector but “very unpredictable as to what he’s going to like.”

Schweich is concerned about the content, context and story behind his collectables.

“He’s not your normal collector. He’s dogged in tracking this stuff down, whether it’s through personal contacts or looking on eBay or going through catalogs,” said Robert O’Brien, a Los Angeles attorney who worked with Schweich at the U.S. Department of State during President George W. Bush’s administration.

Schweich says he draws political inspiration from the historical documents, but he’s particularly passionate about his Hollywood photos. He spent several evenings searching for the right Garbo photograph to go with her autograph.

“I think it’s really important when you’re in public service — and when you’re involved with the intensity of politics and the backstabbing and downright nastiness you sometimes get — to have something you can fall back on that really has nothing to do with any of it,” Schweich said. “That’s why I like the Hollywood stuff, because it’s fun and it’s glamorous and it’s interesting.”

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Follow David A. Lieb at: https://twitter.com/DavidALieb

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