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Rare signature of Button Gwinnett on sale

You hear the name every day. But the signature is as rare as they come.

In Nashua, N.H., historians and collectors are teeming with excitement over the "once in a generation" auction of a collection of signatures from the founding fathers.

But while John Hancock's may be the most recognizable, the most valuable is the mark of a Savannah man, whose name has survived more than 200 years beyond his death to come to become synonymous with a bustling suburb: Button Gwinnett.

"Button Gwinnett is the ultimate American autograph rarity because there is so few of them," said Bobby Livingston, the vice president of RR Auction, which is conducting the auction this weekend.

While the entire collection of signers of the Declaration of Independence, owned by New Hampshire man Richard Newell, is expected to fetch around $1.2 million, Gwinnett's signature is estimated at more than half of the entire value -- between $700,000 and $800,000.

"His is so much more important than Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson," Livingston said. "He is the crown jewel."

Gwinnett was the second person to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He died a year later -- having never set foot in the county that now bears his name -- in a duel with a political rival.

With the death of his wife just two years later and his only child by 1800, and the destruction of Savannah twice by the British during the Revolutionary War, very few documents with his signature still survive.

In fact, only 51 copies are known to exist, Livingston said, 11 of which are in private collections.

But even more than that, Livingston said, is the historical value of this particular document from 1773, which lists the debt Gwinnett incurred after coming to America to set up a plantation -- debt blamed on the British laws over its colonies.

"This document is extremely important in his history," Livingston said of the impetus that lead Gwinnett to become a politician in Georgia and eventually join the Continental Congress. "This is the moment in his life when he became a revolutionary."

Livingston said bidders from all over the world are participating in the auction, with some placing their bid via telephone.

But no matter where the signature ends up, Button Gwinnett's place in history -- and the place his name has marked in the present -- has been secured.

"Every day there is something incredible, rare and remarkable that comes across my desk," Livingston said. "It's extremely thrilling when you get to read the words of these men fighting in the Revolution. It's quite a privilege for me."