Joe Seta's collection includes a ceramic Greek wedding urn, circa 500 B.C.Presidential signatures are part of Seta's collection.

Seta at his desk with historic memorabilia.

To say Joe Seta is a history buff is an understatement. To call him an art enthusiast doesn't scratch the surface. Really, there's no one title that encompasses this eclectic collector.

The corridors of Seta's Cincinnati home feature a rare blend of original paintings, ceramics, firearms, photographs and historical memorabilia. Rookwood pottery. Picasso. Chang. Salvador Dali. You name it and Seta probably has it displayed or hanging somewhere.

"My wife, Margaret, once counted how many things we have up on the wall, and she said we have over 300 pieces of art or historical memorabilia hanging up on our walls," he remarks. "That was a while ago. There are probably about 400 pieces now."

Seta, former co-owner and founder of the Cincinnati design firm Seta, Appleman & Showell (now known as Landor Associates), appreciates art, but his most prized possessions are historical memorabilia.

That historical collection, which is now up to about 35 pieces, began unexpectedly on a shopping trip in 1992 while visiting his youngest son, Greg, at Georgetown University. "I came across this shop that had historical documents in the window. I just went in," Seta recalls. "I must have been in there for a couple of hours, but it only felt like a few minutes."

He purchased his first item there: an invitation to the Dallas event that President John F. Kennedy was motoring to when he was assassinated. On the 10th anniversary of JFK's death, his mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, gathered together several friends to commemorate the occasion. The attendees of this event all signed the invitations for each other. Through time, collectors got a hold of the signed invitations and they landed in the hands of people such as Seta.

"For my first piece, I really just wanted something with lots of stuff on it," Seta explains. "This has the signatures of Mamie Eisenhower (President Dwight Eisenhower's wife), Joan Kennedy (Ted Kennedy's wife) and Dean Rusk, the U.S. secretary of state under JFK, among many other notables."

Once Seta had a few purchases under his belt, he began to display the items in his firm's office, and rotated them regularly. He says it got to be like a little traveling museum for his regular clients, and it was an icebreaker for new customers.

He also likes to make history come alive for children that visit his home. "I take a lot of pride in taking kids around in here and teaching them about our history," Seta concedes. "You'd be surprised at how much the kids get absorbed in it."

Another motivation is the opportunity to capture a unique historical fact. For example, former presidents may send free mail. Seta has a handwritten letter from Thomas Jefferson, with a hand-addressed envelope that was sent through the mail without a postage stamp.

Seta's collection includes a fork and napkin"”both branded with an "AH" monogram"”from the dining room of Adolf Hitler's mountain retreat near Bertesgarten, Germany, after it was bombed and captured in 1945. Allied commanders permitted troops to collect a few souvenirs. "So, they took whatever they could stick in their helmets, and this fork and napkin came of that," Seta says.

And most people don't know that years ago, when a family member died, the survivors would cut off a lock of the deceased's hair and keep it as a relic. Seta has two locks of hair from two different presidents: Lincoln and Washington.

Although George Washington's lock is a much larger chunk of hair, the seven strands of Lincoln's hair in Seta's possession is worth much, much more. "Lincoln's hair was a different story because it was taken to save his life," explains Seta.

The documentation that came with the strands of Lincoln's hair tells a riveting story"”through old newspaper clippings, pictures and legal documents"”of a lock of hair that was cut away at the hospital after Lincoln was shot. One of the doctors kept the lock of hair, and when it was passed down, the beneficiary split it up into several different glassine envelopes and sold it to collectors. "For this item, I bid against a museum because there just isn't that much of his hair around," says Seta.

Seta says Lincoln's hair is the item he cherishes the most. "This had emotion with it. It has the history of the first presidential assassination with it. Plus, he's a good 'ol Republican," Seta quips.

But Seta's own brainchild"”the only grouping of all the presidents' original signatures in a private collection"”is his most valuable.

He came up with the idea to collect all the signatures, but it proved to be a much more difficult feat than expected. "It was very hard to find any kind of documentation with Garfield's signature on it because he died after only being in office for 30 days," Seta says. "Even though he was a very non-descript president, it became very expensive because of the rarity of the signature."

After looking for a collector's shop to take on the project, an expert from "The History Buff" store in Palm Beach, Fla. accepted the challenge, and it took 18 months to complete it.

The frame of this item is quite deep because some of the signatures are actually part of a handwritten letter. The letters are rolled up within the depth of the frame"”to maintain the document's integrity"”and the matting is cut to just show the signature.

Some of the signatures are "cartes des vista," or solitary signatures. Others are signed documents. And a few, as in the case of Truman's signature, are signed personal letters. And what makes it even more valuable are personal touches like the 16th president's signature.

"Lincoln signed most of his documents 'A. Lincoln,' but I wanted one where he signed it 'Abraham Lincoln'," which is even more rare," Seta notes.
Although he declines to discuss the worth of items in his collection, Seta does reveal that a certain percentage of his investment portfolio is dedicated to non-stock investments. "That makes my portfolio more diverse," he says, "not to mention more fun for me."

But what's more important to Seta than any return on investment is the experience of an emotional high that satisfies a need to go back in time.

"People talk about time machines," Seta says. "Well, we can't do that, so to hold something and see something of such historical significance is a modern day equivalent of [a] time machine."