10 valuable autographs from people you've never heard of
It's little surprise that autographs of history's most famous figures are valuable. Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana. High demand keeps prices strong.
Yet can autographs from figures few remember today be worth anything? Sometimes. So long as there are still some people keen to own one. And so long as the signatures are sufficiently rare.
Here are 10 of the most valuable – they all have fascinating stories to tell.
Nancy Wake (1912-2011)
Value of her autograph: $200
Wake was such an astonishingly successful Allied secret agent during WWII that she topped the Gestapo's "most wanted" list, with a 5 million franc bounty on her head.
Nicknamed the "White Mouse" by the Nazis, the glamorous Antipodean caused havoc behind enemy lines – heading a 7,000 strong French resistance force and helping hundreds of Allied soldiers escape. Her strength of character was matched by her physical brawn. She once killed an SS officer with a judo chop to the neck, and cycled 500km in 71 hours through German checkpoints to deliver secret codes.
She once stated: "In my opinion, the only good German was a dead German, and the deader, the better. I killed a lot of Germans, and I am only sorry I didn't kill more."
The war ended in tragedy for her. Wake returned to her husband in the south of France to discover he had been tortured and executed for failing to give her up.
Tim Berners-Lee (1955-)
Value of his autograph: $200
In 1989, a quiet British computer scientist handed round a document to his colleagues. It was titled: Information Management: A Proposal.
It suggested that everyone at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) where he worked would benefit from sharing information by linking up their computers.
And with that, Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet.
Frank Wills (1948-2000)
Value of his autograph: $200
On the night of June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills noticed a door latch had been taped over in the office building he was patrolling. Believing an employee had put it there to stop the door shutting, Wills removed the duct tape and continued on his rounds. When he returned, he saw the door latch now had a fresh piece of duct tape over it. Wills called the police. The Watergate scandal had begun.
Joseph Lister (1827-1912)
Value of his autograph: $500 for a handwritten and signed letter
The "father of antiseptic surgery".
Lister was professor of surgery at Glasgow University. He noticed many patients were surviving operations but succumbed soon afterwards to a condition known then as "ward fever".
Lister deduced that microbe-carrying diseases getting into the recently cut tissue was to blame. He began covering surgery wounds in carbolic acid and saw post-surgery deaths fall dramatically. He also championed use of sterile instruments and regular hand washing in the operating theatre.
The mouthwash is named after him.
Value of her autograph: Handwritten and signed letters auction for $750
Cavell was a British nurse who worked in a Red Cross hospital in German-occupied Brussels during WWI.
She tended to soldiers on both sides of the conflict, drawing ire from many back home.
Yet she also managed to smuggle 200 Allied soldiers out of the hospital and into neutral Holland.
The German authorities caught her and shot her by firing squad in October 1915, claiming she was also a spy. Cavell's death caused outrage in the UK and the US.
In 2015, a former director-general of Britain's MI5 confirmed that Cavell had indeed been spying on the Germans for the Allies and smuggling information back to Britain. The UK had officially denied Germany's accusations for the past 100 years.
Anton Drexler (1884-1942)
Value of his autograph: $1,000
Adolf Hitler didn't create the Nazi party. A man called Anton Drexler did. He established the German Workers Party (DAP) in 1919 – the precursor to the Nazi Party. Within months Hitler had joined the organisation, after attending a DAP meeting – where he was impressed by Drexler's anti-Semitic, pro worker outlook.
Within two years, Hitler's force of will and powerful oration skills had seen him oust Drexler from the leadership.
Drexler faded into obscurity and died of natural causes in 1942.
Roy O Disney (1893-1971)
Value of his autograph: Signed contracts sell for $4,000
While younger brother Walt was the creative force behind the Disney empire, it was Roy who did the tedious stuff – like making sure the company had enough money. And when Walt died, Roy pushed hard to ensure Walt Disney World came to fruition. When it opened in October 1971, Roy finally got the chance to retire. He died just two months later.
John Winslow (1597-1674)
Value of his autograph: $7,000
Five English brothers named Winslow settled in New England in the first decades of the 17th century – establishing themselves as one of the foremost families among the Pilgrims. John Winslow was one of them.
Winslow is today a name synonymous with the early years of the colony. And it's little surprise. They were prodigious fornicators. John sired 10 new Winslows. His brother Edward seven, while brother Josiah produced four.
By the time of his death, John was one of the wealthiest businessmen in Boston.
William Henry Harrison (1773-1841)
Value of his autograph: $10,000 while president, $1,000 before
William Henry Harrison has the unenviable distinction of enjoying the shortest tenure of any US president.
His inauguration of March 4, 1841 took place on a bitterly cold, wet morning. Harrison proceeded to deliver his two-hour inaugural address without a coat or hat.
32 days later, he died of pneumonia.
Harrison's unique position in the annals of US politics ensures strong demand for his autograph.
Harrison (born in 1773) was also the last US president born a British subject.
Button Gwinnett (1735-1777)
Value of his autograph: $750,000
The pinnacle of valuable autographs you've never heard of.
Fifty-six men signed the US Declaration of Independence. Owning the signatures of all 56 Founding Fathers is one of the greatest feats an autograph collector can achieve. But there is a problem. One of the signers was a planter by the name of Button Gwinnett. Whose signature is incredibly rare today.
Only 51 Button Gwinnett signatures exist, mostly on IOUs. 41 of the 51 reside in museums and libraries, leaving just 10 for the autograph collecting community. Which is why a signed letter sold for $722,500 in 2010.
Why is Gwinnett's signature so scarce?
He died aged just 42
The Gwinnetts died out in the 1800s, leaving no one to pass his artefacts down the generations
He lived in Savannah, Georgia – a city that suffered large-scale destruction in the revolutionary and civil wars
Two fun Button Gwinnett facts for you:
· He is one of eight Founding fathers born in British (Gwinnett was a West Country boy from Gloucestershire)
· He died in a duel just 10 months after signing the Declaration
All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, unless stated.
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