The term autograph generally describes the signature of a famous or notable person.
The practice of collecting autographs as a hobby is known as philography. Many people also collect autographs for investment purposes.
History of autograph collecting
There are several theories as to when the practice of autograph collecting began.
It could be said to have started with the Athenians, who prized the original hand-written manuscripts of their poets as treasures and displayed them in their temples, or during the time of the Roman Empire, when notable Romans would build up collections of manuscripts along with other antiquities.
The practice of solely collecting signatures as opposed to hand-written documents is thought to have originated in Germany during the mid-16th century.
It became fashionable amongst students and members of high society to compile books of the signatures of their notable friends and acquaintances, and the trend quickly spread across Europe.
The general purpose of these collections was to demonstrate the social status of the collector, but during the 17th century many people started to view such signature collections as having historical value and the practice developed further. The signatures of important writers, poets and politicians of the day were collected, and the financial value of such collections was slowly but surely appreciated.
The first known autograph collector for profit is thought to have been Sir Richard Phillips (1767 – 1840), who is mentioned in literature on the mid-19th century on the subject:
“Sir Richard Phillips claims to be the first collector of autographs, and it is certain that he was early in possession of reams of these precious relics, each arranged by the alphabetical name of the writer. He was so well aware of their value, at a time when they were little thought of by others, that he has been heard to say that he would as soon part with a tooth as a letter of Colley Cibber’s; and that he expected a grant of land in America for a manuscript of Washington’s.”
In the 1830s a public market for autographs began to grow, with auction houses and book dealers dedicating sales to signatures and manuscripts. Notable bibliophile Thomas Thorpe was one of the most prominent dealers to produce a catalogue of autographs for sale.
As the popularity of this new hobby grew, so did the market for collectible autographs and the craze soon spread across the Atlantic.
During the 19th century many important figures including presidential candidate began to receive written requests for their autographs, and in 1887 Walter R. Benjamin started the first shop dedicated to the sale of autographs and manuscripts in New York.
With the advent of radio, cinema and television the collectible autograph market changed its focus from politicians and writers to musicians, film and television stars.
The practice found true popularity during the 1980s, and by the late 1990s the market for autograph collecting had become a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
Today there are thought to be around 3m autograph collectors worldwide, and the business is estimated to be worth $4 billion every year.
Guide to Collecting
Autographs are usually separated into categories by collectors, many of whom choose to specialise in one or more particular areas. Examples of these categories include: politicians, military figures, sports, popular culture, artists, social and religious leaders, scientists, astronauts and authors. Most collectors will choose to focus on one of these categories, and some focus further, on one era, one figure, or one type of document. It makes sense to focus on figures that you admire, that have affected you personally, or whose life and ideas changed the path of history.
Often, signatures on photographs are much more desirable than an autograph on a scrap of paper, due to the eye appeal. Signatures on significant historical documents, personal letters and notes, and pieces of equipment for example in sports, are also much more valuable than a signature on something insignificant.
There are two methods involved in autograph collecting. One is to obtain autographs personally through meeting or writing to the signer, and the other is to buy autographs from dealers or at auction. The first option is of course only possible if the signer is still alive.
Autographs are a notorious area of collecting for forgeries, so it is essential to become familiar with spotting fakes. Be wary of autographs that may have been officially produced by a secretary, autopen, rubber stamp, pre-print or facsimile on behalf of the signer. Trading platforms such as eBay cannot always be trusted to provide something guaranteed as authentic. Always buy through a reputable dealer. Browse our list of autograph dealers to find one in your area.
If buying at auction, it is likely that the autographs will be better authenticated. However, there may be more competition pushing the prices above what a collector is willing to pay.
The most valuable autographs are generally historical, as the number of signatures out there is finite and can only become smaller and more scarce.
Some collectors who are interested in obtaining autographs personally focus on new and upcoming stars, people whose careers in the limelight are just beginning, and try and guess who will be the influential and collectible figures of the future.
For more hints and tips on collecting autographs, see our Beginner’s Guide to Autograph Collecting.
See our list of philographic terms to familiarise yourself with the language of autograph collecting.
Autograph clubs and societies
- United Kingdom autograph Collectors Club (UKACC) The UKACC
- Autograph Fair Trade Association Limited (AFTAL)
- Universal Autograph Collector’s Club (UACC)
- International Autograph Dealer Alliance & Collector Club
- The Manuscript Society
- Doctor Who Autograph Collectors Club
- Autograph Collectors Club of India