A Beginner's Guide to Autographs
Collecting autographs is one of the world's most popular hobbies, with an estimated three million dedicated collectors worldwide. It's also one of the oldest, with a history dating back thousands of years. This week, Wikicollecting takes a look how you can get your hands on some of the world's most famous signatures…
Philography is like a time machine. Autographs evoke a connection between the past and the present, between the people who scribble their name, and the people who admire and collect them. A great attraction lies in the personally handwritten name. It feels like a direct link to the signer, a sharing of their legacy. Autograph collecting can be traced back to ancient civilisations, who displayed the handwritten works of their greatest minds in temples, like shrines. In modern times, with the dawn of the celebrity culture that accompanied the advent of radio, cinema and television, widespread interest in autograph collecting has shifted from political figures, scientists, philosophers and literary greats to celebrities, musicians and actors, the role models of the present generation.
Collecting autographs has also become about investment. Today, philography is a business worth approximately $4 billion every year, with millions of autograph collectors across the world.
Where to begin?
Autograph collectors should focus on figures they admire, that have affected them personally, or whose genius has shaped history.
You can collect within a general area such as sports personalities, musicians, actors, authors, political figures, scientists, astronauts, historical military personalities, or royals. You can focus on something more specific, such as Civil War leaders, Murderers’ Row signed baseballs, 1950s Hollywood female leads or Apollo astronauts. You could even focus on just one individual. An autograph collecting project, such as systematically amassing every autograph from a famous group on one particular document or item, can be an engaging task to set yourself, and can seriously pay off if you manage it.
Signatures on photographs are far superior to those on scraps of paper. This is because they have eye appeal as display pieces, so are more sought-after by collectors and are more likely to retain their value. Personal letters and notes are even better, and sports memorabilia signed by sports personalities is exciting, representing both the person and the game. Similarly signed stage-worn outfits of musicians and signed film costumes and props are desirable items. People are most excited by something that represents the celebrity’s work, their ideas, and also the private life behind the public figure.
Autograph collectors generally fall into two categories: those who obtain autographs personally through meeting their idols or writing to them, and those who buy autographs from dealers or at auction. Of course, if your chosen subject is no longer living, you have little choice but to ascribe to the latter method.
Draw up a calendar of your celebrity’s upcoming public appearances. It is also helpful to know how well disposed they are to signing for fans, so that you are not too disappointed if they refuse.
You can write to celebrities asking for their autographs, but bear in mind they receive hundreds of items of mail and may never see your letter. Some sneaky celebs use inauthentic methods of signing behind closed doors (secretaries, autopens, rubber stamps, facsimiles etc). It is better, really, to meet them in person, not only to confirm absolutely that they themselves signed your photograph, book, document or item, but also for the added satisfaction of talking with a public figure you admire, creating a memory and story to accompany your memento.
If your tastes and admirations lean away from the stars of today, and towards historical figures or recently deceased stars, you will have no choice but to seek out items already in circulation. Your task is harder, as year by year, autographs become more rare and sought after by collectors, and therefore more expensive.
Once again, it pays to focus on people with a lasting legacy, in whom interest will endure. Historical figures like these are almost guaranteed to rise in demand and value as scarcity increases.
You must also watch out for forgeries, autopens, rubber stamps, secretarial signatures, pre-print and facsimiles. For this reason eBay cannot always be trusted. Study the real signature as much as possible. There are resources which can help you with this. Check paper, pen, ink, dissimilarities and idiosyncrasies. After a while of collecting you will get a feel for whether an autograph is real. Read into the authentication and provenance of each autograph carefully, and make sure the seller can tell you with absolute certainty that yours is not a fake. Make sure your dealer has a good reputation.
If buying at auction, the chances are your item will be better authenticated, but you may have stiff competition and see the price rising above what you are prepared to pay.
A personalised message with your name on can detract value, but might be nicer for you while you own it! It is important to keep the enjoyment of your autograph in mind as well as the investment potential. While this is a general rule, inscriptions to a previous owner can authenticate a piece.
Inscriptions to personal friends of the celebrity, or to other famous personalities, can increase the value, for example a note from John F Kennedy to Marilyn Monroe is historically interesting, much more so than a scribble from JFK to an anonymous fan.
From an investment angle, you could choose to seek out autographs of individuals whose careers are just beginning – they are likely to be more open to approaches for autographs from fans, and if their career really takes off, you will see the value of your autograph rise pretty quickly.
Try and judge who is likely to remain popular for years to come and even after their death. Avoid the vogue of the moment, people who will fade into obscurity within a few years.
It may sound slightly morbid, but a shrewd collector will look for famous figures who are nearing the age when they might soon kick the bucket. Their existing autographs become a finite number, and become more scarce, more in demand, and therefore more valuable. Neil Armstrong’s autograph rose in value by at least £1,000 following his death this year. The same effect occurs when celebrities stop signing autographs for fans altogether, like Sir Paul McCartney did in 2010.
The most valuable autographs
The most valuable autographs are generally historical. For example, William Shakespeare has 6 known autographs, all held by institutions but worth several million dollars each if they were to come up for sale. Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, Charles Dickens, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol, you can see the pattern of influence and historical import.
There are, however, some very valuable autographs of living people too. See Wikicollecting’s Top 10 most valuable living signatures for a gander at the prices they can fetch.