Some Tips on Collecting Autographs

Here are some practical tips on collecting autographs from my days as an editor in the collectibles business.

Who wouldn’t like to have a memento from their favorite movie star or sports hero? But the problem with collecting everyday items is verifying authenticity. If someone claims to have a shirt that once belonged to Elvis, how can you tell?

That’s why there are autographs, arguably the most popular type of celebrity souvenir. They are quick and easy to write, fun to collect, relatively easy to obtain (at least easier than grabbing a rock star’s shirt), and there are technical methods of authentication, like examining watermarks and ink composition. And anything that can be written upon can be signed. (I know one account of a young lady who had a celebrity sign her leg, then ran to a tattoo parlor to have the signature made permanent.)

On the other hand, there are several pitfalls to avoid. And pricing is just as difficult and subjective as any other collectible category, so some guidelines are in order:

– A signature on a significant document is more valuable than a simple autograph. Roger Clemens’ signature would be worth far more on his first professional baseball contract than as a hasty scrawl on a scrap of paper at the clubhouse door.

– An autograph can be more valuable if it’s with a personalized message to a fellow celebrity or intimate friend, say as a “thank you” for working together on an award-winning movie.

– Most highly prized is a signed personal letter or document which gives insight into a celebrity’s personality or reveals a heretofore unknown historical fact. The more personal the circumstances, the more valuable the document.

– Do not automatically dismiss an autograph which does not appear authentic. Some celebrities had artistically styled public signatures for publicity purposes; their real signatures were much more pedestrian. Walt Disney was a good example: his genuine signature occasionally goes unrecognized because it is noticeably different from the looping letters so frequently seen on television and movie screens.

– Don’t forget this is the age of mechanization. Many genuine-looking signatures are actually untouched by human hands (or re-created by assistants). This is especially true for politicians and government officials. That prized letter to you signed by President Reagan was almost certainly done with an “autopen.”

– Beware of forgeries. Unfortunately, signatures are easy to fake. The best defense is common sense; if you happened to bump into Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, anything he wrote for you would probably not be in English. Also be suspicious of a fantastic bargain or rare discovery. There have been instances of sudden find purported to be from the hand of an historic philosopher. All seemed in order until someone realized the document was written in a language this philosopher wouldn’t have used.

– If you cannot witness a signing, it is best to consult a respected dealer or expert you have learned to trust. Also, do as much homework as you can on prices for comparable autographs.

– Finally, don’t forget preservation. Ordinary paper deteriorates over time. Wherever possible, use acid-free paper or matting, keep out of direct sun to prevent fading, and avoid extremes in temperature. If you have a special collectible, consult a preservation expert.

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