by Dr. Lori Verderame
Autographs are some of the most popular and coveted collectible items on the market. They have good market interest because they are diverse and appear in many categories of antiques and collectibles, historically relevant, and are often difficult to obtain. Many people collect autographs because autographs relate to real people and their accomplishments.
The tradition of collecting autographs has been going on for quite some time. In the early 1900s, autograph collecting was a very popular hobby. The idea of having the opportunity to be close to a famous person–close enough to obtain an autograph–was impressive. For instance, in the early years of the 1900s, stationary and pen companies like Waterman held contests encouraging young people to collect autographs of famous people. The idea was to get youngsters engaged with famous people as an educational opportunity. These autograph books sell for big bucks on the collectibles market.
I have appraised autographs that run the gamut from many celebrities from various fields. I have appraised a baseball (many, in fact) signed by Babe Ruth, a football helmet signed by O.J. Simpson, a postcard signed by Jack Dempsey, and a collectible wristwatch signed by Michael Jordan. I have evaluated letters, tin types, studio photographs, early photographs, stereoscopic cards for stereoscopic viewers, ambrotypes and even cocktail napkins signed by celebrities like Walt Disney, Buffalo Bill, Marilyn Monroe, Annie Oakley, Joan Rivers, Bill Murray, Steve Martin to name a few.
I have authenticated autographs of political figures such as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Presidents John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Richard Nixon on official White House stationary, invitations to international events and campaign posters. And, I have appraised musicians’ autographs on album covers including a very rare set of autographs by all four members of the Beatles on the cover of their first album which was ultra valuable… and other musicians’ autographs like those by Hall & Oats, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Usher, and Aretha Franklin found on t-shirts, CDs, concert tickets, posters, guitars, and even bras–yep, rock stars really do sign bras!
Some other interesting autographs that I have reviewed are those belonging to NASA astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Fred Haise, and Neil Armstrong. I appraised autographs on old books by famous authors such as Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Stephen King, and Margaret Mitchell.
When autographs are found on objects that relate to a celebrity’s career or fame or what he/she is famous for, then the autographs are worth more money than if they had just been a simple autographed signature on a piece of paper. An autograph is worth more if it is in context.
What to Look For
I tell people at my appraisal events that authenticity (if it’s the real thing) is key when collecting autographs. To identify an original and authentic autograph, look for an identifying ink color and paper. For instance, purple ink was more common than blue or black ink in the early years of the 1900s before World War II.
Consider what type of writing instrument was used to make the autograph. Was it an ink pen? a magic marker? a conte crayon? Does the type of pen match the time period of the life of the signer? This could help date the autograph in the lifetime of the celebrity.
Don’t forget that autographed photographs should be from the same time period. For instance, a youthful photograph of a famous baseball player with an autograph added after his retirement is not worth as much as a photograph and autograph from the same time period signed during the player’s prime.
Paper type and age are also determining factors when assessing autographs. You can learn how to tell the paper’s age by learning about the markings on prints.
Collectors will amass collections of both autographs, autograph books, and signed documents. A personally signed document from a famous person is typically more valuable than an autograph alone. But, some basic autographs have brought significant amounts of money on the market, too. I have seen autographs sell for twenty dollars to nearly 2 million dollars in my career.
Most people think that studying the letter strokes and comparing the forms is the way to authenticate an autograph… but there is a lot more to it than that. A lot more and real collectors know that it isn’t just about some signature that “looks like” the real thing. It has to be the real thing. Forgeries and fakes are very commonplace and quite difficult to spot. Don’t be fooled.
Get an online appraisal of your autograph from Dr. Lori.