Monday, 23 May 2005

Name dropping: Collecting celebrity autographs

The Beatles ... with Pete BestThe Beatles ... with Ringo signature
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by Christopher Proudlove©

I have not yet reached that stage yet where people stop me and ask me for my autograph. It's just a matter of time! But no, seriously, we know several people who are autograph hunters, and one who makes a living out of the hobby.

You will find him at collectors' fairs in the North West of England selling photographs of the rich and famous (and infamous) each suitably inscribed by the individual and complete with moniker.

However, I thought I'd write about autograph collecting this week because word reaches me of an amazing single-owner collection of the things coming up for sale today and tomorrow (May 24 & 25).

More than 4,000 signatures will be offered in 1,400 lots, representing a lifetime's collection of a man whose father started him off in the hobby when the man was a child.

Actually, the story is tinged with a little sadness. The boy was born with a severe medical problem which confined him to his home. However, that didn't stop the boy following events in the outside world and he knew all about who was in the news and why.

Realising his son's interest in current affairs, the father put pen to paper and wrote to each of them in turn explaining his son's circumstances and asking, politely for a signed photo. People being what they are, they responded generously, with the result that very quickly, the boy's collection started to blossom.

As he got older, the young man started writing on his own account and the collection positively mushroomed. Now heading towards old age, the collector has decided the time has come to give other collectors a taste of the pleasure the collection has brought to him and he's decided to auction the lot.

Cataloguing the mass of signed photos collected over a period of 50 years proved to be a nightmare for the auctioneers. Two catalogue have spent three months going through them painstakingly, ensuring that the signatures are indeed by the individual's own hand, and not produced photo-mechanically (not an easy task in itself) and deciding how the collection should be split and categorised and what the estimates should be on each lot.

Interestingly, on the rare occasions that they found a photo-mechanical signature, the cataloguers also found an identical photo also signed and usually with an inscription in the celebrity's own handwriting.

The explanation of this is that when the father or his son received the former, they would write back and politely request that it be replaced by one of the latter!

It is hard to imagine another opportunity to start your own autograph collection presenting itself like this in the foreseeable future. On offer is a unique group of signed portraits that have never before seen the light of day outside the man's home, and have never before been traded on the open market.

The collection represents a glittering panoply of personalities from the 1940s onwards ranging from Groucho Marx to the Beatles.

For the collector with a vivid imagination, autographs can be so appealing. No other collection gives its owner such a feeling of direct contact with figures from history.

Surprisingly, though, autographs must be among the most undervalued of all areas of collecting. Perhaps it's psychological, after all, autograph hunting costs nothing.
Depressing number of forgeries

Another factor that depresses prices is the number of forgeries, and, in more recent times at least, photographic facsimile signatures that can cost an unwary newcomer to the hobby dearly. Easiest solution is to buy only from reputable sources: either dealers with reputations at stake, or auction houses who guarantee what they sell.

Except that takes some of the fun out of the game of buying on you own expertise. Exercise some caution, do plenty of detective work on the celebrity whose signature it is you seek and learn to spot the difference between an actual autograph and a mechanically produced one and you won't go far wrong.

Forgeries are obviously produced in such ways as to deceive, so you need to be particularly on your guard. One of the best ways of spotting a fake is the absence of light and shade in a signature, or, put another way, heavy pressure and light pressure on the part of the writer.

Also, be wary if the signature is written and positioned too perfectly on a page. By their nature, signatures are swift, almost casual, forms of self-expression. Few people, kings or commoners, politicians or personalities give them a second thought.

Suspicion should also surround any document signed by a personality, particularly letters, the content of which is too outrageous to be true.

For instance, a friend once had the bright idea of sending to Maggie Thatcher a copy of the cartoon-like caricature of herself that appeared as a centrefold in Punch magazine (I think it was).

The caricature was in the style of the Oriental style paintings of women you used to see for sale in Boots and other high street stores. He enclosed a note to Mrs T asking her to sign and return it, which she duly did. He now owns something of unique value.

On the other hand, a letter to Tony Blair signed by Malcolm Howard saying how much he admires him politically and how he voted for him in the recent election should be mistrusted!

Nowhere is the fake/facsimile signature problem more pronounced than in the field of pop memorabilia, particularly for collectors of Beatles signatures.
Going price for a set Beatles signatures is about £1,800-2,000 at auction George and Ringo each make around £200-400, while John and Paul are more valuable at £400-600 each. Easy money for the copyists.

Interestingly, the sale includes a very early promotional photograph of the group, taken at a time when Pete Best was drummer.

However, by the time the Fab Four got round to signing it, Pete had been sacked and replaced by Ringo, whose signature appears alongside the other three on the reverse. Its uniqueness takes its value to £2,500-3,500.

The aptly named Paper Chase Sale, which also includes books and stamps, is at Liverpool auctioneers Outhwaite & Litherland, Kingsway Galleries, Fontenoy Street.

  • "Philography" as collecting autographs is called is arguably one of the cheapest hobbies of all.

  • Like the person whose collection is being sold this week - and my friend who wrote to Mrs T - it's often possible to collect autographs celebrities for the price of a couple of stamps.

  • Send them a politely worded letter and famous individuals know that to maintain their popularity, they need to respond to such requests from their fans.

  • Stars can often be contacted by writing to their production company or agent; sporting personalities often belong to well known clubs and musicians can be contacted by writing to their record company.

  • And remember to always enclose a stamped addressed envelope.

Pictures show, top: An early Beatles promo picture featuring Pete Best but signed on the reverse by replacement Ringo Starr. Today a real rarity, it's worth £2,500-3,500

Below, clockwise from left: An autographed studio portrait of actress Bette Davis
Estimate £600-800

A colour photograph of President Ronald Regan and wife Nancy who both autographed the reverse
Estimate £200-300

Buzz Aldrin the Apollo 11 lunar pilot who made the first landing on the Moon July 26 1969 autographed this colour photograph
Estimate £40-60

An early autographed studio photograph of Bob Hope
Estimate £40-60

The Regans
Bette Davis
Buz Aldrin
Bob Hope

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