Collecting Autographs Can Be Dicey and Pricey

By Anne Gilbert 

For serious autograph collectors, the Swann Auction Galleries autograph auctions are an important event. Even for collectors who can't afford $20,000 or more for an historical document signed by George Washington or a small American flag carried by Charles Lindbergh on the Spirit of St. Louis during his 1927 trans-Atlantic flight along with a typed note signed by him that could sell for up to $60,000, the Swann autograph auctions are eagerly awaited.

Only a few decades ago, important historical presidential documents could be purchased for $2,000 or more. Autographed baseballs, caps and other sports memorabilia cost only the time it took for the player to sign. These days, signatures of sports greats are among the most expensive autographs, and the most often faked.

CLUES: The down side that can even plague experienced collectors are faked and forged signatures. Among the many techniques used to fake authentic signatures are the autopen, secretarial signatures, rubber stamps and preprints. As far back as the 1920s and '30s, movie star photos with supposedly authentic signatures were mailed by the hundreds to fans. Common sense tells you they wouldn't have had the time. In fact, they hired someone to do all of the signing. This happened with political autographs as well.

Autopen signatures have been around for years and can do about 300 signatures an hour.

They are so authentic looking that often only a specialist can tell the difference. One clue is when parts of letters appear shaky. This is caused by the vibrations of the Autopen as it writes. Rubber stamped signatures can be recognized when too much ink makes smudges. Another technique used is imprinted signatures and lithographs.

Interest in collecting autographs usually begins in childhood with something as simple as collecting schoolmates autographs at graduation time. This is usually followed by sports stars and movie stars. From the teens on, rock musicians are added to the list. Depending on their interests, important historical figures, presidents, performing artists, authors, inventors, artists and explorers are collected by adults.

When they come to auction, prices depend on rarity, popularity and historical importance. The signatures can be on part of a document, a photo, baseball, cartoon, other art works or sheet music. The list is endless.

A single autograph can be matted and added to a photo of the person who signed it, which increases the value.

Should you find an autograph or an autographed item inscribed to another person, this doesn't lower the value. A single clipped autographed can turn up in unexpected places, such as a family Bibles and old scrapbooks.

To learn more about autograph collecting, contact the Universal Autograph Collectors Club (UACC) at P.O. Box 6181, Washington, DC, 20044-6181 or visit www.uacc.org.

Famous People Appraisals

George Gershwin signature
on "Rhapsody In Blue" sheet music. (Photos: Swan Auction Galleries, New York)

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