Updated August 2013
I have written this guide to help the autograph collector get a better understanding of what might make an autograph worth investing in. If you are an experienced collector, then you possibly already know all of this! Its not comprehensive but it will give you a good grounding in what to look for. I hope it helps.
A rare collectable autograph makes a great Christmas or birthday present, as it not only shows that you have genuine interest in the recipient's interests, but the gift is likely to grow in value as well.
Of course, this kind of alternative investment can be prone to the same downturn market forces as other assets, but providing that you have chosen carefully, your gift will have an excellent chance of appreciating in the longer term, and lets be honest, the same cannot be said about a pair of socks or a box of chocolates!
My own collection started when I was just 14 years old when I was given an autograph album (unsigned) for a birthday gift, and today, 45 years later, I still have that same album and I still collect, but now with an eye firmly on the investment value.
During those years I have seen the hobby of collecting autographs and the interest in 'celebrity' increase to a point where the crowds at a big film premier can be ten deep, many holding photos or books that they are hoping the stars of the film will sign for them. Some of those people will be professional collectors, who are only interested in the profit to be made, and as the market has increased over the last 15 years to over £20,000,000 annually so have the collectors!
The value of some of these autographs has risen well above the rate of inflation, and with interest rates now at an all time low (Dec 2011), it makes every sense to look for alternative investments, and autographs is certainly one that you should consider.
Lets look at a couple of examples. Just ten years ago, you would have been able to buy a signed image of the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, for less than £300, but that same signed image now could well cost you over £2000 which is a massive increase in value in anyone's eyes. On a smaller scale, Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary used to sell at around £15 before he passed away, but now you may need to perhaps pay £70 plus and items signed by him continue to rise in value.
The real investment potential comes when the demand for a signature increases or the supply dries up, and sadly, that normally means when someone dies. At that point, supply stops, demand increases, and prices rise accordingly, and although that initial spike will drop after a short while and the price will level out, it will still be at a higher price than before their demise! However, this kind of increase only happens with the more well known names that have achieved world wide fame for something significant (so you can forget Jedward or Timmy Mallet!).
Current names that you might consider investing in would include the UK's first lady Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, legend of the silver screen Christopher Lee, or any of the Apollo astronauts, especially those who have walked on the surface of the moon or achieved any of the firsts. Of course Lady Thatcher has since departed, and currently, because of the number of items that some dealers flooded the market with, the prices went down! But give it a couple of years and they will be riding high again.
Others that may be considered would include the first man to run a mile in under four minutes Sir Roger Bannister, or the first man to break the sound barrier Chuck Yeager. Or maybe John Glenn the first American to orbit the earth. All of these people are still alive, all are known worldwide, and all still easily available at sensible, almost pocket money prices, but remember how those Hillary and Armstrong prices have increased! Make a list of ones that you think could make a good investment, and track the prices as time goes by, you might be surprised!
The value of a signature can vary greatly dependant on what the signature is on, the size of the item, condition, and of course if it is dedicated to anyone, plus any historical background it may have. Generally speaking signed photos are best, the larger the better, and remember that some dealers or collectors will only buy undedicated items, as these are much easier to sell on later. And as with anything of value, condition is all important, so the better condition it is in, the more it's worth.
Authenticity is of course of paramount importance and you can help protect yourself here by buying from known and established dealers. There are several well known associations that most good dealers will belong to, the most common being the UACC, but be sure that your dealer is indeed a UACC Registered Dealer and not simply a collector member! Anyone can join some of these associations, and the unscrupulous dealer will simply join as a member and use these new found 'credentials' to try and create an air of an established and knowledgeable dealer.
Some associations such as AFTAL or PADA only accept established dealers, and have some very strict membership rules, and they do not simply allow just anyone to join them. All good dealers who are members of any of these three associations will be clearly listed on the relevant association website, so do not take the dealer's word for it that they are members ALWAYS check first. And if they are members of nothing? Well, I will leave you to make up your own mind on that one!
You might also try visiting some of the forums on eBay or elsewhere. One such forum started on eBay but has since moved elsewhere, and they have an excellent list of dealers which has ben compiled by the moderators. As a dealer you cannot join their list of 'Approved Dealers', you can only be invited to join, so that makes it a pretty exclusive group. Just do a search on Google for ACAF and you will find it. It has forums for sport etc as well as its own ACAF forum. ACAF stands for Autograph Collectors Against Fakes.
There are also many books available to help with authentication and collecting, but there is nothing better than experience, and you can only get that by studying signatures, meeting celebrities and learning more about their signing habits, the pens and paper used etc. It can be a real minefield, but it can prove to be not just enjoyable and worthwhile, but very profitable too.
One thing you do need to be very careful with is 'provenance' as many well meaning people will tell you that this is all important, but in fact it is not! You see most of the provenance offered with autographs is of no real value whatsoever, as it is very rarely 'proof' of any authenticity at all. Most of the provenance offered with autographs is simply a story and often runs along the lines of "my auntie got the autograph book signed when she worked as an usherette at the Woolwich Granada, when the Beatles played there in June 1963". If you do your homework you will find that the Beatles did play that venue in 1963, but that snippet of information will easily be found on the internet or via the many books that document the Beatles' career. And the autograph book that it's in? Surely that proves they must be genuine as it contains signatures from other minor names from the same period? Well, the book could just as easily have been purchased on eBay for £20 with the seller adding the Beatles signatures himself. It is a very simple scam that fools the uneducated every week at local auctions around the UK. So education is the key here, and only experience will provide that education.
Real provenance for autographs can only mean a good and provable link from one source to another, such as the item concerned having been through the hands of several known and knowledgeable dealers. Each of those dealers would have had the chance to check and double check any item for authenticity, and it is doubtful that several would make the same error of perhaps passing on an Autopen or secretarial signature for example as authentic.
There are also cases where an item may have some provenance because it has been signed at a paid signing arranged by a known dealer. Many stars have done this, and many well known people have attended autograph shows or events whereby they will sign items for money. However, you still need to be certain about these signings, as it has been known for the less scrupulous to simply buy one item at a signing, and then create 50 more when they get home, whilst using the photo they took at the signing to 'prove' that an item is authentic.
What about that nice COA? Any dealer worth his salt will tell you the same thing, they are worthless and only prove where and when you purchased the item. A COA will never 'prove' an item is authentic, it can only say that it is authentic, but if the dealer is a dud, then your COA is a dud too! Any good dealer will, of course, issue a COA or similar, which will also have his full contact details on it, but NEVER buy an autograph just because it comes with a COA.
If you are simply looking for investment, and have little knowledge of autographs, then be sure to try and build a relationship with a dealer, this way you will learn a lot more, and you will often be offered items that perhaps are not in the dealers regular catalogue, as they become aware of the kind of thing that you may be interested in buying. A good dealer will be your best friend in the autograph business, and will save you money in the longer term.
Remember that the autograph market is very much driven by nostalgia, and in turn demand. So you look out for names that will remind people of a time, place or deed, whose names are known to people the world over, who will continue to be reminded of that name for many years to come. John Lennon is a perfect example, as his music is heard every day the world over, it reminds them of their wedding, a first date, their youth, and of course places and times, so his signature will always be right up there with the most investable autographs.
Some names rate better than others, but make the right choice, buy at the right price, and you could make a considerable profit when it comes to selling on in the future. And don't limit yourself to only those people that you like or know, delve deeper and broaden your horizens for better profits.
Suggested book titles for your library. Advanced Autograph Collecting by Mark Allen Baker, Any 'Sanders' price guides, Any book by Ray Rawlins (all of these are out of print, but they can often be found on ebay). There are also a few other books, again mostly out of print, that can provide some very usefull help and insights to the world of autographs. Movie Autographs of the Golden Era by Susan and Steven Raab, Autographs- A Key to Collecting by Mary A. Benjamin, and finally a book that every collector and dealer should read as it tells the story of the huge market in fake autographs in America, that was exposed by the FBI, Operation Bullpen by Kevin Nelson.
Copyright Garry King and Autografica Ltd 2014