Vintage View: Autograph hunting

In the early 1960s, a member of my family touched a star. 

Working as an air hostess, she looked after a truly terrified Elizabeth Taylor on a short European flight. She sat with Liz to blot the tears from her violet coloured eyes, handed her her jewel case and guided her to the top of the ramp on arrival.

The thrilled Aer Lingus crew watched as Richard Burton strode across the taxiway and grabbed his ample cariad into his strong Welsh arms.

However, when offered an autograph by this Hollywood star at the height of her powers, my wide-eyed relation had made a vital error.

She asked for the dashed-off signature to be dedicated. Seasoned autograph hunters, who trade what they collect from fan sites, openings and premieres, never ask for more than the name of their quarry. They know better.

Autographs, the artistic signature of an individual scribed by themselves rather than someone in their support team or by an ‘auto-pen’ machine, offer a fascinating arena for collecting.

You can simply look out for famous people or events in popular culture, or winnow your subjects down to someone or something very specific. Be it politicians, a single area of sport, musicians, movie stars or authors, if you hope to improve on the investment of time and money dedicated to bagging an autograph, there are some guidelines to follow.

First of all, the signature should be of a famous person or group of people (say a band), either by itself or signed to someone known to the signee.

That’s someone that the vast majority of people, or at least the dedicated followers of that person’s sport, art, writings or other profession, would immediately recognise.

Fame is a nebulous honour, often accidentally achieved and long term fame is hard to garner and awarded to few. These people continue to fascinate us, and sometimes even more so after death. A tangible relic of their presence, a moment when they were on task, committing that fluid scrawl —what could be better?

Autographs given away initially by any rising star’s fan club can soon become big business. A signature differs from an autograph (which has standalone status), in that it is intrinsically bound up with a document, and will be influenced by the importance of the piece as a whole. Elvis’s signature on a receipt for his dry cleaning in the 70s (while still valuable) would be less interesting than say his name on a 1953 contract with Sun Records.

Keep in mind the time it takes to sign things for fans, be it a book, program, a sport’s ball, a photograph or whatever. It’s a tedious, sometimes impossible public duty. Given that the autograph can carry considerable value, many of today’s celebrities are reluctant to give them away — and have machinery in place to speed the process.

In some cases they expect a gratuity. Not surprisingly busy actors, singers and public figures, keen to appease enthusiastic supporters, have simply had promotional photographs signed by a member of their staff or even a member of their family, in a style approaching their own.

Ringo Starr, on environmental grounds, declared in 2009 that he would not sign any further material with his name for promotional purposes.

President John F Kennedy’s signature and autographs are eagerly sought all over the world. A rare book, famous among script collectors, The Robot That Helped to Make a President by Charles Hamilton (1995) recounts the multiplicity of autopen and secretarial signatures used by the President’s office, which make finding an authentic Kennedy hand-autograph, so difficult.

The study of handwriting combines science, experience and ‘feel’, not only mapping the autograph based on known examples of the individual’s hand, but on the very weight of the pen during its travel through loops and lines of the word.

In terms of real forgeries, collectors starting out are often fooled by the vintage paper stock or by what appears to be an authorised glossy photograph. Just because it’s an autograph, does not mean its authentic or that the piece is worth millions.

Studio shots of stars of the golden age can be up-cycled with a forged signature. A guitar, even a nice Stratocaster signed by Eric Clapton, is not necessarily a guitar on which he rocked out Layla. It’s far more likely (if the guitar carries a certificate of authenticity (COA)), that it was a prize at a society auction to raise money for charity. The price point in this case would be not be low, but much lower than for one of Eric’s personal axes.

Autographs and COAs are widely faked, largely worthless, and the status of CAOs as provenance depends on where they were issued. The Autograph Fair Trade Association is a self-policing group offering a platform for genuine dealers with professional competence.

For American and worldwide heroes in sport, US based PSA/DNA is the best known authenticator in the business of baseball cards and sports-related memorabilia — a multi-billion Euro industry worldwide.

The Universal Autograph Collector’s Club (UACC) carries a worldwide database of verified dealers with a wealth of information. Reputable dealers and forensic examiners (academically qualified for work on signatures), are the only people who can offer certificates of authentication that really hold sway for a high profile autograph or document.

Buying from an auction website? Get to know the dealer off-line and through their feedback, or you’ll be signing off on nothing but disappointment.


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