Collecting Autographs – An Introduction
The key factor when collecting is, of course, authentication. Once you focus clearly on a particular subject or person, your own passion and interest will start to build and develop your skills in ascertaining the authenticity and value of the piece. You can rely on certain studies by previous collectors and academics and also dealers especially known for particular areas of expertise. You will develop a checklist, which becomes a forensic examination, but in the end a sixth sense comes into play based on all evidence and the years you have looked at similar examples.
Certain autograph examples are nigh on impossible, or unknown. There are no examples known of the Italian poet, Dante, or the German printer, Gutenberg. There are only six examples known of Shakespeare and if one ever came available to the market, it would probably achieve over £2 million.
Once you have chosen a particular person, it becomes important to know the first thing and the last thing they are known to have written, as well as what could be considered their most important.
An objective valuation should be based on six things - signer, content, rarity, condition, date and medium used. There is clearly a difference between a handwritten document and a signed scrap of paper. Any subjective valuation based on sentimental value does not enhance the true value.
There are basics to know when authenticating each piece and collectors and dealers will build up their own archive of good and bad examples. Facsimile autographs, like letters from Winston Churchill thanking the writer for their kind wishes on his birthday (as he would have received thousands of letters from the general public), secretarial autographs, especially prevalent with current-day stars from the Beatles to Clint Eastwood, where requests for their autographs would run into hundreds or even thousands per week. Autopen autographs came to the fore in the 1950s and are used widely in the US, particularly Presidents and, again, Apollo astronauts. Some people have more than one autopen example which makes life trickier, but autopen autographs often have squiggly lines, which makes them easier to spot.
When authenticating generally, and looking out for forgeries, the following should be borne in mind:
- Look at the flow of the signature - forgeries often keep the pen on page after stroke, which creates a dot or blob of ink, where it would be more normal to lift for lighter and quicker finish.
- Size of signature - whatever the size, look for individual letters to be proportionate in the normal way to the whole signature.
- Different paper existed pre-1750 - wove paper without grid pattern (this is visible when held up to the light) post 1750.
- Watermarks in paper sometimes contain dates.
- Water soluble ink in use after 1860.
- Steel pen - from 1780- two furrows of pen nibs, seen with ink flow in between.
- Feathery spread of ink when signature not contemporary with medium used.
- When someone has traced the item it is usually shaky, or sometimes there are pencil marks or indentations under the ink.
- Autopens were introduced in the 1950s.
- Biro came in during the Second World War to enable pilots, etc. to write more easily in the air - felt pens just after the war.
- Try and date photographs, etc. to within the lifetime of the signer!
- It was not until the 15th Century that accomplished people began to sign their name, choosing to leave to those trained in the art of writing.
- Finally - please start from the premise that the item is probably not right and then prove that it is, otherwise the ‘will to believe’ will take over.
When looking for scarcity, you will often find that the signer had a short life or a sudden death, signed few documents, or was unrecognised in their lifetime (for example, Van Gogh).
Often the family may have discarded all letters and papers believing them to have no value; or, conversely, keeping them as an almost complete collection within the family, or donating to museums and libraries leaving very little on the open market.
There are many similarities in collecting autographs to all forms of collecting and some strong parallels with stamp collecting. People tore signatures from letters and manuscripts in the same way stamp collectors tore stamps from envelopes, both in the mistaken belief that the value was in the basic item. We should not dwell for too long on the value that has been destroyed by these actions! Also, the donation to museums and libraries in both fields has a striking effect on supply and demand and the upward spiral of pricing, and future opportunity to collect the very top pieces. Stamps have a more clearly defined universe of known quantities of rarities in existence, whereas autograph quantities are still being ascertained and pricing still open to conjecture.
Indeed, with letters and manuscripts, it is the interpretation of the significance and importance of the content that creates the difference of opinion of value, linked to the individual’s knowledge of scarcity built up from a lifetime experience. You must equally recognise that the signature is of more value if considered to be signed at the height of their career, or most important point in their life.
Finally, here are some of the basic things that you can do to preserve your collection:
- Use acid-free paper or plastic when filing items
- Remove all paper clips and staples
- Keep items clean and not exposed to dust
- Protect from ultraviolet light
- Use special gloves to handle pieces to avoid perspiration or skin oils getting on valuable items
- If possible, keep your collection in the dark - not humid or hot conditions
The field of autograph collecting is open to all and most people in the world have an interest in some form of human endeavour or achievements and are often surprised about what is available to collect. It is a combination of patience, money and luck when trying to find the most elusive signers. The more passion you have, the more you will enjoy your collecting and it will give you years of pleasure.
Start your own collection now.