On November 9, 1787, George Washington wrote a letter to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, laying out a series of arguments in support of adoption of the newly framed Constitution of the United States. Two hundred twenty-two years later, the letter was auctioned at Christie’s New York on December 4, 2009, setting a record price for a Washington autograph: $3,200,000. This is one of the highest prices currently ever paid for an American autograph.
This is an extraordinary example of autography collection. This particular letter with George Washington’s signature had made its way back to England, and the family had squirreled it away until now. Who knows what rare gems lay within our reach?
From baseball stars to politicians, obtaining a piece of either two seconds of fame or a piece of history, collecting autographs is certainly a great pastime, and many current collectors describe it as a passion.
Autography collecting can become very costly, depending on whose autographs you wish to collect. Many signatures can be had for the asking, but you have to go through the process of obtaining them, whether by mail or in person. There is always a risk when obtaining by mail because you don’t know for sure if the autograph is authentic, but all you are out is the cost of the envelopes and stamps.
In an auction, signatures frequently go for several hundred to several thousand dollars. Here are some examples of autographs that were sold at auction. Unless noted, they are autographed pictures.
Crew of Apollo 11- $900-1,200
Charles Darwin- $10,600
John F. Kennedy (while at Choate, a letter) - $2,500
Abraham Lincoln (congratulatory note to King Christian of Denmark) - $7,500
Winston Churchill - $2,800
Marilyn Monroe (signed both as Norma Jean Dougherty and Marilyn Monroe in a letter to her agent) - $19,000
Some Tips And Tricks
For clothing, Sharpie markers seem to work best.
Ball point pens seem to be the most long lasting on baseballs.
When writing a celebrity to ask for their autograph, do some research. Mention a favorite movie, and when mentioning the movie, mention a favorite scene. Tell that baseball player how you watched him make the game-winning catch one time. Make the letter personal.
Include a self addressed stamped envelope and a pen or Sharpie. This way, all they have to do is sign and return. Make it easy for them.
Try sending baseballs you want signed to yesterday`s stars that are now coaching. Send the balls during spring training in care of the team.
Sometimes, they will ask for a donation for a pet charity in exchange for the autograph, but if it’s an autograph you really want, then it will be worth it- plus it’s a win-win situation. You benefit and the charity benefits.
For getting that celebrity’s autograph in person, here are some thoughts.
Be as respectful to everyone as possible. Remember that, like we all are, celebrities are people too. They have bad days like everyone does. They may not feel like signing every scrap of paper pushed under their noses.
The security guard who is doing his job by keeping people back does not need to be spoken to rudely.
Just as with writing the celebrity, try to know a little something about them. There is nothing more embarrassing than watching the celebrity sign the book or paper or whatever and ask- “So, what is your favorite movie?” and draw a blank.
Just because you don’t live in Hollywood or New York does not mean you can’t meet someone in person. Check the newspaper to see who is coming to town for a political rally or fundraiser. You could also check IMDB’s website to see if there are any films shooting close to where you live. Sometimes, celebrities come into town just to meet their fans and sign autographs.
When getting an autograph in person, you should bring a Sharpie with you and something for them to sign. An index card works well- collectors seem to prefer the cards with no lines. If you want to be a bit more creative, bring a CD for a singer, or a chef’s hat or apron for a celebrity chef.
Show up early to the venue! By early, two to three hours early is the best, depending on who you are trying to meet. If you are there to see a concert, this puts you there before they start their sound checks. This is a prime time to ask for an autograph. If you happen to be at a movie premiere, showing up early allows you to choose a really good spot at the barrier.
This also allows you time to find the backstage entrance and get a feel for the lay of the land. The stage door is usually located in the back of the building (hence backstage) and is usually out in the open. In the worst case scenario the backstage entrance is located underground or in a loading dock, where a limo or tour bus can actually drive into. In this case, security guards will probably stop anyone from going down to wait for autographs.
Be patient! This is key to whether you are collecting by mail or in person- you have to be prepared to wait. Unless you know someone on the inside, there is no telling when a celebrity is going to show up to the event. Even then, some celebrities will say they cannot sign before the event, but will after and that will add at least another three hours onto your wait. It’s just part of the fun- you get to meet other collectors this way and trade stories. This is also an excellent time to get advice from other collectors- they may know something about a certain celebrity whose autograph you have always wanted to collect but have been unsuccessful in doing so.
Don’t be upset if things don’t turn out the way you wanted them to. There is nothing quite so upsetting as finding out the movie star you have admired for so long, turn out to be a jerk. This doesn’t mean they all are jerks - most celebrities are very nice and willing to oblige their fans.
Care Of The Autograph
For autographs that are just on paper, or for a signed photograph, a large photo album is good for both presentation and preservation. Keep each item on its own page under the sleeve. Do not lay the albums down or stack anything on them- they should always be stored upright. The albums should always be kept away from moisture and heat- in a climate controlled room.
If the autograph is to be displayed, then there are some care tips that the collector should be aware of. When the autograph (or signed picture) is being framed, always use a heavy mat board, or double mat; the autograph should never touch the glass. Keep the autograph away from direct sunlight, or any bright light. While it may be a temptation to frame that favorite celebrity’s autograph and display it with a light shining on it, resist that temptation! Exposure to light, artificial or sunlight will fade the autograph, thus ruining it.
Taking care of clothing items or equipment, such as gloves or balls.
Some collectors take great pride in wearing their sport hero’s jersey, with the autograph on it. This decreases the value of the autograph because it is being compromised each time it is worn and washed or dry cleaned. If the autograph is for bragging rights, then by all means, enjoy the accolades of friends. If it is obtained for an investment, then special care should be taken. The jersey or other clothing item should be kept on a good hanger and stored in an airtight garment bag in a climate controlled area. It should always be kept away from sunlight or other bright light. Do not handle the garment with bare hands and wear gloves to keep the oils from your skin from damaging the autograph over time.
If the jersey is to be displayed, then take it to a professional framer, and ask them to double mat the frame with acid free mat board with non-glare glass. The autograph should not touch the glass! As with the other autographs, do not store this where it will receive direct sunlight or be under bright lights.
As for baseballs, footballs, basketballs or soccer balls, they stay nice under a square acrylic or glass cover or in a display case with doors. The same rules about light apply here, as well as temperature controlled rooms.
After a while, all things age. All paper turns yellow, and all clothing shows wear, whether it is being worn or not. Don’t worry that your prized piece is showing a little age, it will add to the authenticity of your item and it will add value to it as well.
An individual`s writing styles change throughout the lifespan of a person; a signature of President George Washington (c. 1795) will be different from one when he was an 18-year-old land surveyor. After British Admiral Nelson lost his right arm at the Tenerife sea-battle in 1797, he switched to using his left hand. However, the degree of change may vary greatly. The signatures of Washington and Lincoln changed only slightly during their adult lives, while John F. Kennedy`s signature was different virtually every time he signed.
Other factors affect an individual`s signature, including their level of education, health, and so on. Blues singer John Lee Hooker had a limited education, and such is reflected in his handwriting. Composer Charles Ives and boxer Muhammad Ali both suffered from Parkinson`s disease and their handwriting show the effects of that condition as well. Native American Chief Geronimo had no concept of an alphabet; he "drew" his signature, much like a pictograph.
Many individuals have much more fanciful signatures than their normal cursive writing, including elaborate ascenders, descanters and exotic flourishes, much as one would find in calligraphic writing
As an example, the final "k" in John Hancock`s famous signature on the United States Declaration of Independence loops back to underline his name. This kind of flourish is also known as a paraph. John Hancock`s signature on the Declaration of Independence is so unique and well-known that the phrase "John Hancock" has become a synonym for "signature" in American English, and a prominent piece of American iconography.
Autograph collecting opens up a world of fun for a lifetime. Whether you are interested in collecting the autographs yourself by standing in line outside a venue, purchasing autographed items at shows or on EBay, or intend on asking for autographs through the mail, this is a sure way to keep a piece of history with you. Collecting autographs in person is totally unpredictable and you will find yourself constantly surprised on each new autograph outing. There are so many things that can happen in the process of collecting that you can never prepare for, but that`s part of the fun. Going to shows lets you talk to other collectors, and hear their stories of how they came to be in possession of the autographed items they are offering. It also lets you see just how varied the hobby is! Just remember to be patient, persistent, and polite and you`ll go far collecting autographs.