Investing in Autographs – A Beginner's Guide

How many of us have at some time in the past met someone famous, but never asked for their autograph? Did you know that many famous peoples signatures can be worth hundreds of £ 's? so are you now thinking, perhaps I should have asked them after all?

My own collection started when I was just 14 years old, and today, 45 years later, I still collect, but now with my eye firmly on the investment value.

During those years we 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 will be professional collectors, who are only interested in the profit to be made, as the market has increased tremendously over the last 15 years to over £ 20,000,000 in 2011

The value of some of these autographs has risen well above the rate of inflation of the time, and with interest rates now at an all time low (Dec 2011), it makes sense to look for alternative investments, and autographs is certainly one that should be considered.

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.

The real investment potential comes when the demand for a signature increases, 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!). Everest Conqueror Edmund Hilary's signature for example used to sell at around £ 15 before he passed away, but now you may need to perhaps pay £ 70 plus and they continue to rise in value.

Current names to invest in would include the UK's first female Prime Minster 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 space firsts.

Look out for people that have really achieved something that has been recognised the world over, Roger Bannister and the first sub 4 minute mile for example. These can currently be found for often less than £ 30 but keep in mind the current price of Sir Edmund Hilary!

The value of a signature can vary greatly dependent on what the signature is on, the size of the item, condition, and of course if it is dedicated to you or someone else. 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. Condition is always important, and as with everything, the better condition it is in, the more its worth.

Authenticity is or course of paramount importance and you can help to 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 knowledgable dealer.

Some associations such as AFTAL or PADA only accept established dealers, and have some very strict membership rules, and 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 their relevant websites, so do not take the dealers word for it that they are members, alway s check first! And if they are members of nothing? Well I will leave you to make up your own mind on that one! Just remember that if a sale goes wrong for any reason. you may find yourself on your own when trying to get a refund. If the dealer is a member of a recognised association, then you have a much better chance of resolving the problem.

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 celeb's and learning more about their signing habits, the paper and pens used etc. It can be a real minefield, but it can be very worthwhile.

One thing you need to be very careful with is 'provenance' as many well meaning people will tell you that this is all important, but its not, as most of the provenance offered with autographs is of no real value whatsoever, and is very rarely 'proof' of any authenticity. In fact most provenance is simply a story and no more. "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" Certainly the Beatles played that venue in 1963, but that snippet of information can 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 the signatures must be genuine as it contains others minor names from the same period? Well that autograph book could have easily been purchased on eBay for £ 20 with the seller adding the Beatles signatures himself. It's a very simple scam that fools the uneducated every week. So education is the key here, and only experience can provide that education.

Real provenance for autographs can only mean a good and provable link from one good 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 its doubtful that several would make the same error of perhaps passing on an Autopen signature for example as authentic. Watch out here though for auction lables on items as 'proof' that they have been through Christies or elsewhere, as sometimes these labels have simply been printed on a home computer and stuck on later.

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 a 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 its 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, and very importantly, this should always have their full contact details on, but never by 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.

The autograph market is very much driven by nostalgia, and in turn demand. So 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, first date, their youth, and so many important 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.