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Tracking Down Genuine Autographs

While autographs are most closely associated with signatures, the term actually refers to handwritten documents.

Collecting autographs, or philography, has been a popular hobby for centuries.

Many autographs are quite valuable due to the fame, notoriety or popularity of the signer. In 1992, a Lincoln autograph dated a month before his death sold for $1.3 million.

Value of autographs can ebb and wane with the fame and fortune of the signer.

John Hancock Autograph
John Hancock Autograph
The authenticity of autographs can be difficult to determine. There is a large market in frauds, and collectors have to be very careful, especially with currently "hot" signatures.

Signing machines and high quality computer printers can make it close to impossible to determine authenticity.

Context of the Autographs

The autographs reproduced on this page are copied from official documents signed by John Hancock and Abraham Lincoln.

To some people owning the signature by itself is acceptable. For some old and very famous autographs, there may no longer be a choice.

Others prefer to have the signature affixed to something, like a photo or a letter.

Handwritten letters with a famous signature can be much more attractive to collectors than just an autograph by itself.

Also don't overlook somewhat unusual contexts for autographs

There used to be a time when Presidents would actually sign military commissions, discharge papers and other such documents.

If you like to collect real signatures of the old time "robber barons" look to some of the early stock certificates of the companies they founded, like Standard Oil. Read more about collecting stock certificates.

In Person Autographs

To many collectors, the best autographs are those that they collected in person.

Depending on the celebrity, this may range from easy to nearly impossible.

For example, many science fiction actors, directors and novelists regularly visit sci-fi conventions. Autograph signings are frequently a part of the festivities, allowing you to meet your favorite stars and collect their autographs for the price of a ticket to the convention and some of your time.

Novelists and other writers, some of whom can be quite famous - such as ex-presidents pushing their autobiographies - tend to do book signing tours, which may net you an autograph for only the price of a copy of the book and a long wait in line.

Of late, baseball stars have been signing balls and other memorabilia at sports shows - for a price.

(Some of them wound up in deep trouble with the IRS for forgetting about they money they earned doing this, which was, in many cases, quite substantial.

On the other hand, it may be next to impossible to get close to a major movie star or public official. Legions of fans tend to camp out in locations where they have heard a star will be, only to be pushed back by the celebrity's security team before he or she exits the building.

Autograph Collecting by Mail

Lincoln Autograph
Lincoln Autograph

Some collectors have had reasonable success in receiving autographs by simply writing to the celebrity and asking. It is usually recommended that you send a 3x5 index card or small photograph of the celebrity along with a one page letter and a self addressed, stamped envelope.

Be cautious of sending gifts or unusual items to be signed, however, as celebrities are increasingly concerned over the possibility of stalking and booby trapped packages.

Keep your letter short and professional, and avoid being too personal.

Unfortunately, if you do get something back, you can't really be sure if the autograph was not made by machine or a minion with a knack for duplicating the celebrity's signature.

Autograph Dealers

There are many legitimate autograph dealers working out of storefronts and over the internet.

However, frauds make their way into the market on a daily basis.

Before shelling out a lot of cash for an autograph, have the piece authenticated by a third party. Do not accept the word or written authentication of the dealer unless you have specific reason to trust him or her.

Be especially skeptical of autographs sold by individuals online. Although many of these are legitimate, a number of fakes have been reported.

Autopens, Proxy Signing and Rubber Stamps

Celebrities are extremely busy, and usually overwhelmed with mail. They may use numerous methods to help relieve the burden of signing autographs.

An Autopen is a mechanical device that can mimic any signature.

Presidents and astronauts are among the groups most commonly known to use these devices.

Rubber stamps are an older technology, easier to detect, and are less common today.

Proxy signing occurs when someone close to the celebrity is authorized to sign in his or her stead. While proxy signatures look extremely similar to the celebrity's own autograph, many are not even close.

Compare the autograph in question to a known copy of the celebrity's actual autograph.

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, fraud is rampant in this field and, since many get away with it, it has become a major problem.

The more valuable the signature the more caution must be exercised. Do not hesitate to contact an expert before shelling out lots of money.

Another issue is value. If a ballplayer is signing hundreds of balls a week, how much is the autograph worth even if it is genuine?

If you are dealing with established dealers and auction houses, they should be able to give you proof of authenticity and even a provenance for the autograph. They should also have an idea of how many other similiar autographs are on the market.

But, it can be a daunting task for even the best experts to determine whether an autograph is legitimate.

Before buying or selling a high-dollar autograph, it is always best to have it authenticated by an expert.

Collecting autographs can be an exciting hobby, but remember that the only way to be 100% certain that an autograph is legitimate is to collect it yourself from your favorite star.

[Read this Wall Street Journal article about a collection of old checks found in a bank vault that includes a check written by Abraham Lincoln the day before he was killed, as well as checks signed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other presidents and famous figures. Some pictures are included with the article.]

Autographs on eBay

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