What should I go for?
Remember the power of branding. For dead politicians that means Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and JFK in America, and Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and Churchill in Britain. Elvis Presley is the biggest brand in popular music, closely followed by the Beatles. Celebrities who die young often retain value. Among Hollywood stars, that means Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Greta Garbo lived to a ripe old age, but became a recluse and stopped signing, which is as good as dying prematurely. Heroes of the baby-boom generation, which has had the most spending power of any generation in modern times, do well. So, in addition to James Dean, Marilyn, Elvis, JFK and the Fab Four, Walt Disney’s signature has been
a reliable investment.
What sort of returns can one expect?
Well, signed photos of Diana, Princess of Wales, rose by 19.6 per cent a year between 2000 and 2011. During the same period, items signed by JFK went up by 13.75 per cent, and items signed by all four Beatles went up by 14.3 per cent. But one of the best returns was on items signed by astronaut Neil Armstrong — 24.2 per cent a year.
What makes one autograph more valuable than another of the same person?
The most investment-worthy items are those with special content or attributes. For example, the signature of Hollywood star Clark Gable on a contract to play in one of his less well-known films has much less value than his signature on a contract to play in Gone With the Wind, which for many years held the record as the most successful film ever at the box office. A letter from the Queen Mother in which she comments patronisingly about Labour voters in 1945 (‘Everyone seems restless and disgruntled, I suppose that the high hopes of a socialist heaven on earth are beginning to fade a little — poor people, so many half-educated and bemused. I do love them’) is worth vastly more than a mere thank-you letter.
Where should one go to buy autographs?
The autographs on eBay tend to be overpriced at the high end. Fraser’s Autographs, a subsidiary of the long-established stamp dealer Stanley Gibbons, offer a lifetime guarantee of authenticity. For royal autographed items, the pre-eminent specialist is Argyll Etkin, based in St James’s. For most categories of celebrity, there is International Autograph Auctions. Adam Andrusier Autographs specialises in photographs or letters signed by artists, writers and other cultural figures of recognised historical importance.
What about overseas?
Markus Brandes Autographs, a German merchant, carries most categories, but specialises in Formula 1 drivers. And you could try Heritage Auctions, based in Houston, Texas, which is the world’s largest auctioneer of autographs and other collectibles.
Even 50 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe is unlikely to be topped as a female icon. It is worth paying good money for a premium Monroe item. Paul Fraser, of Paul Fraser Collectibles, believes that Muhammad Ali is massively undervalued and that when he dies the value of his autographs will surge.