While some celebrities’ autographs can sell for thousands and are highly collectible, others aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. Here’s the lowdown on who’s on today’s most wanted list and whether to invest in this growing market.
Collecting autographs might seem like the domain of obsessive music, film or sports fans, but it can be an extremely lucrative investment.
Anyone lucky enough to own a top-quality signed photo of a 20th-century icon – the likes of Muhammad Ali, Neil Armstrong, a member of The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe or Elvis, for example – could sell it today for anything between £2,000 and £11,000.
Prices for many famous names – dead or alive – continue to climb and new trends are emerging with buyers across the world eager to hold their own piece of history.
But if this type of alternative investment piques your interest, it pays to tread with care. In a market flooded with fakes, do your homework and only buy from trusted dealers.
Daniel Wade, manager at Paul Fraser Collectibles in Bristol, a specialist in stamps, autographs and memorabilia, says if you go looking for celebrity autographs on auction website eBay, 99% of the time they will be fakes.
“You need to know exactly who you’re dealing with – whether you are buying or selling,” he says. “Always use a reputable dealer with a long and proven track record and certificates of authentication. If you are buying online, make sure the dealer lists their full address and contact details.”
Mr Wade says alarm bells should ring if a dealer can’t provide this information. There are a number of trade associations – The Universal Autograph Collectors Club (Uacc.org), Professional Autograph Dealers Association (Padaweb.org), Autograph Fair Trade Association (Aftal.org.uk) and Real Autograph Collectors Club (Racctrusted.com). These websites have lists of registered dealers (look for registered dealers not just members). If you’re ever in any doubt about a seller, then walk away.
However, for investors who take the right approach and buy wisely there can be rich rewards.
Mr Wade says ‘blue chip’ names will stand the test of time: “There will always be demand for iconic figures in history, particularly someone who died young or didn’t sign many autographs.”
Paul Fraser Collectibles’ PFC40 Autograph Index tracks the value of 40 of the world’s most sought-after signatures since the year 2000, including Princess Diana, JF Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Jimi Hendrix, Nelson Mandela and Walt Disney.
On average, these names have grown in value by 11.7% a year (compound interest) since that time – a healthy return.
The index tracks the value of excellent quality signed photographs (usually 8 x 10 inches), books and magazines, sold by dealers and at auction.
It is not just the obvious ‘classic’ celebrities of music and film whose autographs are in high demand. The most valuable signature in the index is a magazine signed by Steve Jobs, which is worth £40,000 – up around 14% in the past year and up from £500 in 2000.
Mr Wade explains that the Apple founder was notoriously reluctant to sign autographs. This, combined with his early death in 2011 and the iconic status of the Apple brand, makes his signature extremely rare and highly valuable.
Another rapid riser is Stephen Hawking. The physicist’s signature was the best performer of 2018 according to the index – rising 100% from £15,000 to £30,000.
There are few genuine Stephen Hawking autographs as the scientist’s motor neurone disease left him unable to write. He sometimes used thumb-print signatures, and demand for both these and his earlier signature has soared since his death in March 2018.
Nostalgia for the ’80s and ’90s
Demand is also growing for celebrity autographs from the 1980s and 1990s.
Mr Wade says: “Those who grew up listening to Kurt Cobain, Madonna and Michael Jackson are now in their 30s and 40s with money to spend,” he explains. “Many are nostalgic for the past and are looking for this type of signed memorabilia.”
Likewise, the signatures of Princes William and Harry have risen in value as demand has soared. Royal protocol, which prevents the Royal Family signing autographs, means there are few royal signatures in public circulation. Anyone lucky enough to get hold of one could be sitting on a gold mine. A quality signed photo of Prince William would sell for about £2,750, while Harry’s could fetch about £2,000. A Princess Diana signed photo could sell for up to £10,000, according to the PFC40 Index.
Dealers can charge 25% to 35% commission to sell an autograph for you via their contacts or by auction.
Long-established dealer Garry King says he is also seeing similar trends. He runs Autographs.co.uk. As well as dealing in autographs, it offers an authentication services (letters of authentication start from about £30). He is often called as an expert witness in fraud cases, helping Trading Standards and the police to stop criminals selling fakes.
“As the traditional fan base is diminishing for some of the iconic Hollywood and rock and pop names of the mid-20th century, we are seeing demand rise for new names,” he says.
Mr King owns a Michael Jackson autograph, signed on a letterhead from Hamleys toy shop in London. A security guard got the autograph when she was asked to escort the singer around the shop during one of his notorious shopping sprees.
Demand for Jackson’s autograph started to climb after his death in 2009. The security guard sold it to the ‘Posh Pawnbrokers’ in the Channel Four television series in 2015. Mr King, who was working as one of the experts for the show, bought it for £400.
While it is now worth about £800, its value may drop once the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, with its allegations of child sexual abuse, is aired more widely.
Mr King adds: “Any type of scandal – whether proven or not – does affect demand and an autograph’s value. When Rolf Harris was convicted [of indecent assault], it was hard to find a buyer at any price, though they have recovered a bit now.”
Autograph expert Garry King
Don’t let your assets fade away
It is important to look after your investment – sunlight, dust and moisture pose a threat as they can fade or damage your autograph.
Mr King recommends storing autographs in polyester sleeves and only one photo or autograph per sleeve. This is because other types of PVC and plastic sleeves contain chemicals and acids that will damage your photo and autograph over time. Speak to a dealer for storage advice.
If you want to display your autograph, Mr King advises the use of UV filter glass and keeping the frame out of direct sunlight.
Paul Drummond, owner of specialist shop Pleasures of Past Times in central London, which stocks memorabilia and autographs, says signed books are often a good investment, particularly if they have a personal dedication between two famous figures. In contrast, personal dedications – both in books and on signed photographs – are usually worth much less than undedicated autographs.
He says: “I’ve seen unique books come up for sale signed by one person to another, such as John Lennon to Frank Zappa. I have a 1967 poetry book dedicated by William S Burroughs to Ira Cohen in which he writes, ‘Remember Gnaoua?’. This is the pink literary pamphlet Ira Cohen published in Tangier in 1964. A copy of Gnaoua featured on the cover of Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home album. Small dedications such as this add interest and value.”
Footballers fail to deliver
One area to avoid is contemporary footballers. Mr King will not authenticate footballers’ autographs, signed shirts or boots, with a limited number of exceptions such as icons Bobby Moore and George Best.
He says: “With so many players in today’s game, it can be difficult to authenticate their names. Many players change their signature, and some just use a squiggle or scrawl.
“When it comes to sell-on value, problems can also arise because footballers move around different clubs. If you have an autographed Manchester United shirt and your favourite player leaves for Chelsea, this could instantly reduce the value of that Man United memorabilia.”
Mr Drummond says one of the best things about collecting autographs is the stories behind them, adding: “Buy it because it means something to you and not just in the hope of making money. And if in doubt, wait. There should be no pressure from dealers who value their reputation.”
Paul McCartney is the most valuable signature of a living celebrity, at £2,950.
Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, Kurt Cobain and Barack Obama have been among the top-performing autographs over the past 12 months.
A signed photo with all four of The Beatles’ signatures can sell for £29,500.
A John Lennon signed photo was worth around £1,000 in 2000 and sells today for closer to £10,000.
A JK Rowling signed Harry Potter book is worth £2,250.
Source: PFC40 Index, Justcollecting.com
“My Neil Armstrong autograph is now worth around £3,000”
Garry King's Neil Armstrong autograph
Space has proven particularly lucrative for Garry King in his own personal autograph collection. He bought a signed lithograph of moon-walker Neil Armstrong, part of the famous Apollo 11 crew, from a collector about three years ago. Unusually it is signed in green marker pen and is undedicated. Many signed photos by Neil Armstrong are personally dedicated, so are worth less than undedicated autographs.
Mr King says: “If you had written to Armstrong before 1992 and asked for an autograph, you would most likely have got one of these in return – typically personally dedicated. Although he did on occasion send out undedicated ones like this.
“It was always his first job in the morning to sign all the items his secretary had lined up before he got down to any work,” he adds.
“But he stopped signing in 1992 when he realised people were simply asking for autographs to sell them on.”
Mr King paid £1,500 for the piece and estimates it is now worth around £3,000. A good quality signed photo with all of the Apollo 11 crew – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – could fetch up to £10,000.
JO THORNHILL is a freelance personal finance journalist who writes for the Mail on Sunday and This is Money
Mohammad Ali wedding invite signed by him and Veronica
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