If you’ve recently scribbled your name on a screen with your finger, you know that signatures aren’t what they used to be. The right signatures, however, can be worth quite a bit — either in money or in memories.
As with anything collectible, an autograph’s value is whatever price you can negotiate with a buyer. Other factors are important, too — the condition of the autograph, what it’s written on, and, most importantly, who wrote it.
If you’re thinking of starting an autograph collection, or just wondering how much your autograph collection is worth, you’re going to have to do some research. And if you decide to sell your autographs, you’ll have to figure out the best way to do that. Whether you choose to keep your autographs or sell them, it’s an intriguing hobby for anyone.
What makes a valuable autograph?
Even though digital signatures are making inroads, people make physical autographs every day: on important documents, such as mortgages; on personal letters and business correspondence; and on sports and entertainment memorabilia, from balls to movie posters. You may find your grandmother’s signature valuable because it reminds you of her. If your grandmother happened to be Amelia Earhart or Eleanor Roosevelt, that signature also may be worth some money.
The most important factor in valuing a signature is the person who made the autograph — the more iconic the individual, the more the autograph can be worth. One of the most valuable autographs, for example, is on George Washington's copy of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which sold in 2012 for $9.8 million. After that, it's all a matter of degree: Anything signed by President Abraham Lincoln is probably worth more than something signed by President Chester A. Arthur. Similarly, something signed by Yankees slugger Babe Ruth is probably worth more than something signed by Washington Senators first baseman Frank Howard.
A simple autograph on a piece of paper is generally worth less than an autograph with a picture, a letter or piece of physical equipment, such as a baseball or guitar. A check signed by Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia is currently on sale for about $5,000 at HollywoodMemorabilia.com. A vinyl copy of the Dead’s first album with Garcia’s signature is on sale for about $36,000.
There are plenty of other factors that determine an autograph’s worth:
- Condition. Cracks, folds and stains in a letter could reduce an autograph’s value. And an autograph made in ink is probably more valuable than one made with pencil, because ink tends to fade less over time. Even an autograph’s placement on a photo matters: If the signature is hard to see on a dark part of the photo, it’s worth less than one where the autograph is plainly visible.
- Significance. A letter signed by Albert Einstein ordering wine is probably worth less than one explaining the Theory of Relativity, says Nestor Masckauchan, founder of Tamino Autographs in New York City. “Content makes a huge difference in letters,” he says. Similarly, a letter from Einstein to fellow physicist Enrico Fermi is probably more valuable than a letter from Einstein to the electric company.
- Rarity. Supply and demand are factors in autograph prices as much as in stocks and potatoes. Some celebrities and sports stars were generous with autographs; others were not, or didn’t live long enough to sign many autograph books. Some famous people, such as President John Kennedy, often had other people sign letters for them, and those letters are not worth much. “Some people say that because it was authorized by him, it still counts,” Masckauchan says. “But there is no such thing as a half-authentic signature.”
- Demand. Currently, there’s a brisk market for autographs from entertainers, sports stars, artists, politicians and astronauts, according to Heritage Auctions. World of Autographs says that autographs of current stars such as Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill are popular among collectors; autographs of rock stars like Eddie Van Halen, Pink, Rihanna and Lady Gaga also do well. (Autographs of anyone involved in Star Trek and Star Wars are in big demand, too.)
How much is it worth?
Just because an autograph on eBay is listed at $5,000 doesn’t mean that the autograph is worth $5,000. It just means that the seller hasn’t yet convinced anyone it’s worth $5,000. In most cases, you’re better off looking at realized prices for autographs, which gives you what someone actually paid for them. Famed auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie's, for example, give out realized prices after major auctions. Subscription-based WorthPoint and Invaluable also have databases of realized autograph prices.
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You can also go to an appraiser, who will give you an estimate, if you’re just curious about an autograph’s value. The appraiser will also give you some idea of whether the autograph is authentic. “Usually you can get a quick opinion for $30 or $40,” Masckauchan says.
If you want to sell your autograph, you can try an autograph dealer or contact an auction house. A dealer will give you an offer, typically 33 to 45 percent or so below what they think they can sell it for, Masckauchan says. That's how the dealer makes money. You should get estimates from several dealers if you want to sell it. The main advantage of going to a dealer: You'll get your cash quickly.
You can also try an auction house, such as Christie's. You have the possibility of getting more than a dealer would offer, but also the chance of getting less. Either way, the auction house will take a cut as a commission — typically, anywhere between 20 to 30 percent. You can also try online auction houses, such as eBay, which will charge a minimum 10 percent fee of your final price.
John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.