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This is a question we hear collectors asking all the time, and it’s not an easy one to answer as it depends so much on so many different things.
Let’s take a look at each of these separately by starting with whose signature it is.
Some people are very well known and may have been great signers in their day, they may well have been household names, but what did they achieve and were they known the world over? Many of the names we see in old autograph books were certainly well known in their day, and may well have been household names, but were they known the world over? Max Bygraves and Tommy Trinder were certainly household names here in the UK, but virtually unknown anywhere else, appearing mainly on TV and Radio, which greatly diminishes their value, with today’s value being only a few £’s
Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne on the other hand were also household names, but were known the world over and made films that are still shown today, and as a consequence are worth a great deal more.
Then again, names such as Jonas Salk and Nikola Tesla are not well known at all, but because they contributed to the world in a different way, can be worth hundreds of £’s. If you don’t know either of these two names, then perhaps you should consult Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as they can help you answers to all your questions!
Which brings us on to rarity value. Max and Tommy were both great signers as they often appeared in theatre around the country, so their signatures are common. Marilyn and John Wayne were the opposite, mainly appearing in films with much fewer in the way of public appearances. This then makes their signatures much rarer, and because of their world wide success and their films still being shown today, their values are much higher.
How good is the signature? Some people have more than one signature, others have a signature that never varies at all. Many modern day stars often scribble anything at all just to satisfy the demand, whilst others will take a little time to create something memorable when adding their autograph to your book or photo. The better the signature, the more it will be worth, and its worth remembering this when collecting in person and can sometimes be worth asking the signer to add something to it, his world record time, or his favourite song title etc.
What is the autograph signed on? For obvious reasons a large format quality photograph taken by a famous photographer and signed by the star, will command a much higher price than a quick signature scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet! But at the same time, just because a signature is on something unusual may make it rarer, but not always more valuable, which reminds us of a Tommy Cooper* sketch which goes something like this…”I went up into the attic the other day and found a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt............ Unfortunately Stradivarius was a terrible painter and Rembrandt made lousy violins” So do you really want a Violin signed by Rembrandt or a painting signed by Stradivarius? Just because it’s on something unusual, may well make it rare, but that does not always make it more valuable, but swap those signatures around and suddenly you’re a very rich man!
What is the demand? The signature could be rare undedicated and on a perfect condition photo of the person who has signed it, but unless you can find someone who collects autographs of Monumental Stone Masons of the 19th century, you are not going to make much profit on it!
Dedication? A dedication is when the item is signed to someone ‘To John, all my love Marilyn’ and in almost every case, this will be worth less than one which is undedicated. Unless of course it’s on a photo of Marilyn Monroe!
Condition? Well obviously the better the condition of the item, the more value it has. It’s not uncommon to see signatures that have faded away due to the effects of the sun (UV light, and you can find out more about this in our ‘storage guides’) or photographs which have been trimmed down to fit a frame (never be tempted to trim an item, you are only devaluing it!).
In addition, one mans definition of perfect, is another man’s not worth adding to the collection! Whist many sellers will also use the word ‘rare’ to describe the most common of autographs, and ‘valuable’ to create the illusion that the item is worth much more than it really is.
*For those of you who are outside of the UK, Tommy Cooper was a very well known TV and stage comedy magician. He was the kind of performer who only had to walk on stage to get a laugh, and you really have to see his comedy to understand it, as simply reading that line about the Stradivarius and the Rembrandt is not that funny on its own, but put it in the hands of a natural funny talent such as Tommy and its comedy gold. You can find plenty about Tommy on the web, or simply ask any Englishman over the age of about 45 to do an impression of Tommy and you will instantly bring a smile to their face, as Tommy was a one off and could make just about anyone laugh without even telling a joke.
Sadly, Tommy died on stage live on peak time TV in 1984.