Once a popular hobby, collecting autographs has become a big business -- all the more so in recent months, with record prices paid for rare autographs at auction.
The sad truth is, as in any pursuit where lots of money can be involved, the crooks are nearby.
"If you are going to collect autographs -- or do any collecting of anything, not just autographs -- you must do research," says Bob Eaton, owner of R&R Enterprises in Amherst, N.H., one of the country's best known autograph dealers. "Don't take anybody's word that they're honest. That includes me. Do the research so you'll know what you're getting into."
Eaton notes that there are many forged autographs making the rounds -- to the dismay of the would-be collector.
"We hear from people who bought a Marilyn Monroe or a Babe Ruth for half of what it should be," he explains. "We tell them that they've gotten a forgery. Then they try to find some other unsuspecting person to sell it to, and the cycle continues."
There is potential to make money in autographs. A Theodore Roosevelt autograph worth $100 just a few years ago now brings more than twice that amount. Yet, as is true in all kinds of collecting, the value of an autograph is what someone will pay for it.
Pablo Picasso was well aware of people's fascination with autographs. After his fame was established, he paid for everything by check. Only rarely would one of the checks be cashed -- merchants would rather keep the piece of paper bearing the famous signature.
Autographs, as well as original manuscripts and historic documents, are subject to the whims of fashion. Prices can and do go down.
An example might be a very popular performer. Once the performer's star has dimmed, so will the value of his or her autograph decline.
In addition, there are autographs that might seem very valuable -- but aren't.
"A good example is J. Edgar Hoover," says Eaton. "He lived a long time, was famous for a long time and signed everything." Because Hoover was free with his signature and was famous, nobody ever threw away his autograph. The result is an autograph market flooded with J. Edgar Hoovers.
Another problem is the autographs of recent presidents. Ronald Reagan, as an example, made a point during his administration of mailing a birthday card to each American on his or her 100th birthday. These cards are nice keepsakes, but, to the autograph collector, says Eaton, "they are totally without value. For years now, the White House has used a signature machine." The President signs his name once, and thereafter routine correspondence is fed into the machine, which duplicates the signature perfectly.
"A lot of people have been disappointed by this, but it's true -- those signatures are of no collector value."
Investing in signatures is not wise if you're looking for what we normally think of as investments. Other, more traditional instruments will bring greater return with much less risk.
But it can pay off in a completely different way. If you have an interest in a particular facet of history -- aviation, perhaps, or the dance, or military affairs -- then collecting autographs of important figures in your area of interest can make your studies all the more real. Younger students may well bring more passion to a subject if they can look at and hold a piece of paper actually written upon by one of history's heroes.
Autograph collecting for profit is much trickier. Such capital gains as you might make on your purchases become paltry wages when spread over the amount of time spent in learning about autographs in order to make money consistently.