Boy collects autographs. Boy sells autographs. Now man's in business. What's in a Name?

May 27, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

Los Angeles -- In 1990, Nate Sanders took the 12-year-old autograph business he'd been running from his Pikesville home and headed for California. No one exactly told him to "Go west, young man," but if you're running a business that depends on the rich and famous, it makes sense to hang out where they do.

"I figured there would be more business out here," he says, decked out in an L.A. business suit -- blue jeans, striped cotton shirt and no socks. "I wanted to get away from home and I liked L.A. My nights in Baltimore were filled with trips to the Fair Lanes, where here you can do something more exciting."

Today, Nate's Autographs employs six people, operates out of a fourth-floor apartment a few miles from Beverly Hills and sells about $1 million worth of autographs a year. Not bad for a 21-year-old guy who never went to college.

Of course, he gets a lot of help -- from people like Abraham Lincoln, the Wright Brothers, Rudolph Valentino, Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein and scores of others who were considerate enough to sign their names a few thousand times, as well as those customers willing to spend thousands of dollars to obtain what it took these famous people seconds to create.

For Nate Sanders, his association with the autograph business began when he was still in elementary school. Using a cousin's book of celebrity addresses, he wrote to a handful of stars and ended up with autographs of Lillian Carter, Mel Blanc, Jimmy Stewart and others.

Mr. Sanders hasn't looked back.

"I was just always into it," he says from his apartment in the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood, trying to explain what made him decide to make a living from other people's penmanship. "As a kid, I could make relatively good dollars.

If you're a 13-year-old and you're going to a show and you're making $200 in a day, that's darn good."

'Most complete collection'

His parents, who still live in Pikesville, can't quite explain their son's avocation. But he's always been a collector -- including an early brush with "Star Wars" figurines -- and always seemed driven to have a better collection than anyone else.

"If he was to get involved in it, he had to get the best and most involved and most complete collection," says Hildagarde Sanders, who teaches biology at Villa Julie College. "Whatever little boys collected at the time, he had to have the best."

His father, Elli, a science teacher at Pikesville Middle School, says he encouraged Nathan to write away for celebrity autographs, but admits to an ulterior motive. "I thought that was a good idea, so he could become familiar with writing, communicating with the written word," says the elder Mr. Sanders, who subsidized those initial forays by contributing a nickel toward each stamp.

Are they surprised by their son's success? "Yeah, I think anyone would be surprised," Mrs. Sanders says. "When a kid goes out and is on his own, you wonder how he's going to do. I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been a problem."

Easy-entry hobby

While not on a level with such burgeoning hobbies as comic books or sports memorabilia, autographs occupy a comfortable niche in the world of collecting. Hard-core hobbyists may be hard to find, but almost everyone owns an autograph or two, whether it's a Cal Ripken obtained after standing outside the gates of Camden Yards for a few hours or the Franklin Roosevelt handed down by a grandfather.

A hobbyists' group, the Universal Autograph Collectors Club, boasts a national membership of 1,700. Earlier this month, the UACC sponsored a show and sale at the Sheraton Inner Harbor -- one of 12 such shows it is sponsoring this year around the country. About a dozen dealers showed up, selling everything from a $10 Jaclyn Smith to a $1,000 Greta Garbo and beyond.

The money can be impressive. According to a recent article in Newsweek, the going rate for a George Washington signature is $6,500. James Dean's scrawl can fetch $2,950, probably tops among entertainment figures. Mark Twain would cost a collector around $1,500.

Mr. Sanders sold his first autograph at age 10, through the same cousin who had gotten him hooked in the first place. But he soon gave up the hobby in favor of the profit.

"I don't collect anymore," he says. "I always found that to be a conflict of interest. Whenever I tried to hold stuff back, I'd always have to end up selling it, because there would be someone who would want it and it would be ridiculous to hold onto it. You would start keeping more than you were selling and you would be out of business."

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