Be specific and be prepared before signing on as collector

May 27, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach

Perhaps more than any other hobby, autograph collecting can be a difficult, if not downright intimidating, field for the beginner. dTC Forgeries abound, and the variety of autographs to be collected seems almost endless -- a lot of famous people over the years have signed their names.

Some basic rules: the cheapest autograph is just that, a plain autograph on a piece of paper, maybe cut off a letter or other document. Checks and letters are more desirable -- letters especially, depending on their content (a letter from Judy Garland asking that someone pick up her laundry would not be nearly as valuable as one in which she discussed whether she truly enjoyed playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz). When possible, autographed photos can be valuable, and also make for the nicest display.

James Lowe, a New York City autograph dealer, says beginning collectors should pick a specific subject -- movies, authors, Civil War figures, signers of the Declaration of Independence, whatever -- and pick the brains of someone already in the field.

Collectors, he says, should specialize in "what interests them, what type of people they hold as ideals."

Charles Searle, a dealer from Asheville, N.C., says collectors need to figure out how much they can afford to spend, then concentrate on quality over quantity.

"Try to buy the best piece you can afford," he says. "Don't buy an autograph if you can buy a nice letter. Don't buy a nice letter if you can afford a nice photograph."

As for forgeries, "the rule for the general public is, buy from dealers you know and trust," dealer Nate Sanders says. "Don't buy from the flea market dealers, because you're liable to get burnt."

Mr. Lowe, who has been selling autographs for a quarter-century, says he will often do considerable research to establish a signature's authenticity. If for example, a letter from Ulysses S. Grant is dated Sept. 4, 1866, in New York City, he'll try to find out if the Union general and 18th president of the United States really was in New York at the time.

There are also tricks of the signing trade collectors should know. Many famous people use rubber stamps or autopens -- electronic contraptions that can inscribe a signature thousands of times. Valentino, Mr. Sanders says, used rubber stamps a lot, while Richard Nixon was big on the autopen, making his autograph probably the most difficult to obtain among modern presidents.

Jean Harlow presents her own unique problem. Most autographed photos of the actress, who died of uremic poisoning in 1937, were actually signed by her mother. Jean Harlow's autograph, noticeably sloppier than her mom's, will cost you about $3,000 if it's on a photograph, $1,000 if it's just on slip of paper. But a Mom-signed picture can be had for $50- $100 -- provided its new owner doesn't mind owning a second-hand Jean.

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