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Collectible autographs are worth a lot

Autograph collecting attracts a huge following, making it a lucrative investment strategy. Experts say, though, that a collector who's chasing profit won't be as successful as one who's driven by passion.

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Potential collectors can now search online for once hard-to-locate signatures. But while finding your favorite's autograph may be easier, it's also much more likely you'll shell out for a bogus one.

Six years ago, a special task force formed by the FBI to investigate autograph forgeries placed the value of celebrity and sports frauds at a half-billion dollars and growing. Today it's estimated that anywhere from 80 percent to 90 percent of autographs -- including historical ones -- are phony.

That doesn't mean everyone who sells a fake autograph is a crook -- although there are plenty out there. For those who sell and buy autographs through online auctions such as eBay, it's sometimes a matter of not knowing enough about a person's autograph to distinguish the real McCoy from the fake.

Serious collectors make sure their autographs meet high standards upfront, but that doesn't mean lower-end collectors can't also weigh the authenticity of their purchases. That's important, given the value some autographs reach in resale.

The going price for famous signatures
   
John F. Kennedy
A rare signature from President John Fitzgerald Kennedy such as this one is highly prized. Despite hundreds of documents purporting to bear his scrawl, JFK rarely signed unofficial documents in person. Instead, an army of secretaries and autopens stood in for him. JFK's Secret Service detail always carried a few blank checks personally signed by the president in case the need for one arose. This particular check, which is in excellent condition, was with him on Nov. 22, 1963, the day he was assassinated.
Courtesy of the Museum of American Finance, NYC
 
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Ink, deception and murder
Autograph collecting may seem as pulse-pounding as knitting, but it can be steeped in deception and intrigue, as in the case of antiques dealer Mark Hofmann. In the 1980s Hofmann started a chain of events that eventually led to two murders and the unmasking of one of the most successful and skilled forgers in American history.

Hofmann, a lapsed member of the Mormon church who lived in Salt Lake City, sold a number of pricey historical forgeries to the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and private clients. Among his most successful forgeries -- a "new" poem attributed to Emily Dickinson, was later declared fraudulent.

When Hofmann ran into financial difficulties, he tried to extricate himself by killing two people. His plot was unmasked when a bomb he had been constructing exploded, wounding him. In a subsequent investigation, police discovered his forgery materials, and Hofmann received recognition for what he was -- a very proficient forger.

Ironically, Hofmann's forgeries became collectible as a result of his notoriety. Hofmann was convicted of murder and is serving life in prison, but his forgeries live on -- as does the suspicion that anything he sold might be a forgery.

Famous signatures: good investments?
Rex Hall, author of a book about early Russian space efforts and a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, is an expert on astronaut and cosmonaut signatures. Hall says few start collecting autographs for the investment value. "It started as a hobby for many, but has turned into an investment opportunity," Hall says. "The difficulty is understanding what is rare or unusual."

 
 
Next: "Value lies in the rare and unusual."
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