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How to succeed at collecting autographs

Your better half's birthday is coming up and you come across the perfect gift on an online auction site: an autographed photo of his or her favorite movie star or baseball player. And what a bargain! Only $15 plus shipping, with a certificate of authenticity. What do you have to lose?

Try $15 and your shipping costs.

Chances are, if it's a megawatt star, authentic signatures will sell high. But you aren't going to get an original signed Hank Aaron or Barbra Streisand for a pittance.

What about the certificate of authenticity -- doesn't that mean the item is genuine? Anyone can certify a signature, but only a true expert can authenticate a signature. Joe Orlando, president of PSA/DNA Authentication Services, says it's vital to have the signature authenticated by a third party.

"If I say the item's authentic and grade it on quality and I'm the seller, there's a problem," Orlando says.

PSA, which stands for Professional Sports Authenticator, specializes in sports signatures. Orlando says some signatures, such as a good quality Babe Ruth single-signed baseball, can fetch upward of $100,000 -- out of reach for the average collector. But collectors can still pick up good items that will increase in value for a very small investment.

Getting the real deal
Autograph collectors who want assurance their signatures are the real deal have few options. The most reliable way to obtain an autograph is in person. But this requires a different type of investment -- time.

When celebrities make personal appearances they sometimes sign books they've authored, posters, photos and other memorabilia. Some charge for this service, others do not. Alternatively, a collector can hope to catch the celebrity at a premiere or after a game in an unofficial moment.

Another method is to purchase items that have been examined and authenticated by a reputable and knowledgeable third party such as PSA/DNA. But even knowledgeable authenticators will occasionally be wrong.

"It's always a leap of faith, especially when you're buying vintage material," Orlando says. "Remember, where's there's greed, there's fraud."

The thrill of it all
Movie and TV critic Jane Louise Boursaw says she has about 100 autographs in her personal collection. Boursaw collects some of them by mail, but warns that writing and asking for an autograph doesn't necessarily net a real one. "You don't always know if the signature is authentic," Boursaw says.

She classifies her collection as a hobby -- and a fun one at that -- and says her favorites include Melanie Griffith, Doris Day and Tom Selleck, "because he writes 'Jane Louise, Best wishes, Tom Selleck.' How could you not love that?"

Boursaw finds mailing addresses on the Internet through collectors' sites and drops the stars a nice note with her requests, along with self-addressed, stamped envelopes for the photographs.

Autograph shortcuts
Celebrities -- from actors to U.S. presidents to sports figures -- are busy people. Most don't have time to sign autographs for admirers. Some satisfy the demand for autographs with autopens, proxy and preprinted signatures.

'Real' fakes:
Autopen: An autopen is exactly what it sounds like -- a pen that reproduces a signature. Brian Marren, vice president of acquisitions with Mastro Auctions, says the autopen isn't a new invention at all. He points to writings of the late Charles Hamilton, an expert who wrote several books about the device's use. In addition to the astronauts, many U.S. presidents used autopens. "Hollywood has done it for years," Marren says.
Proxy: John F. Kennedy not only used autopens, but he also kept his secretaries busy signing his name. It's a practice many celebrities use. "In the '30s and '40s, the secretary would sign autograph requests for the star," says Marren. Actress Joan Crawford was a notable exception and did most of the signing herself.
Preprinted signatures: There's nothing mysterious about preprinted signatures. They're part of the photograph and typically mass-produced.

Fraud abounds
When he receives a photo request, actor Mark Hamill, like many celebrities, will send one with a preprinted autograph, but he's stopped signing new ones. It's easy to see why. Run a search of Hamill's name on eBay at almost any time and you'll find dozens of pricey listings: movie posters with the "signatures" of the entire cast of the Star Wars trilogy, props "signed" by Hamill and dozens of other items. On his Web site, Hamill debunks the authenticity of most offerings.

"It saddens me to see the majority of signatures purported to be mine are fraudulent, along with bogus certificates of authenticity, to further dupe the unsuspecting collector," Hamill says. But, he adds, "I simply do not have the time, money or wherewithal to stop the avalanche of fake autographs."

See "Collectible autographs are worth a lot" for experts' advice on assessing an autograph's investment potential.

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-- Posted: Jan. 17, 2007
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