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The Name Game: Collecting Signed First Editions

A Bibliophile's Tales of Collecting Signed First Editions
Lawrence Grobel
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 3)

According to Herb Yellin, a publisher of Lord John Press and a significant collector of books and autographs, "Book signing by authors has become second nature to collectors and not as important as it once was in establishing prices, but the signing by cast members in a unique way makes the books much more valuable. I have presidential documents, photographs of authors and [signatures of] presidents, but the most attention goes to things by film stars and directors. This is what turns people on. Once this becomes common knowledge, books made into films will be greatly enhanced as collector's items and [will become] much more in demand. I can see it becoming another market in itself."

In keeping with my gambling nature, I've made investments in books whose value was uncertain at the time I bought them. After Mel Gibson told me that he really enjoyed Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking and wanted to direct a film of it, I bought a copy and brought it to Gibson to sign. "From a confirmed or infirmed non-smoker," he wrote. If he ever makes the movie, the book will be a nice association copy. If he doesn't, what the hell, it's an autograph by Mel Gibson inside a book he had nothing more to do with than enjoy.

A month before the 1995 Academy Award nominations were announced, I was asked to interview Nicolas Cage. His performance as the suicidal writer Ben Sandersan in Leaving Las Vegas had already earned him a Golden Globe and he seemed a likely front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar. So I called all over town trying to locate a first edition of John O'Brien's novel. Only one bookstore had it, Vagabond Books, which was selling it for $200 unsigned and $350 signed by O'Brien, who committed suicide before the film was made. Vagabond had sold 400 signed copies of the 1,200 first editions, published for the cover price of $19.50, and many of the remaining copies were given away by the publicists for the movie. The book became valuable after the author was dead and the film became a critical sensation. I knew if Cage won the Oscar, it would be worth more than $200 if he signed it in character. If he didn't, well, that was the gamble. I bought the book and gave it to Cage, who wrote: "What you have to understand is that you can never ever ask me to stop drinking." Which is what his character says in the movie.

After Cage won the Oscar, Yellin estimated the book's value at double what I had paid for it. I showed him some of my other books to get his professional opinion of their worth, and he offered to buy them all from me! I laughed when he brought it to such a bottom line so quickly, but in truth, my collecting these books has never been about money. Yellin understood. "These books are priceless," he said. "I'd always heard that Joseph Heller originally called his most famous novel Catch-18, but what he wrote in your copy documents it. And what Capote wrote to you--I've never seen an inscription like that! Most collectors aren't going to get such words from authors unless they have some kind of personal relationship, so you've been lucky. I love Ryan O'Neal's comment on Mailer's title. And that Silence of the Lambs is a big-bucks book already and will only get more valuable in time. Multiple signatures like that and in The Godfather excite collectors. And in an effete business like rare bookselling, I hate to say it, but vulgarity sells--so that American Buffalo with Pacino's two words is stunning."

Craig Graham, the owner of Vagabond Books in Los Angeles, who champions authors like John O'Brien and William Vollmann, thinks association copies are going to escalate in price over the next few years. He agreed with Yellin's assessment, though he thought what Cage had written in Leaving Las Vegas made it worth $1,000. "Cage is my favorite actor," Graham said. "He plays these weird, funky, underbelly, edgy guys, and the value of these signed books which have been made into movies is really based on the passion of fans."

Because The Remains of the Day was an important movie, and Anthony Hopkins an important actor, Graham thought the book I had was worth about $500; he doubled that figure for The Silence of the Lambs because Jodie Foster was a hard signature to get. He placed the books signed by Farrah Fawcett, James Garner and Ryan O'Neal between $150 and $250; the Bill Mauldin books, because of their original art, between $300 and $500; the Mel Gibson signature around $300. ("If he ever makes that movie, the fact that what he wrote is dated before the movie got made makes it more valuable.") He liked the inscriptions Diane Keaton wrote in each of the books, especially the one in The Little Drummer Girl because of her comments about the director and Meryl Streep--he thought that one might go for as much as $1,000. He also noticed that all of Keaton's signatures looked different, which can lead to one of the problems dealers have with such signatures.

As with sports memorabilia, you've got to watch out for fakes. Unless you're present when an author or a star signs your book, how can you be sure the inscription and signature is authentic? It's a problem that has always existed in the autograph market; one must keep a sharp eye out for what is real and what might be forged.

I understood this on a personal level when I received a catalog from a book dealer offering my Conversations with Capote for $100, signed by me and Capote. I don't doubt that my signature is real, because I did sign numerous copies of the book when it appeared in February 1985--six months after Truman Capote had died.

Lawrence Grobel is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
First Things First

To get started collecting first editions, turn to these sources.

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