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The Paper Chase

For Autograph Collectors, the Search for Signatures Is Singularly Satisfying
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 2)

Another vexing decision presents the equivalent of choosing between a respectable Lexus and a pricier statement like a Rolls-Royce: does the newcomer focus on autographed documents, which could be typed, printed or generated by a secretary? Or does he pursue signed, handwritten letters, which are generally much more desirable and more valuable?

"There's nothing wrong with saying 'I want images,' signed photographs, or going for printed documents, which could have wonderful graphics, such as the passports issued by presidents authorizing ships to carry rum in the early 1800s," Raab says. "But since there are thousands of documents, all pretty much the same, they go down in price faster and harder in a bear market. I don't recommend them.

"Letters, though, are a much different story. Especially if they open people's eyes and gets them excited, like a letter from George Burns to Gracie Allen saying he's going to make Jack Benny laugh, or a Groucho Marx letter with a joke in it. Here there's real content, and in autograph collecting, revealing letters--those with rare and interesting content--are the absolute cream."

"Knowledge is critical, for once a buyer is prepared and not dependent on anyone, he gains a definite edge in price determinations," says David Lowenherz of New York's City's Lion Heart Autographs, who was the first president of the Professional Autograph Dealers Association. "A dealer might overstate an item's importance or, by not doing his homework, he could make an otherwise magical piece static, without personality. Yet if the buyer does his own research, there's no telling what kind of discoveries can be made."

Take, for example, Lowenherz's "big score," when he brushed up on a few George Washington facts and emerged from an auction as triumphantly as when Washington took Trenton. "How powerful is knowledge?" asks Lowenherz. "At this small sale, a 1782 George Washington letter was being offered, one simply addressed 'Sir.'" It was introducing this fellow named [John] Wheelock [then president of Dartmouth College], and while I initially didn't know who this was, or that 'Sir,' I did some research and was soon able to determine this 'Sir' was Benjamin Franklin. The auction house didn't know this, and so by my putting that wonderful association together, that letter was suddenly worth three times what I paid for it!"

So how does the beginner proceed? When that six-month trial period ends and the novice is ready to buy something, what's the best way to tackle such complex price factors as content, rarity and the always thorny authenticity issue?

With extreme caution and finesse.

Collectors can't continue on this journey alone. They must now select and work with dealers. Since these merchants are a varied lot, ranging from knowledgeable "hand-holders" to the outright corrupt who sell overpriced, forged and stolen material, the margins for error remain paper-thin. "Collecting is exciting, but unfortunately it's filled with stuff that's as bad as the people who are selling it," Raab says bitterly. "While there're certainly some reputable dealers, too many either don't know anything about what they're selling, charge too much or just look the other way if material is forged. Making all sorts of bullshit sales representations and promises, these phonies have given the industry a black eye."

Raab recalls an early run-in with a shady dealer: "I nearly got burned [10 years ago] when I bought Christy Mathewson and a few other baseball cards. [Signatures by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, especially if they are framed and mounted under a photo, are often forgeries.] I only later discovered that they all had the same ink and handwriting. While I did get my money back, even more importantly, I learned that novices can't be instant experts in autographs. They have to find dealers with certain bonafides, and in that search, there are no magic bullets."

New collectors, however, can follow an advantageous game plan, filled with strategies that will foil many thieves. "Beginners must read the journals, see what things have sold for and go to auctions and shows," Rubinfine advises. "By talking with other collectors, they'll soon discover which dealers have the best reputations." New collectors should also be wary of autograph "boutiques" with sexy salespeople, fancy addresses or glitzy catalogues. All these excesses usually result in overpriced material. In addition, if those catalogues have any spelling mistakes, historical inaccuracies or are just loaded with sales pitches, that too should sound the alarm. As Rubinfine notes, "Dealers are the last line of defense against forgeries, and so they must meticulously do their homework."

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