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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 3)

A vital issue is the extent of a dealer's guarantee that an item is genuine. Though many fakes are blatant and can be spotted quickly, buyers should insist that sellers provide guarantees of authenticity without time limits. (Buyers should also familiarize themselves with the intricacies of valued signatures, watching out for penciled signatures, which can't be dated easily, or shaky, small handwriting or blurriness, since modern ink will lose its sharpness when absorbed by old paper.)

"Too often you'll see dealers offering certificates that are only good for a year or two," Raab complains. "But then they put in such a complex mechanism that the burden is on the buyer to prove the autograph isn't authentic. That's not the case with PADA members [who must have proven authenticating skills and be willing to have their inventory scrutinized by the association]. We subscribe to the simple premise that an item is guaranteed without time limits, and if a buyer has any doubts after given a second or third opinion, he almost always gets his money back."

Still, these lifetime or unconditional guarantees are only pieces of paper, which mean little if the dealer goes out of business. That's why beginners must get dealer referrals from other collectors and talk to these agents, because as Raab says, "A seller's reputation, his years in the trade, how he comes across--that's more important than any certificates. What is it like to interact with him? Is this dealer just trying to sell something or is he explaining his material's fine points in a meaningful manner? Once a buyer does this kind of probing, he'll have some assurances that a dealer is legit, not into fakes or just sales dribble."

Rubinfine is worried about the growing number of manuscripts that are stolen from institutions, then sold to unsuspecting buyers. "While experts can spot fakes, some dealers don't know how to ask the right questions about an item's sales history, or just don't want to," Rubinfine says glumly. "A stolen letter might go to a collector for $20,000, and chances are it won't be discovered. But what happens when he wants to sell it, or puts it in an auction catalogue? Now the whole world sees it, and if the original owner takes legal action to get it back, this can easily leave the collector with a big loss."

Even though there are far more horror stories about neophytes getting overcharged for items than getting stiffed with stolen goods, Rubinfine is still concerned that dealers "are careless about checking bills of sale." His advice: "Avoid trouble! Ask the dealer to guarantee the title."

As the collector fulfills his goals, or moves from one specialty to another, he can expect to do more selling than buying. Even if he is new to this world, the resourceful hobbyist/investor is always thinking of his future options; he has an exit strategy. But the neophyte will typically slip up by giving himself only one option for selling: either at auction or through a dealer. Oversimplifying by using only one sales outlet doesn't always make financial sense.

After appraising his pieces and determining whether they're significant, the collector should follow Raab's double-pronged strategy of selectively entrusting some autographs to an auction house and the rest to a dealer, depending on their value and market conditions. "It's always difficult to exit, and collectors must do it slowly, as the time to sell movie stars might not be the same for the disposing of presidents," Raab says. "Also try to avoid those periods when others are getting out and, above all, don't put all your eggs in one basket. Use the auction and dealer route."

Raab contends that less important pieces may fetch as much as or even more with a dealer than at an auction, since the interest, and hence the bidding, for such items may be low. Plus, a Christie's or Sotheby's will often set a low reserve price. "People really get hurt this way," he says. "So no matter what collectors give to an auction house, they should set a reasonable minimum price. If something's worth $10,000 and was originally bought for $7,000, the seller should put it in at $7,500 just to make sure no money is lost."

Important or very rare manuscripts may be expected to do better at auction houses, especially if they're promoted in catalogues and are likely to generate a fierce bidding war. Yet this may not always be the most lucrative route to pursue. Take a pricey Lincoln letter, for example. While it might go for $55,000 at auction, the better bet, arguably, is taking $46,000 from a dealer, since the auction house generally secures a 10 percent commission for sales over $20,000, and by the time it prepares for the sale, the market could change. "You just can't control what's going to happen at an auction," Raab says, "while the dealer route is immediate cash in hand."

If, however, a seller has put serious money into his collection, and all the pieces are showcase items, then he should opt for a dedicated auction. This is an auction that features only his material and that has been promoted in various publications that are linked to the seller's specialties (such as magazines devoted to the Civil War and American Revolution). "When you're dealing with very exciting pieces, rare material that's hard to put a presale price on, it's always best to work out an arrangement with an auction house," a collector of Civil War letters notes. "The seller just has to make sure that they're really going to advertise the sale and give you a stage with lots of hoopla."

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