Autograph Collecting 101: Fun Facts and the Letter JFK Refused to Sign

Updated on June 27, 2018
Timothy Anderson profile image

A long time autograph dealer/writer, Anderson's autograph articles have been published in The Saturday Evening Post & many other magazines.

JFK signed tens-of-thousands of autographs during his lifetime, but this was one letter he refused to sign.
JFK signed tens-of-thousands of autographs during his lifetime, but this was one letter he refused to sign.

The Letter John F. Kennedy Refused to Sign

Autograph collecting is a fun and sometimes financially rewarding hobby that's been around for a long time. People can collect autographs for fun, or sometimes as investments.

Two of our presidents were autograph collectors. Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were both avid autograph hounds and understood how the economic law of supply and demand largely dictates the value of a particular autograph.

JFK once received a note from an old friend who teasingly pointed out that while the autograph of ex-president Ulysses S. Grant was then selling for $55, Kennedy's was selling for an even higher $65!

Always quick with a quip, Kennedy wrote back saying, "I appreciate your letter about the market in Kennedy signatures. It is hard to believe that the going price is so high now. In order not to depress the market further, I will not sign this letter."

And he didn't.

Baseballs signed by Babe Ruth can be worth thousands of dollars.
Baseballs signed by Babe Ruth can be worth thousands of dollars.

How U.S. President Herbert Hoover Helped a Young Boy Get a Babe Ruth Autograph

U.S. President Herbert Hoover had a great sense of humor. During his term he once received a letter from a young autograph collector requesting two of Mr. Hoover's signatures. "You see," wrote the youngster, "I want to trade them for a Babe Ruth autograph, and it takes two of yours to get one of his."

Friends say Hoover obligingly forwarded the two autographs and chuckled over the letter for years. One wonders if his sense of humor would still be so keen if he knew that it now takes 10 or more Herbert Hoover autographs to get one of the Babe's.

Today, a simple ink signature of Herbert Hoover can sell for around $50 to $75, while the Babe's ink signature can easily sell for $500 to $1,000 and sometimes more.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

Most Valuable Autograph in the World

William Shakespeare has the distinction of having the most valuable autograph in the world.

Only six examples of his signature are known to exist, and all are on legal documents and owned by private institutions.

Since none have ever been offered for sale, it's difficult to estimate their value, but some autograph authorities believe any of these six signed documents could sell for $15 million or more at auction.

Considered to be the world's greatest writer, not a single one of his many plays is known to exist. Historians believe they were either lost over time or possibly destroyed.

If any of his original, handwritten plays ever turns up, especially one of his more famous plays like Romeo and Juliet, or Othello, its value could easily exceed $100 million!

One of six known examples of William Shakespeare's autograph.
One of six known examples of William Shakespeare's autograph.
The autographs of wild west figures, such as Wild Bill Hickok are rare and valuable, and highly prized by serious autograph collectors.
The autographs of wild west figures, such as Wild Bill Hickok are rare and valuable, and highly prized by serious autograph collectors.

What Famous People Have Valuable Autographs?

Celebrity signatures are always fun to collect, but autographs come from all walks of life and in all shapes and sizes.

Baseballs, books, legal documents, photographs, playbills, sports jerseys and even tennis shoes signed by movie stars, athletes, astronauts, composers, scientists or any famous person are collected by fans.

Some collectors focus on a single area such as the old west. Annie Oakley, James "Wild Bill" Hickok, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and "Buffalo Bill" Cody have all left signatures on letters and documents that can sell for thousands of dollars.

Three important factors in determining the value of a person's autograph are 1) how famous were they? And 2) how old were they when they died?, and 3) what has been signed. I'll explain more about this in the next section.

In the first case, the autograph of a major movie star like Marilyn Monroe is worth much more than an autograph of a lesser-known actress. A simple ink signature of Marilyn can easily cost you $2,000 or more today, whereas the autograph of Debbie Reynolds can be purchased on eBay for as little as $5 to $10.

In the second case, the age at death of the celebrity will typically the value. You see, if a person dies young that means no more autographs will be signed, limiting the supply. It's one reason why the autographs of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Jean Harlow are so valuable--they didn't live to be senior citizens like Olivia de Havilland, Kirk Douglas, or Carol Burnett.

Every year of their lives these oldsters were signing hundreds and possibly thousands of autographs for their fans. So there is a large and on-going supply of their signatures available to their fans.

Thus the fact there are fewer Marilyn and Elvis autographs for collectors to cherish means their autograph values are much higher than most of their contemporaries.

Autograph of Napoleon Bonaparte.  A simple signature of Napoleon
Autograph of Napoleon Bonaparte. A simple signature of Napoleon

What's Worth More: A Signed Letter or a Signed Photograph?

All sorts of variables can affect the value of an autograph. A logical place to start is by understanding that autographs are typically identified in the five basic types.

The five main types of autographs are

  • Simple signatures
  • Signed photos
  • Signed documents
  • Signed letters
  • Other signed items

Autographs known as simple signatures are on a card, piece of paper, or autograph album page or something similar. These are much more common forms of an autograph, and hence, the least valuable when compared to the other types.

In other words, there are a lot more signatures of baseball great Lou Gehrig to be found on the market than there are signed photos. Hence, an autographed photo in good condition will almost always be worth more than a mere signature on an album page. This is true for all celebrities.

Signed photographs are often the preference of collectors of movie star and entertainment autographs. Signed photos are valued by age, condition, size and autograph clarity among other things. Like any autographed item, if the photo is damaged in any way, or bears a faded or hard-to-read signature, then the value will drop quickly. And larger signed photos are usually more uncommon and hence, have more value.

Judy Garland and Billie Burke in The Wizard of Oz.
Judy Garland and Billie Burke in The Wizard of Oz.

Next are signed documents. A signed document can be a bank check, a contract, an IOU, or any other signed legal document. Let's say you're offered a cancelled bank check that's been signed by actress Judy Garland, or the contract she signed to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Which do you suppose is more valuable? Well, the contract of course! Who knows how many of her signed bank checks there are floating around in the world, whereas her signed The Wizard of Oz contract would be one-of-a-kind and extremely rare and valuable. It would probably sell at an auction for $100,000 or more.

Signed letters. Letters can be entirely written by hand, written by a secretary and then signed by the celebrity, or typed letters. Handwritten letters, all other things being equal, are more valuable. With letters, the content is critical to value.

Say you have a choice of obtaining one of two typed letters signed by astronaut Neil Armstrong where one is sending happy birthday greetings, and the second letter describes his feelings as he stepped onto the moon's surface. Assume both are priced at $500. Which do you suppose will have more value? The second letter, of course, because of its unique content.

Finally, in our last category are other autographs that aren't on photos or paper. These are more common in sports autographs with athletes signing shoes, jerseys, hats, basketball, footballs, or a baseball, such as the Babe Ruth signed baseball shown in the first graphic.

A signed 8 x 10" photograph of WW II aviator Jimmy Doolittle is worth around $200.
A signed 8 x 10" photograph of WW II aviator Jimmy Doolittle is worth around $200.

Which Autographs Are Valuable?

Not all celebrities will have valuable autographs.

The signature of comedian Don Rickles can be bought on internet auction sites for a few dollars. On the other hand, a simple ink signature of Abraham Lincoln can cost $2,500 or more, while a clipped signature of George Washington can sell for $5,000.

So the basic rule of value is pretty simple: the greater the demand for a particular person's autograph, the more one can expect to pay. Since collecting the autographs of U.S. presidents is popular with many collectors, their autographs can command high prices. The autographs of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy are always highly sought after and valued additions to any autograph collection.

Also, the degree of notoriety or popularity will often determine whether a person's autograph has any serious value. As explained previously, if a celebrity dies young, then the "supply" of that particular person's autographs is "fixed." In other words, no more will ever be produced.

As unbelievable as it sounds, it is a sad fact that autographs of criminals and villains often have high value among collectors. Yes, the autographs of the assassins of U.S. presidents are typically more valuable than the men they killed. Why? Because politicians spend a lot of time over years signing autographs for their constituents. Assassins often tend to be social misfits and withdrawn, and certainly not out every week giving speeches, shaking hands, and signing autographs.

Again: the law of supply and demand. The more scarce something is will raise its value to a collector.

Some of the historical figures who have highly valued autographs include Babe Ruth, Neil Armstrong, Walt Disney, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Christopher Columbus, Daniel Boone, Sigmund Freud, and even Geronimo, who in his later years traveled the country with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and signed cards for $1. Those signed cards today routinely sell for $5,000 and more!

To determine the current value of any particular person, you can check the "sold" listings for that person's autograph on eBay, or do a simple Google search "what is the value of an autograph of so-and-so."

How to Start an Autograph Collection

The subject of how to actually begin collecting autographs is much too complicated to explain in a few short paragraphs.

You don't need to spend a lot of money starting your own autograph collection, but you don't want to waste your time and the little money you may have to spend to get the autographs you want.

One of the best books on the subject is Troy Rutter's highly rated Autograph Collecting Secrets: Tools and Tactics for Through-The-Mail, In-Person and Convention Success.

After 40 years of autograph collecting, I still find myself referring to my copy and learn something new every time. He'll share some time-proven secrets as to how to increase your chances of receiving a celebrity's autograph if you choose to write to them. If you plan to start an autograph collection by writing to living celebrities through the mail, this is the book you'll want to read before you start.

He'll help you to spot fakes and autopens (autographs signed by machines), teach you autograph jargon, and he goes as far as to provide some addresses where you can write your favorite athletes or movie stars. His suggestions and autograph collecting tips are a great reference for any autograph seeker.

The book has a lot of good information about collecting in two of the most popular autograph categories: movie stars and sports stars. It offers several ways of collecting autographs, not just through the mail, but at sports and/or celebrity appearance conventions.

If you want to begin putting together your own autograph collection and learn the inside secrets of a pro, Tony's book is a great place to start!

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Tim Anderson

    Comments

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      • Timothy Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

        Tim Anderson 

        4 weeks ago from Utah

        Thank you Patty! Imagine the value of Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet should the original handwritten play ever be found!

      • profile image

        Patty Russell 

        4 weeks ago

        Quite interesting indeed. I was shocked the Shakespeare's was most valuable. 2 thumbs up!

      • Timothy Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

        Tim Anderson 

        4 weeks ago from Utah

        Thank you RTalloni! I'm pleased you liked it! This is the first in a series of autograph collecting articles I'll be publishing. More are coming soon!

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        4 weeks ago from the short journey

        That is indeed a fun fact about JFK. Interesting to learn more about autograph collecting.Thanks for a neat overview.

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