Autograph Collecting 101: A Beginner’s Guide June 03 2022
Collecting autographs: You might have thought about it or even done it over the years. Every time you go to a concert, you see a gaggle of autograph collectors lining up to get their music memorabilia signed by their favorite artist. Sometimes, you wonder if you’re bold enough to join the pack and bring along one of your vinyl records next time.
This is the path of many beginner autograph collectors; many covet the opportunity to meet their idols. However, there is far more to autograph collecting than meets the eye.
Soon, you’ll find that while you began your autograph collecting journey with good intentions, collecting autographs from your favorite performers hardly places you in the top tier of autograph collectors. You still have much to learn. Read this guide for beginner autograph collectors to get familiar with how autograph collecting works.
WHAT IS AUTOGRAPH COLLECTING?
For any real, serious collecting, autograph collecting is the practice of intentionally curating and acquiring autographs worthy of a collection. How do you determine whether an autograph is part of a collection? There are two components:
Define a path to follow. The collected autographs fall under a certain category or topic that you determined in advance. For instance, one might collect the autographs of famous composers from the 18th century.
You must actively search for the autograph to make it a part of your collection, rather than having the fortune to receive it by happenstance (gift, in person, or finding it by chance without actively looking for it).
If your friend gifts you a music sheet signed by Massenet, and you happen to have bought a signed picture of Marilyn Monroe at an antique store two years ago, these two pieces do not form an autograph collection. This is because there is no discernible category that both these pieces of signed memorabilia fall under. Furthermore, intent matters. You didn’t plan to make them a part of your collection.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AUTOGRAPH COLLECTING
This begs the question, how did autograph collecting become popular in the first place?
Often called the world’s oldest hobby, the history of collecting autographs begins with the great library at Alexandria in the 4th century B.C. This famous library held the first known autograph collection, likely the largest in the ancient world. Unfortunately, this collection vanished over time, as most of the library caught fire during Julius Caesar’s civil war.
Fast-forward about a dozen centuries and we can find that the first known autograph album containing documents with signatures dates from 1466. At the time, this album was evidence of the collector’s popularity and social standing. Titled the Album Amicorum, most of these signatures were from the collector’s famous and noble friends.
Some suggested bibliography on Autographs (see full list at the bottom)
THE EARLY MODERN ERA
By the middle of the 19th century, the practice became widespread. At the time, the American author James Fenimore Cooper wrote that he received autograph requests almost daily from complete strangers.
As the demand for celebrity autographs skyrocketed, autograph collecting became a mainstream hobby. Prominent autograph dealer Walter R. Benjamin opened the first autograph gallery in the US in New York City in 1887. In the 20th century, a common stereotype of autograph collectors emerged in the mainstream too – the autograph hunter became known as the autograph hound.
AUTOGRAPH COLLECTING TODAY
As a result of their reputation, serious autograph collectors have evolved to become far more disciplined and reserved. After all, autograph collecting is a serious business. Current estimates suggest that over 3 million autograph collectors exist worldwide, making over $4 billion in autograph purchases every year. Many individual autographs are valued at over a million dollars. One such example is the autograph of William Shakespeare. Given that only 6 instances of his autograph exist worldwide, it’s hardly shocking that dealers estimate his autographs are worth well over $5 million.
People collect things because of the thrill of the search or hunt, and autographs in particular provide a physical, direct connection with their idols or with historical events. They also get an extraordinary chance to own a piece of history, feeling part of it, and to own a collectible that is unique (no two autographs are ever the exact same), something that most other collectibles can not offer.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF AUTOGRAPH COLLECTORS
It’s indisputable, as an autograph collector you’ll be practicing a hobby with an illustrious history. Few hobbies allow you to touch your idols, even if indirectly. Here’s a brief overview of your journey
We can sort the types of autograph collectors into the 3 classical categories: beginners, intermediate and advanced. Think of it as a pyramid, the majority are in the first tier at the bottom. This is where you will start. Over time, a few of them will work their way into the upper echelons.
Beautiful photograph signed by 7 members of "MASH" - the American war drama TV series aired on CBS between 1972-1983
When you start collecting autographs, it’s only natural that you acquire whatever pieces tickle your fancy. Beginner collectors collect the things that they like but still haven’t selected a specialty. Perhaps you pursue the autograph of your favorite singer. You flip through a catalog of signed music memorabilia and order it. Once it arrives, you’re satisfied. But there is nothing to guide you toward the next piece. You haven’t selected a collecting path, such as category of singers; you’re only following your whims or your past experiences.
Note that a beginner intentionally researches their desired memorabilia and browses catalogs. The main thing that separates them from more advanced tiers is a lack of clear direction.
More over, the collection is built around him or herself, his or her whims and likings and and/or experiences (such as artists he saw performing, or prefers).
With maturity, your tastes will refine. An intermediate collector is a collector that has selected a specialty. However, they still have some lived experience with this specialty themselves. For instance, you might choose to collect autographs of opera singers that you have seen in concert. You cherish the personal connection. Perhaps each piece is an autographed photo.
Either way, you have a plan to see these singers and a plan to acquire their autographs. You’re well on your way to becoming a sophisticated autograph collector, yet still build your collection with collecting choices around yourself.
Once you’ve reached the pinnacle of autograph collecting, you disregard your personal connection with the memorabilia. The advanced autograph collector is willing to collect autographs unrelated to their own lived experience. Instead, they focus on the appreciation of the history of a particular subject.
Imagine collecting the autographs of artists active during the Belle Epoque (early 1870s through the outbreak of WWI in 1914). You have never met them in person. You might not even enjoy their artworks. However, out of admiration for the history of art, you’re compelled to leave your personal preferences aside and collect these autographs.
Your focus is on art, not on your preferences or experiences or whims. You are able to step aside the collected objects and let the subject shine and become independent. This is what it means to be an advanced autograph collector.
A letter signed by queen Isabella I of Castile, dated 1483
Now that you’re equipped with new ideas and a new vision of autograph collecting, you will embark on your autograph collecting journey. If you’re interested in buying authentic autographs, the best way to do it is through a reliable autograph dealer.
Everybody has their unique reasons for becoming an autograph collector. It’s best to start the same way that most beginners do – pursue the pieces that fascinate you the most. Over the coming years, you’ll gain a greater appreciation for your field of interest, choose a path and get deeper into its history. As a result, you’ll join the ranks of advanced collectors and chase after memorabilia like an insatiable trophy hunter.
Just like all other forms of collecting, you will mature as a collector and you will progress going up in the above mentioned collecting pyramid.
To learn more about autograph collecting, sign up to receive our newsletter and regularly check this blog, were we post content that will certainly help you. We do our best to provide quality articles. Enjoy your collecting journey!.
RELATED BLOG ARTICLES:
Interested in authentic autographs?
- Collecting Autographs by Susan Brewer
- An Insider’s Guide to Autograph Collecting by Kevin Martin
- Autograph Collecting Secrets - Tools and Tactics for Through-The-Mail, In-Person and Convention Success by Troy A Rutter
- Autographs - A Key to Collecting by Mary A. Benjamin
- Can I Have Your Autograph - The Hidden Secrets of Getting Autographs from the Rich and Famous by Brian Franco Harrin
- Big Name Hunting; a Beginner’s Guide to Autograph Collecting by Charles and Diane Hamilton
- Collect Autographs - An illustrated guide to collecting autographs - Stanley Gibbons
- Hooked on autographs by Joe Galiardi
- Signatures of the Stars - A Guide for Autograph Collectors, Dealers and Enthusiasts by Kevin Martin