Autograph listing criteria
Signatures from important celebrities can appear on certificates of all specialties and thereby increase collector values, sometimes tremendously. Be aware that autograph collecting is a separate hobby that overlaps our hobby of collecting railroad stocks and bonds.
Autograph collecting has its own separate market and its own valuation criteria. It is easy to get overly-enthused with autographs that appear on certificatess, so I must start with a few cautionary warnings.
I have seen collectors get sucked in by seller hype and convinced to pay stupid prices for autographs from people of minor, sometimes meager, significance. I am not advising anyone to avoid collecting minor celebrities; I merely advise keeping perspective.
Let's look at a few facts.
Civil War Generals. Many sellers promote autographs from Civil War generals. Consider that about a thousand generals saw service during the war. Another 1,550 men were awarded brevet general status or posthumous ranks of general during and after the war. It is ludicrous to think all 2,500 men had laudable careers and that all their signatures are particularly valuable. Collector values of signatures from individuals of lower ranks are even more nebulous. Ascribing collector values to autographs just because someone was associated with the Civil War should be considered carefully and cautiously.
Senators, Representatives, and Parliamentarians. According to the United States House of Representatives, over 12,500 individuals have served as Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress (as of early 2024.). Large numbers of men and women were elected to similar positions in other governments. It would be absurd to think all of those politicians were important celebrities.
Governors. Over 2,400 people have served as state, territorial, and provincial governors. (Download a full list from Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.) Approximately 400 to 500 more men and women served as colonial and acting governors. Now consider that hundreds of thousands of people have served as federal judges, state judges, state senators, state representatives, and mayors of large cities. The number of people who have held political offices in the United States runs into the millions. plus millions more in Canada, Central America, and the Caribbean islands. How many of those people were sufficiently important for their autographs to be valuable?
Semi-celebrities and obscure people. Yes, it is true that autographs from obscure people can have value to specialists. In fact, I suggest practically every signature could have value to someone. It is fine to collect obscure autographs; just don't fall for the delusion that they will be valuable to other collectors when you or your heirs decide to sell. Be warned that some promotions of autographs by amateur sellers verge on outright deception.
Great fame within a narrow span of time or within a restricted region of the world does NOT automatically convey enduring celebrity elsewhere or forever.
Classes of "autographs"
This primary purpose of this project is to catalog collectible certificates from North American railroads. Signatures of famous and important individuals affect prices of those certificates, so I catalog autographs as an adjunct to the project. Listing autographs is a secondary concern, so I do not list every person whose autograph has sold.
I catalog autographs that have attracted attention over extended periods. My criteria for mentioning autographs are:
- Dealers and collectors recognize signatories as people of enduring fame.
- Autographs from those famous people show dependable collector appeal.
- Autographs from those celebrities appear for sale repeatedly.
There are notable divisions even among celebrities whose signatures qualify for cataloging:
- major personalities – signatures of Commodore Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie are expensive and have been for years.
- second-tier celebrities – prices paid for autographs of famous railroad personalities such as J. P. Morgan, E. H. Harriman, and Jay Gould have recovered nicely since about 2012 but had suffered for several years before that.
- minor and local celebrities – signatures in this class tend to have limited values outside of small numbers of specialists; signatures of company presidents may be important to collectors of single railroad companies, but price records prove that most collectors don't care enough to pay premiums.
Then there are signatures from people such as third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Vanderbilts. They may have been valorous individuals and several performed laudable deeds. Still, their signatures usually attract limited and variable collector prices. A famous last name does NOT automatically convince large numbers of collectors to pay premiums above similar certificates lacking those signatures.
There are specialists who collect locally famous military figures, politicians, judges, presidential cabinet members, university founders, philanthropists, brokers, and speculators. Signatures in that class can be quite rare. Long-term price records clearly indicate that autographs from narrow specialties attract narrow interest. Highly specialized autographs often experience short-lived price spikes, but when interest is limited, prices are low. .
I catalog signatures from key national and international celebrities whose autographs are known on railroad stocks and bonds. Be aware that not all those people would be considered "celebrities" outside of railroading.
Autographs that deserve separate listings
I do not catalog celebrities whose autographs have appeared for sale only once or twice unless such individuals attracted extraordinary collector interest. Andrew Carnegie is one such person. It is difficult to quantify fame and celebrity, but it is clear that celebrities should have impacted history for their autographs to be collectible and therefore, attract elevated bids over time.
Railroad enthusiasts commonly desire autographs that ordinary autograph collectors know nothing about. Within that group are specialists who desire signatures from even more obscure people. When specialists bid against each other, they can cause temporary price spikes for autographs that most collectors would overlook. I ignore temporary price spikes and temporary interest in personalities that have been largely ignored. I list autographs that I think average collectors will want in the future. In recording prices over the span of several decades it becomes clear that some autographs have "staying power" and many don't.
There are large numbers of now-obscure individuals who were important in specific regions or specific industries. Some may have been temporary celebrities and some may even have affected the course of regional history in important ways. Every history buff can identify numerous people who should be more well-known than published histories suggest. I do not disagree. Regardless of their "should-be" importance, price records clearly show collectors do not pay much for autographs from obscure and short-time celebrities.
There have been a few cases where books, motion pictures and television programs have altered the perception of previously obscure individuals among the general public. Values of certain autographs can increase rapidly in response to public attention. Given sufficient time, however, collector interest usually cycles back toward previous levels. I don't have a problem with dealers profiting from short-term popularity of obscure autographs. Most collectors intend to be in the game for a long time, so should try to avoid being swept up in bursts of public enthusiasm. If they do, they may be disappointed when they try to liquidate such autographs years later.
Try to be aware of the long-term popularity of specific autographs. Do not let any seller convince you to overpay for obscure autographs. Beware of artificial hype. Sellers can make obscure individuals sound terribly interesting and important when, in fact, many were neither.
Autographs that may not deserve separate listings and price estimates
For many years, I chose to ignore autographs from twenty or thirty borderline "celebrities" if they did not increase the value of their underlying certificates by $25 and 25%. In 2023, I relented because many sellers continued to promote signatures from those individuals, even though they had little if any effect on certificate prices. Consequently, interesteed collectors are now able to see which certificates their signatures appear on, even though their prices remain the same or only slightly above ordinary certificates of the same varieties.
It is important to accept that prices paid for certificates are exceedingly variable. If I estimate prices for a particular non-autographed variety at $100, I fully expect actual prices paid to oscillate between $50 and $200 for that variety in the span of a few years.
What if you don't know whether a signatory was a genuine celebrity?
When dealing with autographs on stocks and bonds, there are frequently questions whether the people who signed items were really celebrities at all. In my opinion, information about true celebrities should be EASY to find. I suggest that descriptions of genuine celebrities should appear in:
- major biographies
- major biographical dictionaries
- major encyclopedic sources
Millions of online sources are acceptable sources for information, but the same rules apply. Scattered references to individuals on a few web pages does not transform every dead person into a celebrity. References should be numerous and diverse.
Information about company presidents is especially difficult to find. That should suggest that very few were major celebrities. In fact, very few railroad president were notably famous beyond the service areas of their companies. Collectors of such specialized autographs may need to turn to library research which often requires acquiring obscure references through interlibrary loans. The good thing about collecting those kinds of autographs is that there tends to be little competition and minimal threat of counterfeiting. "Secretarial signatures" (signatures from people who signed on behalf of others) can be problematic, but are often verifiable by comparison with other documents. The downside of collecting large numbers of those kinds minor personalities is that ultimate resale is likely to be disappointing.
A simple test for celebrity
If it is hard to find information about people who signed certificates, then those people were not major personalities. Don't let anyone tell you they were. It should tell you something if it takes you more than a few minutes to discover important facts beyond birth and death dates.
Pricing certificates with celebrity signatures
In order to estimate prices for autographed certificates, celebrity autographs must meet two criteria:
- Signatories must be listed in numerous, easy-to-find biographical sources and they must be discoverable in many different sources within a two or three minutes of searching on the web.
- Autographs must appear on several railroad certificates. While exceptions are made for people of great fame, what good would it do to list a so-called autograph and try to estimate its price if only one or two certificates exist?
What about certificates issued TO celebrities, but not signed by them?
Some people collect famous names on certificates, regardless of whether celebrities signed them or not. There is some demand for those kinds of curiosities. I list a few "issued to" certificates when they meet the same requirements as autographs.
If ever in doubt about price estimation or inclusion of additional celebrities, please remember:
- Not everyone who signed certificates was a celebrity.
- Not all signatures have value to collectors.
- Not everyone with a famous last name was a celebrity.
- Extremely few company executives should be considered celebrities.
- Autographs have value only when many collectors agree.
- Autographs considered valuable at one point in time do not necessarily retain value.
- Extremely few military and political figures achieved sufficient fame for their signatures to be valuable over time.
- Autograph collecting is almost always about the money.
Buy truly legitimate autographs. Not every signature is legible and not every signature was signed by the person in question. Collectors are advised to first decide whether prospective autographs look real to them. It is often difficult to find validated examples for comparison, so authentication by experienced and reputable third parties may be needed.
The more expensive the autograph, the greater the need for validation. Third parties experts should have no overt relationships with sellers of prospective purchases. Since it is usually impossible to acquire third party validation before purchase, collectors usually must pay for and take possession of autographed items before submission to autograph experts. Consequently, collectors must make absolutely certain they are dealing with reputable dealers who will accept returns and fully refund purchase costs. Postage is normally considered the responsibility of buyers.
Warnings for beginning collectors of autographed railroad certificates
NEVER collect autographs unless you know precisely why YOU must own them. Who cares whether sellers list specific names as so-called autographs? Merely mentioning names in a certificate description does NOT make autographs valuable. It certainly does not mean that signatures will become valuable in the future. Why would you spend money on autographs if you don't already want them in your collection?
I recognize that specialists collect autographs from hundreds of individuals who do not appear in my list. Some autographs have definite and significant local values. Please understand that autographs of locally-important individuals usually have limited value elsewhere.