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Cox's Corner
December, 2010

Scripophily 84

This article appeared in:
Scripophily, Dec, 2010

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Valuing autographs

The most valuable certificates in our hobby are those signed by celebrities. In my corner of the hobby (North American railroading), the most valuable certificates are those signed by industrialist Andrew Carnegie and railroader "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt. Why are these particular autographs so valuable? Because the men were so famous? Because their signatures are so scarce?

Scarcity is a definite factor. Carnegie's signatures are quite rare on railroad securities and I've recorded his autograph on only four certificates. His autograph on an 1878 Pullman Palace Car stock certificate holds the honor as the most expensive rail-related certificate ($78,400 in 2000). Certificates with Commodore Vanderbilt's autograph are more common than Carnegie's and have commonly sold for $15,000 to $20.000.

Many autographs are scarcer than either Carnegie's or Vanderbilt's, making it plainly obvious that other factors affect prices. It is easy to argue that both men exemplified the quintessential "rags to riches" American dream. They both attained magnificent wealth and both enjoyed envious political influence. They both changed the complexion of American industry and we can find many other parallels. The values of their autographs, however, do not lie in isolated qualities, but in the totality of everything they did. Both men were "larger than life."

The rub is that the world is full of larger than life characters. There have been thousands of very rich people and there has never been a shortage of Americans with great political influence. Autographs from some of those people are quite valuable, but the vast majority are affordable.

Take Commodore's son William Henry Vanderbilt for instance. He played a huge role in American railroad finance. He was frequently portrayed cavorting among New York's political elite on the covers of the satirical Puck Magazine. He was an accomplished art collector. He was the richest American at his death. His signatures on railroad certificates are not as scarce as his father's, but they are far from common. These days, collectors generally value his autographs at roughly $200 to $400 above the values of the certificates on which they appear. A few have sold for less than $150 in the recent past.

While I personally disagree, I can imagine some collectors arguing that William H. Vanderbilt was not a significant figure in American railroading. Some might he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and lived off his father's wealth. They somehow manage to ignore the fact that he tripled (!) his father's great fortune in nine short years.

Prices prove collectors have been downgrading William Henry's fame over the last few years, all the while paying hefty amounts for vastly more common autographed certificates from less famous, less rich, less influential personalities. Certificates with William Mahone's signatures are good examples. Autographed certificates signed by Mahone are sufficiently common to be continuously available from U.S. dealers and eBay sellers.

Mahone achieved the rank of major general in the Confederacy and fought in several major battles. He served two years in the Senate after the Civil War and was a long time president of the Atlantic Mississippi & Ohio Rail Road among others. His biography is interesting and he was the subject of a 300+-page book in 1935. Mahone certainly has a degree of enduring fame and his autographed certificates have been selling for $75 to $125. The values of Mahone-signed certificates have grown over the last few years while Vanderbilt's have fallen. Still, I doubt that historians would ever equate Mahone's national impact with Vanderbilt's.

What about high prices paid for autographed certificates from personalities of even less importance? Like other hobbies, our hobby has its share of hucksters who pump "values" of autographs from all sorts of barely remembered celebrities. Sadly, overselling works all too frequently. Every couple of weeks I record sales of certificates where (in my opinion) collectors overpay for decidedly common autographs from semi-personalities and even non-personalities. It is not my money and I probably shouldn't care so much.

Yet I do. I am reasonably certain that many of those buyers believe their purchases will gain value over the years. The problem is that a large percentage of those people die before liquidating their collections. They leave the unpleasant task of selling to their widows and heirs. I've talked with several such confused recipients and found many disappointed with the differences between promised values and actual values. Many of their disappointments concern real-world values of certificates signed by supposedly famous individuals. Whether deluded by their own greed or by hawker over-selling, I'm reasonably certain that collectors considered their over-payments for "autographed" certificates from semi-personalities harmless at the times of purchase. After death, those innocent over-valuations more closely resemble cruel jokes on survivors.

By no means am I saying to avoid collecting autographs from semi-personalities. I am saying to keep a very clear head about their future values. I am pleading for collectors to be brutally honest with themselves and their future beneficiaries. I am saying that hobbyists should avoid collecting any autographs until they learn exactly why they need to own them. I am suggesting that few of today's low-value autographs will show massive appreciations over time. I am saying that there is an inviolable rule in collecting that "common will always be common."

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