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Autograph listing criteria
I catalog autographs from key celebrities for this catalog project. Signatures from important celebrities increase values of certificates, but it is easy to get overly-enthused with autographs that appear on certificates. Be aware that autograph collecting is a separate hobby with its own separate market and valuation criteria. So first, a few cautionary warnings:
I do not and WILL NOT authenticate autographs.
Caution! Sellers often promote "autographs" as being valuable. They may attract high prices at different points in time, but that does not mean all supposed "autographs" will have lasting or predictable value. Sadly, some "autograph" promotions verge on deception.
Caution! Many sellers promote autographs from Civil War generals as if they are all highly valuable. There were more than 950 full generals in service during war time plus 1,550 more who were awarded brevet general status or posthumous ranks of general during and after the war. It is ludicrous to think autographs from all 2,500 Civil War generals are valuable. The values of autographs from lower ranked individuals are even more nebulous and should be considered the realm of specialists. Ascribing values to Civil War autographs should be considered carefully and cautiously.
Caution! According to the United States House of Representatives, 10,882 people have served as Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress as of late 2015. It is absurd to think every one of those politicians were important celebrities.
Caution! Over 2,500 people have served as state and territorial governors. Approximately 400-500 more served as colonial and acting governors. Now consider that hundreds of thousands of people who served as federal judges, state judges, state senators, state representatives and mayors. The number of people who have held political office in the United States runs into the millions. Consequently, only a TINY number should be considered sufficiently important for their autographs to be valuable. Don't let any amateur seller convince you otherwise.
Caution! Yes, it is true that autographs from obscure people are often valuable to specialists. In fact, practically any signature might have value to someone. For instance, I would probably pay good money to have authenticated autographs from some of my ancestors. Yet, how many other people would be have the slightest interest? Please understand that huge numbers of autographs have significant value to specific individuals and yet NO VALUE value to anyone else.
Caution! Autograph values shift with time. As public attention shifts with worldwide events, autograph values rise and fall.
Beware! Great fame within a narrow span of time or within a restricted region of the world does NOT automatically convey enduring fame elsewhere or forever.
Two classes of "autographs"
This project is intended to catalog collectible certificates from North American railroads. Signatures of famous and important individuals affect prices of those certificates. I list autographs by variable criteria, depending on whether I consider them:
Autographs that deserve mention
I mention autographs that have attracted attention over extended periods of time. My criteria for mentioning autographs are:
It is difficult to quantify fame and celebrity. For their autographs to be collectible and valuable over a long period of time, celebrities must impact history.
Specialists commonly desire autographs that ordinary collectors know nothing about. When specialists bid against each other, they can cause temporary price spikes for autographs that otherwise would attract no attention at all. I ignore temporary price spikes. I attempt to to determine how much non-specialists will desire autographs in the future. Just because autographs attract high values today does NOT mean they will attract high values tomorrow.
There are large numbers of now-obscure individuals who were dramatically important to specific regions or specific industries. Some may have been temporary celebrities and may have affected the course of history in important ways. Every person interested in history can identify numerous people who should be more well known than they are. Regardless of their potential historical importance, though, price records clearly show that autographs from obscure "celebrities" are seldom worth much.
There have been a few cases where books, motion pictures and television programs have altered public perception of previously obscure individuals. Values of certain autographs can grow very quickly in response to sudden public attention. Given sufficient time, however, collector interest almost always cycles back toward previous levels. Dealers can profit from short-term popularity of obscure autographs. Collectors, however, may be disappointed when they try to liquidate those 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 have minimal claim to fame.
Autographs that deserve separate listings and price estimates
In late 2009, I thoroughly re-examined all the autographs listed in my database. I found it impossible to justify estimating values for all obscure autographs. At that time, I began removing price estimates for low-value autographs.
While amateur sellers routinely try to convince me to estimate all sorts of autographs, many so-called autographs have no noticeable effect on certificate prices. Experienced collectors already understand this fact.
I am greatly more concerned about inexperienced collectors.
My unyielding policy is to avoid implying false or fleeting values to inexperienced collectors.
I use a hard, fast, inflexible valuation rule to determine whether to estimate values for specific autographs or not. I estimate the value of autographs only when they clearly and justifiably add to certificate values. Celebrity autographs must routinely...
Below these thresholds, I do not think it is possible to determine whether autographs contribute to certificate values or not.
Prices paid for ordinary non-autographed certificates are exceedingly variable. If I estimate values for a particular variety at $100, I always see prices range from $40 to $225 within a year or two. Certificates that appear less frequently show more severe price fluctuations.
Large price ranges for non-autographed certificates are so severe that I must pose two questions:
Let's examine the ramifications of estimating autograph values when prices are so highly variable
Let's say an ordinary certificate normally sells for $5 to $10. If a celebrity autograph routinely increases the values of those certificates to $30 to $40, I believe that autograph deserves a separate listing.
Let's imagine a scarcer variety of certificate. Imagine that the certificate was not autographed by anyone special and it sold in the U.S. for $225 to $275 during the last two years. For the purposes of this catalog and website, I would probably estimate the value of that certificate at $250.
Now imagine that an "autographed" example of that same variety sold for $325 in a German auction. Would that autograph deserve a special listing?
American railroad certificates typically sell for 20% to 30% more in Germany than they do in the U.S. Therefore, we should expect certificates that sell for $250 in the U.S. to sell for about $315 in Germany. From that perspective, the supposed celebrity "autograph" probably added little or no additional value.
List of autographs
I have a special list of ALL KNOWN AUTOGRAPHS elsewhere on this website. Autographs listed on that page are those that collectors and dealers, at one time or another, felt worthy of enhanced values. Be warned that:
Sellers often promote autographs of individuals of little or no celebrity. I will NOT list those kinds of unimportant autographs.
I understand that reasonable people will disagree with my choices of listed autographs. Disagreement is perfectly normal.
However, let's face a certain unpleasant truth. There are some amature sellers who believe it is okay to delude beginners. I don't. Consequently, I will try not to mislead collectors into thinking all autographs have value.
If ever in doubt about valuation or inclusion, please remember:
Not everyone who signed certificates was a celebrity.
Not all celebrity signatures are valuable.
Not everyone with a famous last name was a celebrity.
Just because people ran large companies does NOT make their signatures valuable.
Autographs are valuable only when many collectors agree.
Autographs that show increased value at one point in time do not necessarily stay valuable.
Very few military or political figures achieved sufficient fame for their signatures to be enduringly valuable.
Autograph collecting is usually about the money.
For that reason, we can divide celebrity autographs into certain categories.
Signatures from major personalities – Commodore Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie – are expensive and have been for years. The prices for autographs of second-tier celebrities like Morgan, Harriman and Gould have recovered nicely since about 2012 but suffered for several years before that.
Further down the scale of importance are signatures from minor and local celebrities. They tend to have limited values outside of small numbers of specialists. Signatures from individual company presidents may be important to collectors of single lines, but price records prove that many collectors don't seem to care.
Third, fourth- and fifth-generation Vanderbilts may have been valorous individuals, but their signatures often have limited value. A famous last name does NOT confer automatic value to autographs.
Yes, there are specialists who collect locally famous military figures, politicians, U.S. Senators, presidential cabinet members, university founders, philanthropists, brokers and speculators. Regardless of rarity, long-term price records clearly indicate that autographs from narrow specialties attract limited interest. When interest is narrow, prices are low. Highly specialized autographs often experience short-lived price spikes.
Again, my philosophy is simple – – –
What if you don't know whether an autograph comes from a genuine celebrity? Information about true celebrities should be easy to find.
Descriptions of genuine celebrities always appear in:
Millions of online sources are acceptable sources for information, but the same rules should apply. Scattered appearances on a few web pages does not make someone a celebrity. References should be numerous and diverse.
There is a simple test for celebrity:
Take Henry Oppenheimer, for instance. His signature is found on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of B&O certificates from around 1900. He had a famous last name. He obviously controlled significant wealth. However, I challenge anyone to discover who that man was. (See my December, 2004 newsletter for more discussion of Oppenheimer.)
Appearances in a few sales do not make autographs valuable
Major autographs will sell in multiple major auctions and they will appear in many different dealers' price lists.
There are crucial ideas to consider:
Two warnings for beginning and intermediate autograph collectors.
NEVER collect autographs unless you know precisely why YOU must own them. Who cares whether sellers list specific names as "autographs"? Mentioning names does NOT make autographs valuable. It does not mean that autographs will become valuable in the future. Why would you spend money on autographs if you don't genuinely want them for 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.
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 definitely some demand for those kinds of curiosities. I list a few "issued to" certificates when they meet the same valuation requirements as autographs: they must sell for at least $25 more than ordinary certificates and they must increase certificate values by at least 25%.
I beg you in the strongest possible way. Please buy autographs and autograph-related certificates cautiously. Autographs CAN be extremely valuable, but you should buy them because YOU want them.
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