Skinner Inc.

Auctioneers and Appraisers of Objects of Value

Autograph Value Guide Part I: Three Tips for Collecting Historical and Famous Signatures

Signed documents, such as letters, manuscripts, memos, and other important papers, are one of the fastest growing collecting areas at auction. The personal nature of signed documents connect us to the world’s most important figures, and the stories that they reveal make history come alive in a way that no textbook ever could. If you wish to collect a little history of your own, follow these tried and true tips.

1. Autograph vs. autographed, and other slightly confusing terms of the trade

Famous Signatures | George Washington

Lot 140: George Washington (1732-1799), Manuscript signed letter, Est. $15,000-25,000

In the world of manuscript collecting, there are terms of the trade that are slightly different than their common usage. Most people refer to a famous person’s signature as an autograph. However, in the manuscript world, the term “autograph” means that a document has been hand-written by a notable person. If it has been signed, it is simply described as “signed.”

Another slightly different usage of a term in the regular world versus the manuscript world involves the word “manuscript.” Normally, this term generally refers to a document, such as a draft of a novel. However, in the manuscript collecting world, this means a document that was hand-written by someone, possibly an unknown hand. So, here’s where the rubber meets the road: when something is referred to as “autograph letter signed” (often shortened to ALS), it means it was hand-written AND signed by the same figure. If it is called a “manuscript letter signed,” (often shortened to MLS), it means a famous person signed it, but they did NOT write it themselves.

If you’re looking at an autograph document signed, it will usually be priced higher than an autograph document, or a manuscript document signed. An example of a George Washington MLS to be sold in the November 13, 2011 Fine Books & Manuscripts auction is pictured here.

Here’s another thing to note: you will find autograph documents that are unsigned as well. If you’re buying those, be sure the authenticity is sound.

2. Timing is everything

As with many things in life, timing can be an important factor with signed documents. The date a document was signed can greatly affect its value and desirability. Value is at its greatest when a document was signed at the height of a person’s career or notoriety. This is especially evident with presidential letters. A letter signed by a sitting president is always more valuable than one penned earlier in the politician’s life.

For example, a document signed by assassinated president James Garfield at the time he held the nation’s highest office is worth about $6,000. That same document penned when he was merely a Congressman from Ohio is worth $400-600. Learning about a signer’s personal history can help you assess the best period pieces to pursue.

3. A good read trumps all

An interesting read is better than a mundane one – that’s why content is key with signed documents. Letters that reference important historical events are fascinating and provide real insight into the happenings of the day.

Controversy, scandal, and open displays of emotion in print remind us that these icons of the past were real people, with all their human frailties intact. These elements increase a documents value significantly.

It is best when the content of a document is in the wheelhouse of the person writing it – i.e. Washington writing on the Revolutionary war; Edgar Allen Poe expressing his frustration with his writing career.

Additionally, any important figure, corresponding with or referencing another important figure can increase worth. This is known as a “collateral reference,” also sometimes referred to as an “association piece” – i.e. a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant; a letter written by impressionist painter Edouard Manet referencing contemporary writer Marcel Proust.

Buy historical signatures that you find interesting – that’s the personal connection that makes collecting signed documents so much fun.

Read more advice on this collecting field in Part II: Rarity & Condition in Signed Historical Documents.

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93 thoughts on “Autograph Value Guide Part I: Three Tips for Collecting Historical and Famous Signatures

  1. Pingback: Signed Documents | Autograph Value | Rarity and Condition

  2. I have an autograph from Dizzy Deen, of baseball fame, that my uncle got during Spring training for the team in Florida. It was among his things I found after he had passed. Is it of any value?

  3. I have a picture of Billy Eckstine at the Tic Toc(the home of name bands) He’s much younger in this pic……..with his band behind him. The picture is not autographed but the cover it came in is. I believe this pic was taken by Club Photo service in the 50′s because it has a phone number that starts with(Hancock 2859) and says if you want copies ask for number on bk of photo..The photo and cover are in great shape…….hope I gave enough info………ty Sandy

    • Thank you for your comment. Your picture of Billy Eckstine best fits a collectible market, and likely has a value of less than $100. It is not something we would handle at auction.

  4. I have a note sent to me in the mid 1970s by designer Bill Blass. I was working as a reporter and did a profile piece on him. He sent me the note to thank me for the story I wrote. It is on his own stationery — a single panel note card with his name embossed at the top. Is this something that would be of interest at auction?

    • Thank you for your comment. Your note from Bill Blass would best fit a collectible market, and likely has a value of less than $100. It is not something we would handle at auction.

  5. I have a letter written and signed by Benito Mussolini on his own stationery, dated 1921 that I found in one of my late grandfather’s books. Would this be of any value since it was written before he was actually Prime Minister?

    Thank you!
    PP

  6. I was thinking of purchasing a pair of concert used drum sticks signed by the entire band called Staind. Although it is not exactly historical, yet, I just wondered what you think they might be worth, if you can even determine that for me…?

    • The rock bank Staind has its roots here in Massachusetts. We don’t offer (yet) at auction items from this vintage and I would suggest checking online only auctions. A hint, look for comparable results from completed sales to help guide your purchase. Good luck!

  7. Hello there!
    When I was a child, Al Gore and Rick Lehman were in my city visiting, and I got them to sign a dollar bill I had in my pocket since I had no paper with me for them. I still have the dollar to this day. It was a very long time ago …atleast 20 years or more ago… I was wondering what the possible worth of an Al Gore signature runs and maybe even the Rick Lehman signature. I forgot I even had this dollar bill and ran across it tonight.

  8. I have a signed “revised first edition” copy of Woodrow Wilson’s “The State” signed 31, October 1900, Princeton NJ. Any first impressions on value?

  9. Trying to determine value of postcard signed by Harry S Truman and Thomas Hart Benton. Card is a photo of the T.H. Benton mural in Independence Mo. And has a first edition commemorative stamp of Thomas Hart Benton. The stamp mark on the card is dated 8May 1971, Independence Mo. –the mark does not cover up any of the stamp.

  10. I have a land grant document dated 1788, probably written by and definitely signed by Samuel Johnston (first man ever elected as President of the United States…..he declined the office). The document has affixed to it a heavy parchment seal and survey map of the land, by means of a ribbon running through both documents…..any idea of value?

  11. Hi I have a catholic missol commerating Pope John Paul 11 when he visited Australia in 1986 signed and dated by his holiness using his latin. name Joannes Paules M11.Givrn personally to my father at a private audience….any idea to its value?……..Rob

  12. Hello. I have an autograph from Pele, which he signed with his real name, “Edison,” and “Pele.” On the same paper, I have an autograph from Italian soccer star Giorgio Chinaglia. I also have a vinyl LP signed by Luciano Pavoratti in 1976. Are those of interest? Thank you.

  13. In 1938 My omar worked in a radio station and was a friend of Lionel Barrymore. At Christmas he and Everett Shinn gave her a sined Red Book ‘A Christmas Carol” published by the garden city pub. co NY .with illustrations by everett shinn ,introduction by lionel barrymore. Is this book of any value as it also is in fine condition. I dont know who to really ask.

  14. I have a book called Taps For Private Tussie” It is illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton and autographed by him. Is it worth anything?

  15. I have a note written by Christine Keeler to Michael Lambton in the 1970′s. It was given to my husband (then head barman at the Lancaster hotel) to give to Mr Lambton but he never came in.
    I am just wondering if it would be of any value to.
    With thanks

  16. I have a copy of the prayers offered by Rev Peter Marshall when he served as the US Senate Chaplain from 1947-1949. This is an offcial document from the 81st Congress 1st Session. It is identified as Senate Document 86. The volume is stamped “From the Office of Olin D Johnston U.S. Senator”. Then, underneath that, there is a hand written note and signature which says “To Rev W.P. Hall, Sr with Best Wishes Olin D. Johnston”.

    I’m just curious as to what a value may be on this items.

  17. Hello I have an autograph of Vice President Hubert h Humphrey and would like to know how much is it worth? I also have a picture autograph of Joseph t Robinson an would like to know the value of that also .

      • Thanks for your prompt response in the value of my signatures. I also was wondering who/where can I sale this item?

        • There are a number of autograph dealers who specialize in presidential material. I would search for someone who seems to do a lot of business, belongs to a professional organization, and/or is close enough to meet with in person.

  18. I was in the movie “Falcon and the Snowman”, with Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton. They both(signed) autographed my pocket-sized phonebook in, (I believe) 1983-84? Is this of any value? Thank-you, G.J.T.

    • There may be some nominal value for the signatures of living Hollywood actors, but this falls under the category of collectibles, and when it comes to signatures, we sell historical documents in different fields in our rare book sales. Sometimes we sell signed photographs of nineteenth century actors, vaudevillians, or actors from the early talkies, but that’s about as far as we go back in the history of the entertainment business. You may find a specialist in celebrity autographs who can help you.

  19. Hello, my husband bought a box of books at a yard sale ,we later found what appears to a an old autograph book ,with signatures from 1870. from the DC area mostly goverment officials Taft,Sherman,Walt Whitman 1870 ,R B Hayes are just several of the signatures , Do you know where we can take them to be evaluated ?

    Thank You for any info .

  20. I have picture taken at funeral of Sam Rayburn and it is signed by Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. What would this be worth? Thank you.

  21. I have a letter which stars as follows:- This letter should be regarded as a collector’s item because it was posted on board the Pacific Princess during the course pof Cruise No 4633 and went ashore from the ship in an unusual manner at Niuafo’Island on 17th October 1980.
    Then the letter proceeds to give details of why it was unusual.
    Would this be of any value?
    Thankyou for your time

  22. I have a childrens book and cassete tape autographed by Ray Charles. The box set is Chica chica boom boom. Any ideas?

    • Ray Charles is too modern to make it into the rare book auction market at this point in history, but it’s probably a good idea to hang on to these things for the future.

  23. I have a picture of Sophia Loren which is signed by her, also Kirk Douglas picture signed by him and Mitzi Gaynor picture which is signed by h er. What would this be worth?
    Thank you.

    • Show business autographs are generally handled by autograph dealers and sold through the collectibles market. The signed material we sell at Skinner rare book auctions tends to be historic (i.e., older), even when it comes to actors and performers. We sometimes sell signed cartes de visite of 19th century actors, vaudevillians, and performers from the silent screen and early talkies, but we do less with modern stage and screen performers. Sometimes our Discovery sales feature collectibles like yours, but usually in bulk. You can get in touch with the Discovery department at 508-970-3202 to find more out about your collectibles.

  24. Hi
    I have 3 letters written and signed by Walter Scott and was wonder what kind of value they
    Would be worth.
    Thank you

    Laura

  25. Hi,

    I have a letter from Dolley Madison to her cousin through her mother’s family (Coles), from whom I am descended. It is undated but from the references contained therein, it was clearly written during her marriage to James Madison, as she refers to him in the letter. It is not a political letter, the subject was to thank a family member for a loan made to her brother and sending family regards, remembering the close relationships with various relatives, etc.. The condition seems to be quite good. No intention to sell the letter, but have been curious as to the possible value.

  26. I have a paper napkin with William Falkner’s signature on it. This was received from him at our HS graduation party at his home. His daughter Jill was my friend and classmate, and many good memories were made at their home with the family.

  27. I have a postmarked envelope that contained a letter from convicted serial killer David Gore. He hand wrote his name and return address as well as the recipients information. Is something like this worth anything? If so, who or what organization would I need to contact to sell it?

  28. I have an autographed New Testament which was dedicated to my great Uncle by Cleveland Cady of Alpine NJ. I know that Mr. Cady was an architect that designed several famous NY buildings. Any idea how much this is worth and how to sell it.

  29. I have a collier’s photographic history of European war signed H.J.Barnes July 17 1917 is there any value in this
    The book is not the best shape air binding

  30. I have a few items one being a signed copy of Eddy Arnolds song book signed by him, Duke of Paducah,Annie Lou, Danny Dill, Oklahoma Wranglers, Skeeter Willis, ????? Willis, and Roy Wiggin. I have U.S. Army letters from 1919 from france, some letters from before and from WWII. I have no idea what to do with these items can you help me out please?
    Thanks for your time,
    Michele Edwinson

  31. This constitutes an inquiry more than a question. We have an oversized original litho of the “Opening of the West” (Mural in the Truman Library) signed by BOTH Thomas Hart Benton, Artist; and Harry S. Truman, President. This is clearly an “Association Piece” highly likely NOT issued to the public en mass. (8×10′s were w/out signatures) Am considering PSA/DNA Certification in an effort to place at Auction. Tons of provenance on this piece. Is this something which highlights your pointed interest. Thank you. JOHN

  32. I have Fidel Castro signed photo, year maybe 1970 or so, what is it worth? Also have Harold Wilson, Edward Kennedy and 50+ more signed photos. Where should i sell that kind of collection?

  33. I have a lithograph of the mural painted by Thomas Hart Benton at the Truman Library which measures 17×10.5 inches. It was printed in 1961 for President Truman’s 77th birthday. It is signed by both Truman and Benton for Truman’s nephew. I also have the addressed envelope to his nephew as well as the invitation. I was wanting to know what it’s value.

  34. I have a signed photograph of Arturo Toscanini as well as his baton. I also have a signed photograph of Rachmaninov. I have a handwritten letter signed by Harry Truman. And tens of other signed photographs of musicians conductors actors etc. how might I find out the value of these items.

  35. I have an autograph book that my great uncle left to me. He was a bellhop at one the most prestigious hotels in Hollywood in the heyday. It is signed by famous people like Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and many, many others. Would it have any value?

  36. I have a change of residence agreement signed by Giuseppe Verdi, in Paris September 17, 1862. He also wrote something about St. Petersberg on top. Would you have an idea what this would be worth? I also have a signed photo of/ by Giuseppe Mazzini and some medals.

  37. I have a old postcard from a hotel that was given to my dad several years ago when he was in Vegas with his job. the signature on the back is Ed Sullivan. what research can I do for the authencity of the card? Thank you

  38. Many years ago I purchased sack of old family papers. Among them is a small note to a Captain French disqualifying a Rupert Sayles from military service because he needs to wear a truss. The signature appears to be Wm Shirley. The signature is complete, but part of the date is missing. If this is an authentic signature of Governor William Shirley, would it be of any value?

  39. I have two signed, handwritten letters as follows: Adlai S. Stevenson and Harry S. Truman. Would there by any value to these documents? In addition, I have three typed and hand signed documents as follows: Albert Einstein (2), and Eleanor Roosevelt. Please advise as to whether these would have any value as well.

  40. I have a “salute to the president” brochure dated october 7, 1976 signed by nelson Rockefeller and Bob Dole. It was from a dinner for president ford. Governor reagan was also there. I think it was in chicago since other politicans form Il were listed. It is in great shape . is there an interest in this ?

  41. We have a movie poster from Nobody’s Fool starring Paul Newman, that has what appears to be Paul Newman’s autograph. How can we get it authenticated? I know Mr. Newman usually didn’t sin items, but we got this at a auction in 1995 for a group we belong to and the poster was donated by a Vice President of Blockbuster. Thank you.

  42. I have THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS document signed by Abraham Lincoln and I would like to find the value of the same. Its look like original hand written and signed document. I can send the picture of the same upon your reply.

    Thanks.

    M. Haq

  43. I have a hard cover book called the White House. Printed by my husbands grandfather Henry Laupp who was director of production for Judd & Detweiler in 1962. It is signed by Jacklyn Kennedy addressed to him. The book is in very good condition. What would this be valued at?

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