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Today's Family Magazine

Who has the world’s most valuable autograph?

By Tim Anderson

U.S. President Herbert Hoover had a great sense of humor.  During his term he once received a letter from a young autograph collector requesting two of Mr. Hoover’s signatures. “You see,” wrote the youngster, “I want to trade them for a Babe Ruth autograph and it takes two of yours to get one of his.”

Friends say Hoover obligingly forwarded the two autographs and chuckled over the letter for years.  One wonders if his sense of humor would still be so keen if he knew that it now takes seven or eight Herbert Hoover autographs to get one of the Babe’s.  Hoover’s ink signatures are worth around $100, while Ruth’s signature can sell for $800 or more.

Two of our presidents were long time autograph collectors themselves. Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were both avid autograph hounds and understood how the economic law of supply and demand largely dictates the value of a particular autograph.

JFK once received a note from an old friend who teasingly pointed out that while the autograph of ex-president Ulysses S. Grant was then selling for $55, Kennedy’s was going for an even higher $65!

Always quick with a quip, JFK wrote back saying, “I appreciate your letter about the market in Kennedy signatures.  It is hard to believe that the going price is so high now.  In order not to depress the market further, I will not sign this letter.” And he didn’t.

Presidential signatures are always fun to collect, but autographs come from all walks of life and in all shapes and sizes.  Baseballs, books, legal documents, photographs, playbills and all sorts of things are signed by movie stars, astronauts, athletes, scientists, or even famous figures from the Wild West.  Annie Oakley, James “Wild Bill” Hickok, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and “Buffalo Bill” Cody have all left signatures on letters and documents that can sell for thousands of dollars today.

Signed letters, documents and photographs are normally worth more than simple signatures on cards or autograph album pages.  But this doesn’t mean a simple signature has little value. Dark ink signatures in excellent condition of Walt Disney, Charles Lindbergh, Betsy Ross, or Martin Luther King, Jr. can sell for $500 to $1,000.  And those of Indian fighter George Armstrong Custer, ballplayer “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Sigmund Freud, and Apache legend Geronimo are worth even more!

Today some of the autographs most in demand are those of Hollywood’s great film stars of the 1930s and 1940s.  Signed photos of Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, or Marilyn Monroe are among the most valuable and will cost a collector $1,000 and higher.  In fact, Marilyn’s signed 8 x 10” photos are now worth a whopping $5,000.

Because of the hundreds of requests they receive in the mail each week, some of today’s TV and movie stars hire secretaries to sign their fan mail for them.  If a fan writes to a big star today and requests a signed photo, chances are if a photo is received at all, it will either bear a machine-imprinted signature, or it will be signed by a secretary.  Bob Hope, Bette Davis, and Elizabeth Taylor all used secretaries to sign the photos they mailed to fans.

Yet there was a time, not long ago, when one of Hollywood’s biggest stars took time out of his busy schedule to answer a young boy’s letter. Back in the 1950s, one of my younger collector friends wrote to John Wayne and mentioned that other kids teased him because his first name was Marion.  The “Duke” surprised the youngster by writing back and revealing that he too was named Marion, and that “John Wayne” was just a stage name.  Then, to my happy friend’s surprise, the letter was signed with Wayne’s full birth name: “Marion Michael Morrison.”

Because of its rarity, this unusual John Wayne autograph would be worth at least $2,500 if it could be pried from the happy owner’s hands.

Most Hollywood stars however, are much more affordable.  Nowadays a collector can still purchase a signature of Bo Derek, Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, Sidney Poitier and hundreds of other stars for around $10 each.

But if you want a signature of William Shakespeare, you’ll have to dig a bit deeper in the pockets.  The English playwright has the honor of having the most valuable existing autograph in the world.  None of his original manuscripts have ever been found, and only six of his signatures — all in institutions — are known to exist.  If one of the six autographs were to be sold today, experts predict it could sell for as much as $20 million dollars!

Ironically, if you were to see an actual William Shakespeare signature, you might not be able to read it.  Same goes for Napoleon Bonaparte, artist Salvador Dali, ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev, and King Henry III.  All had a tendency to scribble when signing their names.

On the other hand, if awards were to be given for autographs that were simple, clear, and easy-to-read, then American wild west figures Jim Bridger and Calamity Jane would win hands down.  Each signed with an “X.”