Many articles have been written for autograph collectors; the dos, the don’ts, the pitfalls (and with sites like eBay the pratfalls!!!) and, of course, the absolute joy of collecting. However, I cannot recall many articles being written specifically for the celebrities who sign the tens of thousands of authentic photos, cards and other memorabilia which are sold worldwide every year. Much less the millions of fake/forged items sold every year purporting to be signed by legendary actors or sports persons or various other celebrities. The aim of this article is manifold and while I hope it doesn’t read like a lecture, I do hope it offers a helpful guide to signers everywhere.
Over the years, I've chatted to probably more than a hundred plus models-actors/-celebs. Some have been excellent signers, while others have run a mile and loathe autograph dealers and/or collectors. The latter is probably due to some nasty experiences with autograph hunters and who can blame them. The story goes that Paul Newman was once hounded into the cubicle of a restaurant toilet by a middle-aged man trying to get his autograph. A very sexy star often seen guesting in TV shows of the 60s was allegedly bailed up at the end of a movie convention to sign all her remaining photos at a very low price, much below her worth as a celebrity, much less as a person. I am sure there are hundreds of other horror stories.
As a collector and part-time dealer, I can offer similar experiences from the other side of the fence. Where photos were paid for and never arrived; where photos turned out to be grainy images printed up on a cheap inkjet printer, or where signings were smudged beyond legibility, or packed so badly that creases and dents abounded, despite having paid shipping fees, which should have covered first class shipping and packaging. Each lesson has proved an expensive lesson in learning to judge which people to deal with, and which people to avoid. It also means often asking important questions, which can also run the risk of getting the person offside right from the “get go!!!” However, it’s far better that than losing hundreds of dollars along the way buying Z grade photos. Of course, there is always a conundrum in the autograph business. The most in demand signers are the ones that least need the money, and least need to waste their time (well from their point of view) signing photos. At the same time, they are also the ones most likely have their signatures forged and therefore to have their fans ripped off by unscrupulous dealers.
In 2007 these celebrities were voted the best and worst Hollywood Signers in the business by Autograph Magazine.
1. Johnny Depp
2. Matt Damon
3. George Clooney
4. Jack Nicholson
5. Rosario Dawson
6. John Travolta
7. Katherine Heigl
8. Jay Leno
9. Dakota Fanning
10. Russell Crowe
Autograph Magazine Worst Hollywood Signers:
1. Will Ferrell
2. Tobey Maguire
3. Joaquin Phoenix
4. William Shatner
5. Renée Zellweger
6. John Malkovich
7. Julie Andrews
8. Bruce Willis
9. Teri Hatcher
10. Scarlett Johansson
Matt Damon and George Clooney are consistently great signers although John Travolta has been known to issue secretarial signatures. Dakota Fanning and her sister Elle are probably two of the best young signers. It is so nice to see younger actors sign consistently, whereas so many signers over the last decade have been happy to squiggle lines that rarely compare to their previous or future signatures, thus making them barely above the value of a forgery.
Of course, there are many levels of celebrity from the A-list like Tiger Woods, David Beckham, Angelina Jolie, Edmund Hillary, Sean Connery, right down to the young actors and Musos who are just starting to find their feet. Some of the latter may be the stars of tomorrow or fade into obscurity. In between there is an enormous middle ground ranging from well known sports people through to popular singers and cult level TV stars. Other areas worth remembering are astronauts and military heroes. Many collectors will specialize in certain fields and my preference has always been toward cinema and models with a few exceptions when the opportunity presents itself. During this article I will refer mainly to actors, but I think the same advice covers most signers. Let me also mention that I have studiously avoided collecting astronaut signatures due to the high incidence of autopen signatures. I believe this is also common with many American sports people too, which is a total shame. Perhaps, the overuse of steroids makes signing for fans very difficult.
Many actors ranging from the late 30s to the current day attend a few assorted conventions each year. Many old time actors often support themselves with these shows as the wages they made during their careers were a pittance in comparison to what today’s mainstream actors often command. In Australia, actors usually rely on commercials and voice over work to eke out a living, which explains why many of them do well overseas where they often compete with actors unwilling to work as hard, or can be more difficult to work with. Let me point out that these same Aussie actors are often terrible signers until they do actually achieve success overseas. A case in point is Russell Crowe, who is listed in the top 10 above. That was not the case in the first 90% of his career although he has always been fantastic helping others in the community.
Most of these autograph or memorabilia or sci fi shows are restricted to North America and the UK, however in these locales thers are enough shows to make a decent living especially if coupled with a good website. Some actors run their own websites, or have fans or webmasters help them, or become part of a group who runs an “official” website on their behalf. Time Machine Collectibles is a notable name who have handled many fine actors over the years including the late Virginia Mayo, Francine York and Linda Harrison. And all of their signers have always done sterling work with high quality photos and signatures.
The key to being successful at these shows or on these websites come down to some key factors. At shows personality, vitality and approachability are essential. A friend of mine went to a show LA back in 2003 and said one actress looked so sad and despondent that she dare not approach her for a photo. I recently had an actress tell me that a friend of hers was now selling laser prints at shows because of the high price of purchasing glossy photos. Take it from me, obtaining high quality photos has never been cheaper if you do a little research and order photos in adequate numbers. I buy glossy Fuji photos that work out to be as economical as anything I could print off on a laser or inkjet printer. Besides many photos you print off these machines will be worthless in a few short years. They soon fade, crack or become discolored. In the end, collectors (and their friends) will avoid you and spend their hard earned dollars with someone else. Often you will be able to sell a poor quality photos at shows simply because the fan gets to say hello to you and will buy these second grade photos as part of the cost of meeting and talking to one of their idols, but they will not recommend you to friends. Why pay $20-40 for an inferior print when another actor will offer a high quality photo for the same price.
On this particualr point, let me make a special mention about great people like Yvonne Craig, Sandra Taylor, Clint Walker, John Kerr, Valerie Leon and Blaze Starr (to name barely a few) who consistently provide high quality photos at a price well within the reach of the average collector and who never stint on quality.
Whether you are just starting out, or your an established actor, I always advise you to exert as much control as possible over your images. Always make sure you obtain all or equal copyright with any photographer you work with and make sure that you preserve your right to reproduce any photo for future articles as well as an image you can sell in an autographed format. For example you may be an actor who obtains a lot of TV guest roles and along the way you get to do a stint in a Star Trek franchise, or in franchise films like X-man, LOTR, Spiderman or Star Wars, or in cult hit shows like Buffy or Angel. Ten years down the line you may be working in a different trade, or behind the camera in a non-public role. However, that role you did in say, Bones or on Reaper or Six Feet Under may just be the icing on the cake which helps put your child through private school, or pays for the annual family holiday. However, it won’t if you don’t have any photographs you’re allowed to reproduce.
Hundreds of beautiful Playboy models have found themselves restricted or barred from selling some of their best photos by the Playboy Company. I know of several playboy centrefolds who have lost thousands because they could not legally sell signed copies of their photo spreads in that magazine. And of course it's not just restricted to magazines. There is one particular photographer who hounds dealers who sell signed copies of his images. And it is one of the great hypocrisies of eBay that they will make millions of dollars each year raking in the selling and listing fees for fakes and forgeries on their website, but will ban photos for showing even the most artistic nude photo. If the FBI did a sweep of Autograph sellers on eBay then probably more than 60-80% of listings would disappear. Then collectors would be getting the real deal from the actors and models and honest dealers who do work hard on the site. People like Joy Lane, Karolyn Grimes, Tura Satana and Sandra Taylor provide some great items for their customers, but are often loss in the dross being sold as authentic fare. In another article I wrote in 2003, I noted that Glenn Ford's son, the actor Peter Ford sat down one day and went through the eBay listings and found that more than 50% of the signed Glenn Ford memorabilia was fake. Most of the dealers ignored him when he warned them it was fake and went right on selling these "fakes" as authentic Glenn Ford signatures.
Moving right along, it’s not only retaining the best photos, but also avoiding selling poor quality photos too. Without any disrespect intended, many fine actors produce photos that should never see the light of day. One of the reasons I became a collector was due to the beauty or unusualness of the images as much as the signatures. The glamorous work of men like Hurrell who made many of the stars of the 30s look beyond stunning is something to be admired and encouraged. Yet today we see beautiful and handsome actors of those golden years selling contemporary photos of themselves, which are not flattering, and I believe do a disservice to their careers. Or they sell or sign photos that are either grainy, or of such poor subject matter that a refund would have been a kinder alternative. Indeed, it might be much wiser to sign an index card for that fan instead and ask them to frame it with a more appropriate photo.
Many actors avoid working with autograph dealers, and that is their choice and should be respected. Many actors feel that the dealer makes better money than they do and in many cases that is quite true. A few factors should also be taken into consideration when dealing with a small or large dealer. You must consider whether you would make better money selling items yourself and how long it may take you. You have to think about how long it will take a dealer to sell the photos he/she buys from you and how much capital and trust he is tying up by dealing with you. Will he supply you with the photos, will he cover your shipping costs, PayPal costs and any ancillary costs involved? Will he pay you a fair price for your own photos? Will he be competing in the same market? For example if you sell on eBay, will he promise (in writing) not to sell on eBay? Is he in a foreign country where his stock will go to fans less likely to see you at shows? Does he have a website which competes with your own? Will he promise not to undersell your own price (in writing) or not to sell above a certain price (unless perhaps in the circumstances of an auction) And, in the end will this be a profitable and pleasurable experience for you?
On the other hand, these are the things the dealer will probably be thinking. How long will it take to receive the signed photos, will they be good quality, will they be in good order, will making payment be straightforward, how long will it take me to sell these items, should I spend this amount of dollars with this actor or with another actor? Most dealers have a budget and must use their judgment to make sure they spend the right dollars with the right person. For example would I prefer to pay George Clooney $20 per signature or Matt Damon $20 per signature (given that this opportunity arose) Would I prefer to buy 50 signed photos for a Star Wars actor or 50 signed photos for a Star Trek actor? It will come down to a combination of the best image, the best price and the overall communication process. I have had unknown models and very minor actors demand higher prices for their signed photos than much better known actors offering more interesting photos. Again, it is that person's right to demand whatever price they like, but it remains my right to say no. And when I turn someone down it is usually for only two reasons. I do not believe I will be able to make any margin on their photos, or their photos are not of a high enough quality, Sometimes it's both reasons, which is sad. I tend to only approach actors/models whom I like an admire, or up-and-coming people that I think are on the verge of doing well.
Over the years there have been a number of actors I did only a little business with, but with whom I have stayed friendly with simply because they are such good people and doing business becomes totally secondary. I felt this especially with the late Mike Billington who was always such good fun and also Gloria Jean and her dear sister Bonnie, who was such a special lady and whose happy emails I will now sadly miss. I know of other dealers whose friendships with various actors have developed into lifelong bonds.
There is another important factor to take into account with autograph collecting. Worldwide this is a multi-billion dollar industry and as the internet grows so does the immense turnover. People in far flung corners of the globe who once could barely afford to visit the cinema or even own a TV are now beginning to become part of this industry. In the last year or two, I have had clients from countries like China, Slovenia, Peru. The advent of PayPal and eBay has made it easier for non-Western collectors to enjoy this hobby from afar. By the same token the internet has made this industry a massive business for the criminal element. Re-iterating what I noted earlier, and while not having any solid figures which are verifiable, I would happily guestimate that some 60-80% of autographs sold on websites like eBay are fake. However, when eBay can make as much as $3 from every sale of a $30 signed photo, and as much as $1 from every unsold signed photo, you can only wonder at what incentive they have to remove dubious dealers. Across the globe on any one day, eBay has hundreds or perhaps even thousands of pages devoted to signed photos and other memorabilia. Every listing generates revenue. Every week or two are new listings and new sales. One can only wonder at how many millions of dollars of profit are generated every year.
Again, I must also point out that eBay also hosts some of the best dealers on the planet too, as well as some wonderful actors, models and sportspeople who sell on their site too. I sell on the site from time to time as there are few more competitive alternatives although I keep most of my business for the UACC auction site and my own website. The former is only available to UACC registered dealers so it does not conflict with celebrities selling their own wares on eBay. For the collector, the internet is a world laced with landmines, some of which can cause some very expensive explosions. To the collector, good dealers can only try and answer their questions, ask them to study the signatures of the people they collect closely, avoid items that appear too cheap and always be patient to get the item they want. I recently had a buyer complain that she had paid me too much for an item from Oceans 12 signed by George, Brad and Matt. I received the item from an in person dealer who provides the signing details of his items. My reply to this buyer was that I will guarantee the item authentic and give a full refund if any of the signatures were not authentic. I would not apologize for charging her a price I felt the item was worth. “Why would the in person dealer who had worked hard to get these three actors to sign this photo want to sell this photo for the price you thought you could pay another dealer.” She was expecting to pay something like $50-60 for such an item. I said, by all means you can go on eBay or another site and probably buy such an item, but will you ever feel comfortable believing that it is an authentic item.” I must also point out that paying a high price is no proof of authenticity either, but when someone offers you a photo signed by say, Marlon Brando for $30-50 then it's time to start running a mile.
And one of the reasons, I keep harping on fakes is that many of the great signers are the ones least forged. I want to encourage all celebrities to become better signers. I don't care whether it is for charity, for fans, through the mail or you charge a $100 for it. I definitely believe that the best way to deter the crooks is to flood the market with high quality authentic signed photos. Collectors will have greater variety, greater trust and lower prices in the long run. Dealers will be in the same boat. The biggest losers will be those people trying to trade on your good name.
However, prices are a poor guide to an item. I have seen signed photos from actresses like Lauren Bacall, Joan Fontaine, Jean Simmons and Linda Evans vary from US$5-70 and can confidently say the cheaper items were just as authentic, although the images were often inferior. Of course these great ladies along with Lizabeth Scott, Bea Arthur, Linda Harrison and many others are all great signers. Many of them will sign photos for their fans as long as return postage is included. Many are kind enough to add extra photos of their own. The advent of the web as reduced this generosity a great deal because many dealers would take advantage of sending their photos for resale. I actually sent a payment to the lovely Noel Neill who signed my photos knowing I was a dealer and was still kind enough not to take any payment. Instead, I put the money towards a local charity. It was the least I could do when she had been so kind. Anne Francis is another great lady who tithes part of her signings to charity. I have done several signings with Miss Francis and the fact that she works so hard to help others has always swayed me towards choosing Miss Francis over someone else. Hugh O’Brian and Jane Seymour are two other great signers who deserve kudos. There are many others of course, but autograph signings can have a positive effect and many charity events would not be successful without the kindness of celebrity signers.
Many actors who sign TTM (through the mail) for collectors will only personalize items because they fear their items will end up being sold on the internet. Unfortunately, many inscriptions can be removed from photos and this is often only a minor deterrent for some dealers. I have removed a few inscriptions from photos I have bought in job lots or from other dealers with mixed results. Unfortunately I have also bought some photos only to find out later that an inscription had been already removed. So now I carefully hold all photos up under intense light to check for this problem and warn my customers whenever possible and price the item accordingly. I tend to put such items to one side until I have a collector with the same name and offer it to them for a discounted price.
Of course there are many celebrities who go out of their way to make collecting difficult for dealers, but usually this makes it equally difficult for their fans too. They will constantly change their signature, make it a total scrawl, sign dark on dark or light on light, or stack photos before they have a chance to dry, or use inferior pens. I can only suggest people avoid these people. It’s like the actor at an LA show who was charging $50 to have fans have their photo taken with him. Coupled with the cost of his signed photo, he made something like $50,000 for two days work. I am not sure he won many new fans especially as a friend told me that he was a total grump to boot!
I hope this short piece has helped you in some small way gain and understanding of the nature of the autograph business. I think all celebrities need to sit down and think about what autograph collecting means to them and how they want to approach this business. You have to think about what your fans mean to you. I suggest you search the internet from time to time to see what items are being sold and whether they are fakes or authentic. You need to decide whether you want your fans to be able to get the real deal, and whether that is by providing an official (or fan) website or using a reputable dealer to provide quality signed photos of you and what type of photos you want in the market place. You need to consider the consequences and direction of your career to decide what role autographs may play in your later life as a source of income or as a means to help some charity you support. You may even think about signing photos and putting them into a special vault or local bank as an investment or insurance policy for your children.
You may never want to sign a photograph or index card or poster or CD unless it is in person for a fan, or at movie premiers, sporting or charity event. You may want to make a fortune, or not make a dollar at all. It is entirely up to you how you handle this matter. I just urge you to consider this as a major part of your career whether you are a sportsperson, actor, model, astronaut or an accidental hero!!! However, I will tell you this, most genuine dealers love what they do, most fans love your work or they wouldn’t want your autograph and most of the criminals in this business tend to target the actors who are not regular signers. And the forgers won’t write to you or email you or offer to buy signed photos from you. They'll just be happy making a buck from your good name....
Copyright David Priol 2007
Below are some of my all time favourite signers...
Feel free to email me with any questions or thoughts