A Dangerous Sign

David Priol

Collecting anything from fountain pens to Roman coins can be a lot of fun, however collecting autographs can be a dangerous love affair. In an article I  wrote with Glenn Ford; the great actor, who is also one of Hollywood’s largest autograph collectors, succinctly summed up this great hobby.
"I think autograph collecting is a wonderful pursuit. I no longer sign but it's only due to my age. To hold in your hand a moment in time when someone you admire inscribed a special message is a treasure. I had a great time collecting and it's been my pleasure to sign through the years.”

I will give you a gentle introduction to a very tough hobby. I do this because it’s the best fun bar none. And yet, you can spend a small fortune and still end up with nothing more than a broken heart.

Although the Internet has made collecting much easier and brought many actors closer to their fans, it has also created a huge industry based on fraud and deception. Out of cyberspace have risen the conmen and forgers. Some are brilliant while others are so inept that you wonder how anyone could fall for their shoddy products. I have seen a Buffy photo allegedly signed Sarah Michelle Gellar, which failed to spell her name correctly. In the USA the FBI and other police forces occasionally round up organised cartels of forgers and sellers. I have had contact with actors as diverse as Joan Collins, Marta Kristen and Karolyn Grimes and they have all seen their signatures copied. Indeed Karolyn who starred as the wonderful Zuzu in “It’s a Wonderful Life” recently confirmed that one company was selling a copy of a multi-signed photo that she had obtained from some of the other surviving cast members. The original is worth US$800 but the dealer was selling the item with a starting bid of US$1. However, he was not selling it as a preprint (where the signatures are a printed part of the photo) but as an authentically signed photo. Many preprints are sold in this manner yet aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Also note that a site like eBay may turn over more than $500 million a year in signed photos and earns probably more than 5% in listing fees and selling fees so that this area is a lucrative market for the multinational corporation.

In the early days of Hollywood, preprinted signatures were common, and often that signature had been provided by secretaries working for the Studios. Secretaries also often provided the signatures placed on photos sent by the fans. Actors like Walter Matthau, Clint Eastwood and Gene Kelly often used this method and probably 99% of Gene Kelly’s photos have either been signed by secretaries or have been forged. To collect Gene Kelly items you are better advised to buy documents like cheques, which are usually signed Eugene rather than Gene and then frame this item with a great photo of your choice.

As a general introduction you should follow the same guidelines collecting autographs as with anything of value. Study the subject’s signature until you can recognise it in your sleep. Look for particular details and styles. While there are numerous Robert Redford signed photos, you will soon notice that for the most part he always seems to sign across his chest and he does this whether it makes the signature hard to read or not. Is this an idiosyncrasy or something forgers and or secretaries have picked up on. Mel Gibson, on the other hand, intensely dislikes autograph collectors and often varies his signature style so that it becomes anyone’s guess which one might be authentic. I wouldn’t bother buying a Kylie Minogue signed photo unless I saw her sign it myself. Natalie Portman almost never signs Star Wars photos unless for charity, yet there are eBay dealers who sell such items every other week. Liam Neeson virtually stopped signing after he made Star Wars, while Shirley Temple and Olivia de Havilland have rarely signed since the 90s.

These days there are a number of ways to obtain autographs of the stars you admire. The addresses of many actors are provided on the Net by other collectors and you can sit down and write a letter and send a photo for signing. This can be a lot fun, but very expensive. You need to send a SSAE and sometimes a payment for the photo. And you still might find yourself getting a photo signed by a secretary or preprinted as is the case often with actors like Bruce Willis and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Some actors have also been known to keep your photo and return a preprinted photo in its place. Others send extra photos and a letter and can be totally marvellous. Old-time actors are usually the most friendly and generous and should be cherished much more than their modern counterparts. Many of these actors supplement their incomes from a time when some very fine actors weren’t as well renumerated by the Studios as they are now. B movie and TV actors were often very poorly paid. Current Aussie stars still are! Many of these  sites also report successes and failures writing to stars. All collectors should bookmark www.google.com and just type in someone’s name and voila you will find loads of great source material and contacts and fun ways to track down autographs. (Try researching your own name and see what you find out! Well unless your name is alas Smith or Jones) You should bookmark www.imdb which is the greatest movie site on the planet although prone to bloopers. (Corrections can be made by anyone!)

You can buy from reputable dealers, but take care to check thoroughly that you are actually dealing with a reputable person. If they are a registered with the UACC, IADA or Manuscript Society then this will offer some protection, but always double-check their bona fides and never take individual items for granted. Dealers get duped like everyone else especially as many handle large quantities and some get through the cracks. If you see consistent errors then it is wise to give that dealer a wide berth or report him/her to any group they may belong to. All these fine organizations have website addresses.

Do not take it for granted that because a person has high ratings on eBay that he is selling authentic goods. Often the ratings merely refer to speedy or courteous service rather than reflecting anything meaningful about the actual item. However there are some really great dealers (and some actors) selling on eBay. However, they make up the minority of members from my experience and you have to be prepared to weed through the chaff to find the gold.

Always be ready to ask lots of questions and carefully assess all answers. Always be polite and avoid slanderous statements because you can be traced via your email if you use a private email account and it rarely achieves anything useful. Spend a lot of time comparing signatures and remember it’s very easy to save photos to your hard-drive for future reference. Simply right click on most images and then save to a “sample signature” folder. I also suggest that you give the sample a title like “sample Clint Eastwood 1dp” etc with the dp standing for the seller’s name. This enables you to refer back later on and compare sellers and find consistency with signatures etc. You can build up a whole library of your favourite stars so that you can make comparisons at any time. I advise you to try and get good examples from legal documents and cheques etc as these tend to be more authentic. Sellers like Daniel Cohen, R & R Auctions and JD Bardwell are worthwhile places to build your knowledge.

While not everyone likes collecting signed photos that have been personalised (inscribed, ISP) these are often cheaper and probably more often authentic as forgers get less money and take too longer to sell these items. The more writing on a photo the less likely it is to be a fake (percentage wise) because it becomes harder for the forger to maintain fluency and consistency. However, the same doesn’t apply to autopens. (For example in my opinion, Lily Tomlin uses at least one autopen: BUT please write to me if you think I am wrong) Signings which include unusual first names can sell very cheaply. Sometimes inscriptions can be removed from signed photos without leaving too but this requires care and should always be made clear by a seller. I have done this with 4-5 items that I could not sell as they were and which made a marked improvement. One signed to “Video Express,” by Hugh O’Brian left a faint trace, but is still legible at certain angles. Another by Cyd Charisse looks great, but I still note it as INSCREM in my cd-r catalogues. I had a nice chap in the USA who bought nearly all the photos I bought which were signed Rich, Rick or Richard. (A good dealer will offer to contact collectors who want this service.)  So I would put these aside for him whenever I saw them and he would get them for a good price because I usually bought them well too.

There have also been some brilliant collectors over the years like Howard Davis and because Howard’s name appears on them they sold quite cheaply, but they were great examples from actors of the 1940-80 period and perfect for any collection; Claude Williams and Andy Marvell were two other large in person collectors. There was another collector who use to get actors to sign photos too, but often he wouldn’t have the correct one available so he might have a John Lund photo signed by Richard Carlson etc…very confusing for collectors today when his collection hit the market through Todd Mueller.

Another method is to buy directly from the stars or their webmasters on the internet. There are a large number of actors from the great shows of the 40-90s who run their own sites or with the help of technically capable people. Often the webmasters are fans of these stars who enjoy helping and turn the websites into a full to part time job. Here I will give a plug to a writer/webmaster chap named Dave Goudsward who has been absolutely brilliant in helping me both as a novice dealer and a friend. His work for Marta Kristen is brilliant, but never ever ask him for map directions. Some of these sites include child actors now in their 50s and 60s right up to actors in their 80s. The late John Agar had a very fine site where he sold some terrific signed pictures. Again you can find all these sites by doing a Google search. Popple like Anne Francis, Clint Walker, Billy Gray, Gloria Jean and her sister Bonnie, Yvonne Craig and her sister Meridel achieve great websites.  Barbara Cary with Peter Ford have one of the best sites in the galaxy withwww.glennfordonline.com 

As a collector and part-time dealer, I am moving more and more towards buying large orders from many of these great actors for the Australian market because even though they are more expensive than places like eBay they aren’t always economical for individuals to buy one-off items when you add shipping charges from the USA or UK. So I use the economies of scale to provide the local buyer with authentic signed photos. A number of non-American dealers are moving this way to avoid the frauds on eBay or use agents that go to the conventions in the USA to obtain in person signings on their behalf. See the photos of Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, the delicious Lana Wood with Sean Connery and Marta Kristen from the 60s classic Lost in Space. These were all obtained directly from these fine actors. Buying this way also means that not only does the actor get his/her fair due, but that you receive an authentic item because these sites are very reliable and often these actors tithe part of your payment to a worthwhile charity, as is the case with great ladies like Anne Francis and Jane Seymour.

Many child actors from the early days now have websites full of great stories from the past having worked with some of the legends of the Silver Screen. Collectors should check some of these out including actors like Gloria Jean, Karolyn Grimes, Gary Gray, Angela Cartwright and Billy Mumy. Though the latter has a morbid fear of flying! Because many of these actors appear at numerous conventions in the USA and sign a lot of photos it is often less worthwhile for forgers to copy them than some of the rarer signers. Actor Jon Provost, child star of the Lassie series from 1958-64 once signed 500 photos within three hours. Val Kilmer is alleged to have made over $50,000 for a weekend of signing in LA during 2003 where he was charging something like $50 for fans to have them snap a photo with him. Eliza Dushku did similar numbers at a show in England during 2004.

I would also point out to budding collector/dealers that it’s most important to treat potential suppliers like the above with courtesy and respect. Not to dominate their time (they lead very busy lives), not to spend lots of time arguing about price, and when you get your photos do not undersell those actors on your site or outlet. These actors have worked hard for what they have and it is very upsetting to see people they have helped undercutting them. However, I would always warn you that it is wise to make sure that you ask actor/sellers to describe the items they are selling to you as some actually sell inkjets/lasers and low end merchandise. Because many of these actors attend various shows and meet and greet their loyal fans they can happily sell these items for a good price because their clients are really thrilled by meeting them and getting a personally signed item that this is quite acceptable. However, as you are just another autograph dealer, you don’t have their charm or their acting record to make an inkjet palatable to a buyer unless you sell it very cheaply. My advice is simple don’t buy them in the first place. I either don’t buy from these actors or I arrange to obtain my own photos and send them for signing. Many actors are very happy to do this and may even give you a good price break as it saves them a good deal of time and trouble. You will find some actors are tied into contracts with other sellers and so they won’t be able to sign for you.

In closing this introductory look at autograph collecting, I would like to leave you a good reason why I love collecting autographs. In 2003 I bought a signed picture by Basil Rathbone, the suave Brit who immortalised Sherlock Holmes. Though the 10x8 photo has been slightly trimmed taking the “e” off the name Rathbone the photo is still in great order. However, not only is the photo rare because of Basil’s signature, but also because all 4 RAAF chaps appearing in this photo: Flight Officers Rylance, Ellis, Withecomb and Bakewell also signed the photo with Basil sometime during 1943. All four flyers survived the war and Flight Lieutenant Harold Bakewell also won the DFC. Although I know one of these men died during the 1990s, I have been unable to trace the other three men to ask them about the photo’s history. This is an extremely rare find given its Australian connection, and holds pride of place in my ever-changing collection. I have added the photo so that you can see the item although the signatures are not visible in this format.
Of course there are many great reasons to enjoy collecting autographs, not least that these fantastic images often make beautifully framed artworks. If you have a question or need assistance feel free to email me at bacall@iprimus.com.au

                    David Priol  BA (Hons)  MA (Lit)

                 UACC Lifetime Registered Dealer #263

Emily: Really Charles, people will think-...
Charles Foster Kane: - -what I tell them to think.