Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Currency of Collectable Signatures

Collectable signatures are fascinating to me because they seem to have almost magical properties to them similar to government legal tender laws.  By this I mean that they create value where there would be none otherwise.  Dollar bills are practically worthless in terms of materials, and a one dollar bill cost as much to create as a one hundred dollar bill.  What makes a dollar valuable is that it is legal tender of the United States of America, which is the largest economy in the world.

Similarly, most autographs are not on anything that is particularly valuable.  They are often on slips of paper, letters, books, or sometimes memorabilia.  The second that their signature is written onto the item though, the item becomes more valuable.  Its value is based on natural properties of supply and demand, and in the case where a signature is especially rare (George Washington) or especially in demand (Mickey Mantle), the price can be especially high.  It strikes me that we all have signatures, but celebrities have autographs.  These autographs have transformative effects on the items which they adorn.  This also makes the author, if still alive, a bit like a money press.

Current asking prices for famous autographs include $599.00 for President Franklin Roosevelt, $450.00 for Dr. Milton Friedman, $35,750 for President George Washington, £49.99 for former Prime Minister Tony Blair, $500.00 for athlete Michael Jordan, $400.00 for athlete Mickey Mantle, and $49.99 for musician Gene Simmons (to name a few).

These prices fluctuate with public interest, and based on how often the celebrities' signature is available in markets.  Some celebrities are signing constantly, such as a popular author, politician, athlete, actor, or musician, and others can be very infrequent signers.

This makes the behavior of autograph hounding more understandable.  Autograph hounding is the active pursuit of celebrities for the purposes of acquiring their signatures.  Many autograph hounds use children as fronts for what is essentially a business operation.  Many celebrities sign in social or public situations freely, but others are more guarded.

(warning: profane language)

The video above shows musician Ted Nugent demanding money for his autograph.  Celebrities demanding money for their autograph is also very common, and many memorabilia fairs feature former athletes signing for a fee.  Many celebrities also use autograph signing sessions as a method of promotion for their books, albums, and artwork.

Signature collecting used to be a common hobby in the United States.  Individuals would collect signatures from famous celebrities and friends alike.  Setting out guest books at ones' home was another common way of collecting signatures that was quite common in the recent past.  To a certain extent, it is still practiced.

This is a film titled "The Autograph Hound" from 1939 starring Disney character Donald Duck.

Celebrities must be sensitive to the factors of supply and demand if they want to maintain a stable and relatively high price for their autograph.  This is why many celebrities do not sign autographs very often, and sometimes leave relatives with caches of signed materials with instructions about how to release them into the public.  A famous story relating to that practice is with the death of Joe DiMaggio.  DiMaggio was an individual who was able to charge many dollars for his signature, because he limited the supply.  Before he died he signed many baseball bats, and left them to his family so that they could have an income from selling them after he died.

Please let me know if there is an aspect that I've neglected about the economics of collectable signatures in the comments!

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