Autograph collecting is a hobby separate from stock
and bond collecting. It just happens to overlap the stock
and bond hobby because many certificates are issued to, or
otherwise signed by, major and minor celebrities.
Autographs are important both for their historical
significance, and for their speculative possibilities.
Do your research
Newcomers often share the misconception that autographs
represent excellent opportunities to get rich quick. A
warning is in order. You cannot stumble into this
specialty and reasonably expect to win. Autograph
collecting takes careful research. It takes a clear
understanding of the market. Without both, speculation in
autographs represents a terrific opportunity to get poor
The autographs that show the greatest demand among
advanced collectors are those of major industrialists
(Rockefeller, Carnegie), major investors (Hetty Green),
legendary railroaders (Commodore Vanderbilt, Jay Gould),
and major historical figures (Nathan Bedford Forrest).
Signatures of that caliber routinely attract prices in the
thousands of dollars.
There are fewer such autographs than there are
collectors who want them, so important signatures show
steady increases in prices. Price increases routinely beat
inflation by several percent per year. At that level of
collecting, all attention is focused on the value of
autographs. The values of certificates on which they it
appear are immaterial.
Down the ladder of importance are signatures of
prominent railroaders (Harriman, Huntington, and the
Vanderbilt heirs), important industrialists (Morgan,
DuPont, and Mellon), politicians (Fillmore), and military
figures (Burnside.) Make no mistake. These were important
Americans. Still, collectors usually pay less than a
thousand dollars each for their signatures. Their
popularity is somewhat fickle. They are in a different
class than the previous group. Like the previous group,
their signatures are worth more than the certificates they
In less demand are the signatures of minor figures. In
this group are autographs from people like Cassatt, Clews,
Depew, Grow, and Scott. These people were important to
their companies. Many were well known in their time.
Still, they had limited impact on the nation as a whole.
At this level, you can discern the values of autographs
separate from the values of certificates. Expect to pay $5
to $100 for autographs from this group plus the cost of
the certificates they are on. Buy autographs from this
group carefully. Always consider possible resale. When you
buy these kinds of autographs, try to buy those with
minimal cancellations, legible handwriting, and scarcer
The most unpredictable group of autographs are those of
locally-important figures. These are figures who were
important in one city, county, or state, but who may not
have been well-known elsewhere. Such autographs can
attract huge bids in one auction, and go unsold
thereafter. This is the realm of the specialist.
When you are first starting to collect autographs, be
very cautious! If you see an autograph for sale, and you
do not already know who that person was, that is a gentle
hint that you should do more research before you invest.
Never buy an autograph until you know whose signature you
are buying and why you need to own it.
What exactly is an autograph?
For the purposes of this catalog, an autograph is:
||A signature, usually in
ink, signed by hand by the person whose name appears.
This definition seems so obvious that I need to define
what is NOT an autograph.
||A printed or rubber
stamped facsimile signature.
||A signature signed by a
mechanical device (Autopen or Signa-Signer).
||A signature signed by
someone (a surrogate signer) other than the person
Stock certificates commonly offer several autograph
possibilities. On the front (recto) of each stock
certificate are usually two signatures of company
executives. These are usually the company president and a
clerk or treasurer. Additionally, there may be
counter-signatures or clerks or officers in trust
companies or banks. If a stock certificate was legally
transferred, the signature of the stockholder will usually
appear on the back (verso). Such certificates may
also include potentially valuable signatures of witnesses,
attorneys, and transfer company officers.
Issued bonds usually show the company president's
signature on the front. They may also include signatures
of comptrollers, treasurers, and clerks. Owners'
signatures seldom appear anywhere on bearer bonds.
Registered bonds, however, may show owners’ signatures on
the back. The backs of many bonds show the signatures of
trustees and guarantors.
Issued to, but not signed by...
In this price guide, you will see a few references to
certificates that were issued to famous people, but the
celebrities never signed them. Normally, such certificates
are signed by attorneys. Such certificates are not
autographed. However, because they carry famous names,
they attract auction bids slightly above ordinary
Pens used for autographs
Prior to the 1940s, almost all stocks and bonds were
signed by hand with some sort of quill pen, steel nib pen,
or fountain pen. Inks for those pens were usually a black
or bluish black when applied, but most aged to a brown
color. As a rule, very old autographs show a brown halo
caused by migration of the liquid agent (usually linseed
oil) that carried the black pigment (usually lamp black.)
Signatures signed in ball point pen started appearing
in the 1950s. Although uncommon, you will occasionally
find low quality 'forgeries' signed with ball-point pens.
The modern ball-point pen was invented in about 1935,
although the earliest patent was issued in 1888. The first
successful ball point pen was sold in large quantities in
1945. You can be certain that anything signed with a
ball-point pen before 1935 is definately a forgery. Any
certificate signed in ball point before late 1945 should
be highly questionable.
It is sometimes hard to distinguish facsimile
signatures from autographs. The surest way to tell the
difference is to flip the certificate over. Fountain pen
ink normally soaked through the paper while printed
facsimile ink did not. Real autographs normally dented the
paper, the evidence of which can be seen most easily from
the back. Another method is to look closely where one pen
stroke crossed another. If the junction of the two strokes
is exactly the same shade as the surrounding pen strokes,
you’re probably dealing with a facsimile. (Experiment with
both fountain pens and ball-point pens to see how they
Facsimile signatures are common on recent stocks and
bonds, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly when they first
appeared. The New York Central heavily used pre-printed
officers’ autographs in the 1940s, and thereafter. The
earliest recorded facsimile signature in the database is
currently attributed to a New York Central specimen
(NEW-530-Ss-65) from 1914.
There is no easy way to discriminate between Autopen
signatures and genuine handwritten signatures. Generally,
you need several certificates for comparison. If several
signatures are identical in flow and appearance, you have
a mechanically-made signature. If the signatures vary
considerably, you probably have genuine signatures.
(Notable exceptions are the signatures of the U.S.
Presidents where several different auto-signing machines
may be used concurrently.)
Authenticity is a serious issue with autographs.
Fortunately, the engraving on stocks and bonds is usually
so complex, and certificates are still so cheap, that
counterfeiting of whole documents makes little sense.
However, forgers can buy unissued certificates and add
fake signatures. They can also remove worthless signatures
from issued certificates and substitute forgeries of
So far, stock and bond autograph forgeries have proven
rare. That will probably change as autographs grow
increasingly valuable. Protect yourself as much as
possible by buying autographs from reputable, established
dealers who unequivocally guarantee their products. For
valuable signatures, seek expert authentication from one
or more third party appraisers.
Finally, read these books:
||Salamander: the story
of the Mormon forgery murders
Prices for autographed issues
Autograph collecting is a separate hobby that happens
to involve stocks and bonds. Autographs of famous people
add significantly to values of otherwise common stocks and
bonds. Autograph collecting can be highly profitable.
Taken as a group, autographs have historically shown
excellent price growth. They are popular investments.
Fame and autograph demand
Generally, the richer and more influential the
individual, the more collectors demand his or her
Autographs from last century’s millionaires are usually
in high demand. Autographs from heirs and offspring are
worth much less than their illustrious parents. Signatures
from celebrity spouses are usually in less demand except
among specialist collectors.
Unless individuals were notorious, rich, or both,
autographs of company officers are seldom sought after.
Autographs from persons of pure celebrity (movie stars,
composers, sports figures) are valued roughly in
comparison with their enduring fame. The perceived value
of autographs from politicians, military figures, judges,
crooks, and other notables roughly track the degree of
their national impact.
Presently, the most 'valuable' rail-related autograph
is that of Andrew Carnegie. It appeared on a Pullman
Palace Car stock certificate and sold for over $70,000 in
the 1999 Strasburg sale by R.M. Smythe. Other extremely
valuable autographs include 'Commodore' Cornelius
Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Railroad and
the Vanderbilt dynasty. His signature is extremely rare on
railroad certificates. Signatures from Jay Gould, on items
other than MKT stocks, are also extremely valuable.
The pricing of autographs is problematic
The so-called value of autographs depends on one
thing – how important buyers think an autograph should be.
One buyer may be completely enamored with the 'get it
done' tenacity of John Casement as he drove the Union
Pacific westward across the continent. Another buyer might
wonder, 'So what?' The value of every autograph is
The values of autographs in the catalog come primarily
from prices realized at auctions. In most cases, auction
prices represent competition between two or more bidders.
Prices in fixed-price catalogs will usually be higher.
Look before you leap
Buy autographs cautiously, especially when you are
first starting. Study all aspects of autograph collecting
before you invest. Prices will be cyclic. Autograph prices
CAN AND DO FALL! Financial returns can be wonderful
Think about resale
Because of potential profits, and losses, autograph
collecting is often equated with investing. Consequently,
when you collect autographs, you should always keep an eye
on potential resale. Never buy an autograph before you
assess its future. Ask yourself, as dispassionately as
possible, whether you think future collectors will think a
particular signature as desirable as you do. Commodore
Vanderbilt’s autographs are easy. But what about Henry
Uncontrollable events affect values.
Random events affect people’s impressions about the
importance of specific autographs. For example, consider
the 1869 Selma Marion & Memphis Railroad bond. All were
signed by Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest.
In 1989, the bonds routinely sold for $150 to $250.
Then came along Public Television’s broadcast Ken Burn’s
Civil War series in 1990. Within months, dealers in
a wide range of hobbies noticed an unprecedented interest
in every kind of collectible related to the Civil War. By
1992, Selma Memphis & Marion bonds were selling for as
much as $900. By 1994, auction prices had topped $1,100.
They are currently in the $2,500 to $3,000 range.
Outside events can also lower values and salability of
autographs. You can see notable examples with signatures
of World War I personalities. They were in very high
demand during the 1920s and 1930s. After World War II,
interest in World War I autographs dropped significantly.
Prices are still low considering their age and historical