Every once in a while, I get into conversations with collectors and non-collectors about my thoughts on signed items, mostly about the Beatles. I always issue my standard disclaimer that I am not, nor have I ever been and autograph expert, not even in the slightest. I’ve owned Beatles autographs, seen quite a few and do have a general idea of what their signature looked like through the years. But when I’m asked to look at a signature bearing John, Paul, George or Ringo, or anyone else for that matter, I give my standard plea of total ignorance regarding the subject. I don’t have the credentials to call myself an expert. But that never stops clients and friends from asking my opinion anyway. So after they accept my disclaimer, I’m more than happy to elaborate on the subject.
On a personal note, I never collected autographs, per se. I’ve collected rock and roll records, CD’s, videos, books and most forms of Beatles related memorabilia but autographs never held that much of an interest to me with the exception of having obtained some myself directly from those persons of interest. So I do have some of those but they are in my personal collection and I’ll leave those for my loved ones to deal with hopefully in the very distant future.
Now this should not come as a shock to anyone who is collector but for the uninformed, well, here is a fact I will stand behind. Most Beatles autographs are forgeries. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, and don’t shoot me as I’m just a messenger, but this is the hard, cold reality. For those not in the know, the reason is simple. Items bearing a legitimate Beatles autograph are quite valuable and are becoming more so as the years go by. Driving that is a growing group of people, mainly beginner autograph collectors who get so excited by the idea of owning an Beatles autograph, and due to their inexperience, plump down good money when they see one being advertised for what may seem like a reasonable price. And to satisfy the demand, there are predatory forgers around who, with the aid of either knowing or ignorant sellers are more than happy to take their money and pass off their fakes as real ones. Anyone can claim to be an expert. And anyone can write up a letter or certificate of authentication (LOA, COA).
Years ago, I was contacted by a woman who loved the Beatles and collected memorabilia of theirs and she had come upon hard times, with a sick family to take care of, and decided she needed to part with her collection. One of the items in her collection was a photograph of George Harrison purported to have been signed by him. She told me she had obtained it many years ago at a Beatles convention for around $200 and the dealer’s credibility had been verbally backed up by another dealer my client had been doing business with. I looked at the signature and it just didn’t seem right to me. I consulted with a friend in the business who gave the signature a big thumbs down. It was not a happy day for me when I had to relay this news to my client, though she took it well, I felt really bad for her.
So what can one do?
The first thing is to do some research. Start googling “Beatles signatures for sale” or “Beatles autographs for sale” and start investigating the whole scene. And I cannot stress this enough but do not get excited when you start seeing the great looking autographs for sale. Always remember that excitement is not necessarily your best friend when getting into collecting valuable autographs, especially in the beginning. Excitement often leads towards problematic decision-making which can lead towards costly errors. Step one is about information gathering, not impulse buying.
Now unless you are dealing with someone you know and implicitly trust, such as a family member or old friend, and you know precisely how they obtained the autograph directly from a Beatle, you’re going to have to go to an established dealer or through a very reputable autograph and memorabilia auction house. And in the end, it’s going to cost a hefty amount of money. It almost always does. Buying, selling and auctioning legitimately rare collectors items bear lots of risk and expenses, particularly for renowned, reputable dealers. And those sellers always provide with the purchase a lifetime money-back guarantee. With a growing market, and a very real risk of fraud involved, established dealers, with their name and reputation at risk, have to spend a great deal of time and energy making certain that they are dealing honest-to-goodness valid items. The good dealers do this. The dishonest ones obviously do not.
But is this all? Not in my opinion. If I were buying an signed Beatle relic, even from an established dealer, I’d also want to know the provenance of the item. Provenance is the narrative chain of the signed item’s present owner connecting it to the hand that signed it.
Many years ago, in my early days of memorabilia dealing, I purchased a large collection of Beatles related records and items from a man who spent time overseas in the military in the 1960’s and 70’s. One of the items in the collection was a movie premiere booklet from “The Magic Christian” that starred Peter Seller and Ringo Starr. The booklet was signed on the front by Ringo. My memory is fading regarding the specific details but I believe a friend of the seller had attended the premiere in London, with Ringo in attendance, and during the event, had gotten Ringo to sign the booklet, and then the friend had given the booklet to my client.
Two significant factors are at play here. First, the premiere booklet itself was substantially rare as it was only printed for the premiere, meaning maybe no more than a few hundred copies made. And those copies were distributed only at the premiere for the attendees. Even unsigned, this item was a highly unusual and desirable piece of memorabilia.
And this leads to the second factor and that is that I was then able to connect the item, in this case the booklet, with the location and within the presence of the signer to have signed it, as it is well documented that Ringo attended the premiere. This is pretty good provenance and when I sold the premiere, this story was included in the COA I provided. But was this enough? Not entirely. So I consulted my friend, who is a very renowned and respected Beatles memorabilia and record expert, who examined it in person, who then directly verified it’s authenticity to me orally and in a letter. With this, I felt comfortable claiming the item’s legitimacy and selling it with all this information and proper documentation.
So where’s the good news?
I’ve already sort of mapped it out. Do your own researching, check the current market prices for real autographs, find a well-established reputable dealer, speak directly to him or her in person on the phone about what you are looking for, get references, get a letter of provenance with a lifetime guarantee, and expect to pay a lot of money. And don’t pay cash! Established businesses need to protect their reputations and will want to make sure there is a proper paper-trail between a buyer and their highly valued merchandise. Any autograph dealer asking for cash only should throw up an elephant-sized warning sign to you as once they have your cash, there is absolutely no way for you to reclaim your funds should your autograph were to discovered to be a fake later on.
Established sellers do not undersell real autographs, even on Ebay. If someone is selling them at what seems like a bargain, remember to always go back to the “too good to be true” adage. It beats the hell out of the disappointment of finding out much later on, that the autograph you paid hundreds of dollars for, is 100% bogus, and worthless. Good luck, have fun and do your homework!