Signs of the Times

Autographs of luminaries —from Lincoln to Liberace —feed the yen for nostalgia and a brush with fame

"Not many years ago," writes author Steve Kemper, "athletes and entertainers felt obliged to provide free autographs to starstruck fans, and collectors of historical signatures occupied a small dusty corner of the antiques market." Nowadays, though, autographs have gone retail. Many athletes and celebrities demand payment for their signatures, and people are lining up to pay the price. Autograph dealers can be found in almost any sizable city, and autograph/memorabilia stores have proliferated in malls and airports throughout the country. Half a dozen magazines and a lengthening shelf of books provide information about prices, collection strategies and forgeries to hobbyists and collectors, who may shell out hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for things signed by everyone from Mozart to Madonna, Jefferson to JFK.

 "Interest in autographs is surging," Kemper maintains, "in part because boomers, now old enough for nostalgia, have developed an expensive taste for memorabilia, and dealers are doing their best to satisfy it." Just last year a 54-page manuscript written by Albert Einstein sold for $398,500 at Christie's in New York. And in 1994, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates paid $30.8 million for a handwritten notebook penned by Leonardo da Vinci. Meanwhile, fans across the nation are flocking to sports-memorabilia shows to have their heroes sign anything from a bat to a box of Wheaties.

And, what's behind this commercial craze? What is the real reason many collectors want autographs? "To connect with someone famous," says Kemper, "and catch a whiff of celebrity or immortality, or maybe even to imagine themselves being the hero they idolize."

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