THE WRITE STUFF Collectors gather for Universal Autograph Club's exhibition and sale


An article in the Saturday section of yesterday's Sun incorrectly reported that the annual exhibition and sale of the Universal Autograph Collectors Club was to be held yesterday. The exhibit is today at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel.

There'll be lots of big names down at an Inner Harbor hotel today, but most of them are dead.

the annual exhibition and sale of the Universal Autograph Club, those folks who collect the John Henrys of living and dead celebs (and hope some day to own a Button Gwinnett or an Abe Lincoln).

Button was the Georgia good old boy who managed to sign the Declaration of Independence and almost nothing else, which makes him a stupendous rarity, not promised for today's exhibit. But the show sponsors says their Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel exhibit will have more than 250,000 items, including letters, photos and documents ranging in price from $5 up into the

higher brackets of four figures.

Actually, rare autographs generally are strong today in the three-figure price levels, a range deserted long ago by really rare prints, stamps, paintings, jewels, silver and china. You can have an authentic Winston Churchill for $400, a Benito Mussolini for $300 and a Ty Cobb for $200 on today's market, according to UAC data. But you can take out a home equity loan and talk about buying an Abe Lincoln or an Adolf Hitler.

As in all collecting, there are pitfalls that must be avoided. And there are peaks, the diamonds or emeralds, of personal signatures. "A Marilyn Monroe, in her own hand, is worth 10 George Bushes," according to the collector's association.

Nevertheless, the presidents, partly because so many people try to collect a complete series of them, are not cheap items, but are among the most reliable investment-wise. "Lincoln is now commanding the largest sums of money instantaneously," comments memorabilia collector Robert White of Catonsville, a UAC member. (A letter from Abe on White House stationery commands $20,000). But Washington, Jefferson and Adams also are hot items and move as soon as they are offered. "Presidents are going up so fast you can't keep track of them," Mr. White reports.

As a sample of how values have increased in one generation, Mr. White notes he bought a Civil War grant of military leave signed by Gen. U. S. Grant for $10.50 in 1964. Today such an authentic item is worth about $600.

The pitfalls that amateurs must dodge wrap around the fact that automated signatures have See AUTOGRAPHS, 8D, Col. 4AUTOGRAPHS, from 1Dbeen around a lot longer than the average person realizes. "Every president since Andrew Jackson one time or another has used a proxy pen" -- in other words, an official person to sign presidential documents. Jackson was confronted with an avalanche of western land grants to soldiers and delegated the job. By the 20th century, "FDR was using eight or 10 secretaries signing routine things."

That does not mean that a presidential paper is worthless. It just means that a proxy document is worth far less than the real thing. Luckily, some presidential monikers are reported to be notoriously difficult to fake, including Abe Lincoln's characteristic hand and JFK's all but unreadable scrawl, according to Mr. White.

Collectors are continually badgered by people owning presidential warrants, promotions or commissions that appear to signed by a president and a cabinet officer -- the postmaster general or attorney general, for instance. In most cases, the cabinet member really has signed, but the president's signature has been stamped or printed. The price difference might range from $20 for the automatic signature document up to several hundred dollars for the real thing.

Historic stamped signatures are relatively easy to identify, but you have to have two of them to test them. You hold them up to the light and if they coincide exactly, it's obviously a print, even though it may be a close copy of the real thing, done in real ink.

"Documents signed with automatic pens or by stamped engraving are the easiest to spot because they never vary," Mr. White notes. But when the celebrity used master graphic artists, watch out. "Walt Disney had seven or eight people signing his name." Because of the skill of the Disney artists, "some signatures are very close; you almost can't tell," the collector says.

Other signatures are uniquely the product of two people. The hand of enfeebled President Woodrow Wilson, victim of a stroke late in his life, was guided by his wife in adding the presidential signature to essential documents, according to Mr. White. "You can see the wavering and illegible way it was signed," he says.

Personal presentation photos from celebrities are more valuable than routine items that boast merely the name of the celebrity. Two samples in the White collection are a photo signed by Richard Nixon and given to the dean of the Washington diplomatic corps (Wilhelm Munthe de Morganstierne) in 1951, and a White House color photo inscribed by JFK to Sen. Birch Bayh about 10 years later. The JFK item is in the $3,000 class, according to the collector.

Recent local action on autographs is on record at Harris Auction Galleries of North Howard Street, where the collections of former city engineer Kenneth Kaufman and others were sold on June 23. A signed George Washington document brought $7,200; a Robert E. Lee letter, written about a month after the Civil War's end, went for $2,600; and a document signed by Ben Franklin as "President of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" brought $4,600. In 1842, abolitionist John Brown wrote an interesting business letter to a Baltimorean; last month it brought $800 in the sale.

Prices of Bonaparte items were disappointing, reported Richard Hall, manager of the galleries. The items included a collection of documents signed by the "Baltimore Bonapartes," descendants of Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, sister-in-law of the emperor. One of Nappy's own signatures, however, brought $900 -- "about what you would expect" says Mr. Hall.

Knowing the vagaries of the market, based on the background of signers, can help beginning collectors in looking at prices.

You can't assume, the UAC warns, that signed photos, particularly of Hollywood stars, are a dime a dozen. A fireman who had been a bodyguard and chauffeur for Hollywood stars, including Mickey Rooney and Janet Gaynor, died leaving a large collection inscribed by his passengers. His wife assumed they were almost worthless and commonplace, since stars send them out by the thousands. Actually they were real signatures and the collection brought over $3,000.

Sometimes real-looking signatures are real, all right, but they are reproductions. This is particularly prevalent in framed, matted photos or prints of Civil War generals on which the signature is matted below the photograph. Often the signature is part of the picture or engraving, not an original, and has minimal value as a signature regardless of the value of the picture.

CSome tips for autograph hunters: It is rarity, almost but not quite invariably -- and not necessarily age -- that makes autographs more valuable. For the rare ones, values are expected to increase. A signature by Bob Dylan is worth more than a Tennessee Williams, probably because Mr. Dylan is a highly collectible icon of the rock era while Williams as an author signed many thousands of items. Entertainment figures are blue chips in the market, the experts say. Photos autographed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers will bring about $250, and the UAC predicts Astaire and Rogers items will go to $600 in a few years.

Today's autograph show and sale will open at 9 a.m. and closat 5 p.m. The hotel is at 300 S. Charles St., just off the Inner Harbor. Admission is $2 and children under 12 are admitted free. The collector's association says dealers will appraise signed documents visitors bring to the show.


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