What is an autograph?
The word "autograph" is misunderstood by the Brazilian public, as for most people it is an exact synonym of signature (of a soccer player, a musician, a soap opera actor, etc.), when in reality any role in a person's handwriting is his autograph, with or without a signature. In this sense, "autograph" is also an adjective: a note, a drawing or a musical score are all autograph documents, because they are made entirely by the author's hand, whether with a pen, a pencil or a brush.
In fact, what is least of interest to the collector of autograph documents are the simple signatures (except for a few exceptions), which carry little information, beyond the fact that the author is literate and knows how to write his name. The most interesting autographs are sometimes those that are not formally signed: notes by a famous composer, a draft by a great writer, a sketch by a genius artist, all this private documentation, which was not intended to be released, almost never have a signature, but reveals her personality or life, in addition to her inspirations, way of thinking and creating. This content, insignificant for the layman, remarkable for the specialist or the historian, is much more valuable than many documents signed by the same characters, but with banal content. What really stimulates the autograph collector is the search for letters and documents with important or curious content.
It is this permanent search, extremely consuming time and energy, that modestly evokes the Glórias collection: we look for rare, extremely rare or extraordinary pieces, in Brazil or abroad. Such quality autographs are hard to find: they are kept in public institutions or in private collections, sometimes in old trunks and cupboards, closed for years... But a change of address or the death of the owner eventually reveals treasures and enriches them. sales, making it accessible to individual collectors!
Objective factors value an autograph
Many factors contribute to the value of an autograph: among them the quality of the content, the condition, the origin, the public's demand for the author or the subject and the “stock” available on the market are the most important factors. But there are many other details that can significantly increase or decrease the value of an autograph document.
This set of criteria is analyzed by people who have become experts over years of practice, such as collectors or dealers. There is no academic training for this discipline. It takes rigor and curiosity to acquire a broad technical and historical knowledge. We evaluate, buy, sell and exchange parts, sometimes we make mistakes too, we analyze catalogs and observe the national and international market. All this is part of learning which – due to the great variety of interesting characters and themes – is permanent.
So is it enough to analyze these criteria to evaluate an autograph document?
No, because even if these criteria are fundamental, there is also the “emotional” side of the collector. Like a painter's work, an autograph document is unique, which explains the enthusiasm and values sometimes achieved in spectacular public sales, widely commented on by auction houses and the media.
What justifies a painting by Gauguin selling for 300 million dollars or a letter from Abraham Lincoln being sold for more than a million at international auctions? Evidently the artistic quality, the content and the perfect state of conservation are decisive. But one must also take into account the determination of the collector when competing with another(s) and wanting, at any price, a piece for his collection. There is certainly something irrational about it, we cannot underestimate the ego and ambition of collectors.
And the seller's feelings? It is also something very interesting to analyze. Quality autograph documents are acquired on the secondary market at auctions, from other collectors, from specialized stores (called dealers), but also from heirs or people related to famous personalities. In this primary market there is also the “emotional” factor of the owner. Resigned to selling something received from the famous and admired relative, husband or friend, he can ask for an “off-market” value, without being aware of the objective criteria that we normally evaluate.
Criterion 1 | Market demand for a character or theme
Demand varies greatly from one country to another, even from one region to another. For example, autograph documents of the Brazilian Imperial Family are widely collected by Brazilians, but are not in demand in Europe or the United States. In general, collectors are “nationalists”: caricaturing, a Frenchman will look for letters by Zola or De Gaulle, an American will wish to own a piece signed by the Wright brothers or by John F. Kennedy and a Brazilian will admire Alberto Santos Dumont, Ayrton Senna or Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
In addition to geographic criteria, tastes and interests also evolve with time and society. Traditionally, kings or presidents have always attracted the attention of collectors, but we can imagine that in the future, texts written by big internet entrepreneurs or environmental leaders will also be very coveted by a generation of new collectors who grew up in this world of high technology and consumption. conscious. These trends are difficult to predict and cannot be confused with trends that accompany the intense media coverage of events, books, documentaries or films: these trends are temporary. For example, when the film about the life of activist Malcolm X, by director Spike Lee, was released in 1992, the demand for and quotations for the autograph documents of the black leader increased spectacularly; a few months later, the market returned to normal.
On the other hand, the great composers, painters, writers or scientists – with established international fame – are always in great demand. Once they die, supply normally stabilizes, which determines a constant rise in prices over the years: Mozart, Picasso, Tolkien or Einstein belong to this category.
It is worth remembering that even for the same famous person or popular subject, demand also varies depending on the date or place of writing of an autograph document. Some moments in a personality's life are – from a historical or biographical point of view – more important and interesting than others.
In general, the law of supply and demand is favorable to the autograph market: there is more and more demand and fewer pieces are available on the market, mainly because the use of pen and paper tends to be less common.
Criterion 2 | The number of parts available for purchase on the market
The reasons why the autographs of a certain character become rare are the most varied.
As a general rule, the oldest documents tend to be less common, which had to face several centuries to reach us. For example, there are no more documents from the 16th century relating to the discovery of Brazil.
The personality's life span also decisively influences the rarity of his autographs and correspondence. The architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died at the age of 105, certainly had an intense personal and professional correspondence.
Even if he lived a long life and wrote a lot, an author (or his heirs) may have donated most of his papers to a library, a museum or a university, naturally creating a shortage of his autograph documents on the market. The popular belief that when a famous person dies, his written production is valued or becomes rarer, theoretically because this person can no longer write. In fact, the exact opposite happens. Friends or relatives who kept the letters, who were afraid of offending the author by selling them, dispose of his correspondence after his death. Some documents are also “lost” or forgotten in trunks and, one day, reappear on the occasion of a move or renovation of a house, and may reappear a few months later on the market and influence quotations.
Unfortunately, natural catastrophes or fires, such as the one that recently affected part of the collection of a large library in Russia, such as those of extremist religious groups in the Middle East, or the simple neglect of descendants, also make unavailable - and definitely - papers or archives of big importance.
Finally, there are some artists whose letters are really rare, such as Van Gogh or Bach, and certainly any document of one of the old masters is extremely difficult to find.
Criterion 3 | The quality of the content
Content is the factor that fundamentally determines the interest of a handwritten piece. Thus, a letter from a simple soldier, telling about the battle of Waterloo, is worth much more than a letter from Napoleon with banal content. The vast majority of letters and documents deal with irrelevant or routine matters, but occasionally autographs appear whose text is highly significant for the history or biography of their authors - and these are the most sought after.
Most collectors are looking for unpublished letters in which the writer describes an event that is closely associated with the author's fame. Consequently, letters from Napoleon on preparing for battle, from Mozart on composing an opera, from Einstein discussing relativity or from Hemingway on writing are in great demand.
But a letter can also be interesting when a historical character narrates ideas, opinions, feelings, passions, ambitions, hopes, sadness, joys, love, humor traits, etc., that reveal his personality. For example, a letter from Pelé written by him, when Minister of Sports, during an international trip.
When the author of an autograph document, the recipient and/or a third party mentioned in the text are notable, an autograph can become much more interesting. It's what Americans call "association".
In the end, it is the judgment of the importance or flavor of this content that differentiates collectors, this ability to identify interesting information overlooked by others, due to carelessness or ignorance.
Criterion 4 | The state of conservation
For many years and unlike most collections, condition was probably the least important issue when buying or pricing autographs. An excellent content letter written by Jefferson was only slightly less valuable if it was not in good condition. On the other hand, the price of a J. Edgar Hoover letter would be low value even if it were in good condition.
Photographs and signed books need to be in the best possible condition, because they are two markets offering multiple identical objects that differ in appearance. But, in recent years, the level of demand from autograph collectors has also increased. A document with interesting content, but showing imperfections, can be greatly undervalued.
Paper that is fragile, folded, torn, stained (dirt, humidity), yellowed by time, with discolored ink, with insect holes, or other imperfections, especially if the text and reading are affected, are characteristics that devalue a document in the most cases.
However, as for the content, the collector cannot be picky about extremely rare and precious historical documents. There are also restoration possibilities that can (but not always) improve the state of the document.
Criterion 5 | Other favorable features
Other elements can add value to an autograph document.
- Handwritten letters are more highly rated than typewritten letters, except when they contain notes or convey important information.
- If your text fits on one page or on two separate pages, it becomes easier to display and therefore more searchable.
- Whether the signature is legible and complete.
- Decorative or aesthetic details can add value: beautiful calligraphy, high-quality paper, a stamp, a header, a filigree or a small design, for example, like this "heart" drawn in this letter by Muhammad Ali.
Criterion 6 | a prestigious provenance
If one can prove that a document came from the collection of a famous person or was used as a facsimile of a well-known reference book, then it may be of some additional financial value. Malcolm Forbes, Stephen Sweig and Johannes Brahms were all autograph collectors and anything coming from their collections would definitely add up.
Also appreciated are photographs, newspaper clippings or explanatory letters from former owners, in short, secondary documents that add additional information to the main document, such as the explanatory letter that accompanies a dedication by Blaise Cendrars.This article is offered by the Glórias collection, specialist in rare autograph documents . We evaluate, buy and sell letters, manuscripts, books with dedications or drawings of great historical personalities. Click here to learn more