The Scandal of Clipped Autograph Cards

This card featuring George Washington’s signature from a clipped document was recently on the market for $75,000.

This card featuring George Washington’s signature from a clipped document was recently on the market for $75,000.

P.T. Barnum was dead on correct with the famous phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Although this saying can be applied to almost any situation where someone has been taken, it is especially true in the antiques field. When people buy on emotion, sometimes their rational thinking takes a back seat. Or else they just don’t know enough about the field they are delving into.

One area in particular I am referring to is the marketing of clipped signatures, packaged as a trading card and sealed or encapsulated in clear plastic holders. A relatively recent phenomenon, some sports card manufacturers, as well as other enterprising entrepreneurs, go out into the marketplace and buy documents, letters or signatures of prominent figures in history (not necessarily sports) from autograph dealers. These documents may or may not have historic value, but for the these sellers, only the signature itself has a value, as they cut out the signature and encapsulate them in standard plastic cases, which are then marketed by these companies.

These clipped signatures are then offered as limited edition cards, labeled such as 1/1 or some other low-quantity number (depending on the maker of the holders). They then sell them at ridiculously high prices on eBay and other sites. For example, I just saw a clipped Ulysses S. Grant signature converted into a trading card and encased in a simple holder selling for nearly $8,000, which is about 12 to 15 times what a similar clipped signature—not encased in commercial plastic with a so-called 1of 1 edition number—is worth. Not only are these pieces way overpriced, but the dealers of these items most likely butcher and destroy the original documents, letters or notes just for the signature, so history is forever lost in the process!

Since these encased cards can be produced by any company and endlessly produced, I wonder where buyers see any value beyond the clipped signature. Instead of buying an autograph, they are buying a speculation. After all, if a signature is worth about $500 on the open market and the piece of plastic is worth $5, where does the figure $7,500 come in?

A $75,000 Signature

As a matter of fact, I recently noticed on eBay a clipped, simple signature of George Washington in a plastic holder for $75,000! If this signature were not in this holder and priced as such, you would be lucky to get $3,500 for it, especially since the very top portion of the signature was missing. At that time, there were eight offers on it! Yet, I have seen a seldom offered complete George Washington signed document—with date, place and other historical provenance showing that he signed it while he was president—barely get a market-price bid of $12,000 to $15,000 on eBay.

Are people buying these cards because they think the makers of the sets are the only sellers that guarantee the authenticity of the item? Or do they want something they think will appreciate in value? Do they think these pieces are unique? In truth, the answer is no, no, and no! First, there are many autograph dealers who have been in business since the 1960s and ’70s, long before these purveyors of plastic-encased-signatures knew the difference between a George Washington and a George Washington Carver autograph. Appreciation is found in quality, and a full document or letter has far more appreciation potential than a plain, clipped signature. Uniqueness? As long as plastic can be manufactured, the quantity is always available! Plus, how unique is a clipped signature? Whereas, you will never find the exact same letter or document, unless the signer made a rare copy for his/her personal records.

Rick Badwey is a Worthologist who specializes in autographs and historic documents.

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  • Richard S. Simon

    Bravo!! I have long thought that anybody who bought these cards was foolish. Glad to see this article in print.

  • I’m always disappointed to see allegedly reputable dealers offering “clipped” signatures for sale.

    While many of these signatures could have been collected in the popular autograph books of the past, there are additionally sinister means for acquiring these clippings. Just as autograph hunters have pilfered archives and records repositories for centuries, the trade of clipped signatures continues to place our history in grave danger. Thieves stealing historic records from archives and libraries may choose to mutilate the document if they believe they cannot sell the stolen goods, in their entirety, without detection.

    If sellers would voluntarily refrain from dealing in ANY clipped signatures, even those that may have been legitimately obtained in autograph books many years ago, the incentive to steal historical records may be diminished. Full documents are obviously easier to identify, and if the criminals stealing these records don’t have the fall-back option of clipping off signatures, some may not bother at all.

    This voluntary decision to refrain from dealing in clipped signatures will also help to strengthen the often tenuous relationship between museums, historical records repositories, libraries, etc. and those dealing in related items, creating a more effective means of communicating and better addressing the issue of cultural heritage trafficking.

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