What Makes an Autograph Valuable? Five Ways to Assess your Signed Memorabilia

Autographs have always been a part of our lives. Both of us have spent many, many years in the autograph and memorabilia business, both selling and acquiring autographs. Over that time, we have seen autograph collecting evolve from keepsakes on torn pieces of paper or scorecard to an industry that spits them out rapid fire.

This Joe DiMaggio autograph, inscribed on the side panel in lesser condition, is worth $150. Without the inscription, it would be worth $450.

This Joe DiMaggio autograph, inscribed on the side panel in lesser condition, is worth $150. Without the inscription, it would be worth $450.

In today’s industry, the pricing of autographs has become a very tricky process. You just can’t say, “I have a (fill-in-the-blank) autograph, what’s it worth?” That’s like asking how much a Porsche is worth. Sure, it’s one of the finest vehicles on the road, but what’s its condition? In this article we will try to answer that question, focusing primarily on sports memorabilia autographs.

There was a time when you could say you had a Sandy Koufax autograph on a baseball and it is worth a prescribed value and the conversation was pretty much done there. To determine the value these days, several new factors have emerged to dictate the items final worth.

The biggest factor in establishing value is figuring out how many of them are available on the open market. Many of the greatest players have lowered the value of their autograph by saturating the market with their signature. The guy might have been the greatest at what he did, but he can be found pretty much every weekend signing autographs somewhere. Meanwhile, there are many players that have maintained value by keeping a tight lid on the number of autographs that hit the market, therefore maintaining a respectable value worthy of their talents.

This Sandy Koufax autograph inscribed on the Sweet Spot in excellent condition and is worth $750, compared to a Koufax ball without the inscription, which would be worth $450.

This Sandy Koufax autograph inscribed on the Sweet Spot in excellent condition and is worth $750, compared to a Koufax ball without the inscription, which would be worth $450.

1. Inscription Depression
Another major factor in autograph value is the inclusion of inscriptions, which can make or break your autographed item. Let’s say you have a baseball signed by Sandy Koufax. That sounds great, except that he wrote “To Bob” over his name. If Bob is indeed your name and you intend on keeping this on your shelf in full display, you would probably consider it to be one of the more valuable pieces of your memorabilia collection … until you try to sell it. The seller now not only has to find a person named Bob that wants that item, he has to somehow get something close to the market value of a Sandy Koufax ball, which will not happen.

Let’s rewind this story and instead of “To Bob,” Koufax wrote “4 No-Hitters.” That ball is now worth much more than its perceived value because of its unique rareness and because it is non-specific to its owner. For example, in Alexander’s shop in Tarzana, Calif. (Valley Sports Cards, Memorabilia & Picture Framing…valleysportscards.com), he has two Willie Mays-autographed baseballs where Mays wrote “N.Y. Mets” under his name. Very rare! The problem is, one of the balls is inscribed “To Matt” and the other one is “To Mike.” They have been sitting on the shelf there for three or four years now.

2. Good Weeks and Death Bumps
Desirability is a price determination tool that changes with the tide. There are times where the value of the autograph remains the same, but your ability to actually get its full worth is susceptible to special occasion. If a player has a great week and is mentioned on SportsCenter a couple of times, you might actually get high book value for that item, where last week it may have sold at 50 percent of its high book value. If a popular athlete passes away, the “Death Bump” occurs that sees sales skyrocket for a couple of days, then settle back again into their normal value range. The other side of that is when you have a star athlete that has limited the amount of their autograph’s availability, but for one reason or another, has done something to damage his reputation. Even though the item may have a high book value, finding a buyer for this item is nearly impossible, and if you do find a buyer, it will most likely be at a fraction of its high book price.

This Sandy Koufax autograph badly fading and worth only $85.

This Sandy Koufax autograph badly fading and worth only $85.

3. Flick your Bic; or get your Sharpie
The quality of the pen is another factor that is easily overlooked. Many a valuable autograph has been ruined by fading, smudging or just plain being in the wrong place. Cheap ink and not protecting your autograph from UV rays will most likely leave you with a damaged autograph. A high-quality ball point pen is the preferred writing instrument for signing baseballs. Black or blue Sharpie permanent markers or Deco markers are the preferred tools of the trade for most other items. Ultra-Pro is the biggest company when it comes to ball containers and they make most of their products both with and without UV protection, so make sure you are buying the UV protected version of whatever product you are purchasing.

4. Is it Genuine?
Authentication is yet another major factor in determining the value of an autographed item. Counterfeit items have infiltrated the marketplace and determining whether your autographed item is authentic by a reputable company is an integral part in selling your autographed item, both premium and non-premium.

This Sandy Koufax autograph on the Sweet Spot but is lightly smudged, bringing the value down to $250.

This Sandy Koufax autograph on the Sweet Spot but is lightly smudged, bringing the value down to $250.

5. Condition is Everything
We have saved for last what is probably the most obvious, yet most overlooked, aspect of item value, and that is the condition of the autograph itself and the item it is on. A smudged/faded autograph on a yellowed ball with greasy fingerprint marks on it is not worth as much as a solid, un-faded autograph on a white baseball. Many an hour has been spent explaining that, yes, it is a valuable item but, like any damaged item, people will not pay as much for it as they would if it were in immaculate condition.

So there you go. There are obviously many more factors that go into determining the value of your autograph, but this is a good start in building your knowledge base so that you might put together a more valuable autograph collection.


Alexander Mortimer has spent more than 25 years as an artist, teacher & professional framer and owns Valley Sports Cards, Memorabilia & Picture Framing in Tarzana, Calif.

Steve Wigderson has nearly four decades of experience in buying, selling and collecting sports, entertainment and historic autographs and memorabilia. He owned and operated one of the West Coast’s first full time sports memorabilia stores and currently puts his extensive experience and expertise in obtaining and authenticating autographs to use at Global Authentics.com.

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