Autograph collecting is big business with the most prized trophies going for as much as pounds 14,000. Michael Booth joins the queue to own a name
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During my short but almost valid career as a journalist I have found myself in some fairly grim situations, I can tell you.

Cowering in a ditch as Serb gunfire rained down from nearby hills; wading up to my waist through the leech-infested swamps of the Amazon delta; interviewing Lionel Blair about his pantomime. I have experienced only one of these, but it was enough to give me an idea of where standing outside the Top of the Pops studio in the rain with a bunch of hysterical Boyzone fans comes in the scheme of all things grim.

Why was I there? Well, I wanted to see what things were like on the front line. I had spent the days leading up to this sorry circumstance researching Western society's fascination with celebrity autographs, a fascination which, over the last 10 years or so, has grown into a sizeable international industry offering greater investment potential than gold. I had spoken to collectors, dealers and experts about the market's quirks, pitfalls and trends, spent hours (okay, one hour) in libraries across London reading up on the subject, and had become such an expert on current autograph values that friends were no longer inviting me to social gatherings because I had become such a bore ("Yes, really, a Charles Hawtrey is worth more than a Jack Nicholson"). I wanted to find out why one human being would sacrifice his or her dignity and physical comfort to obtain the scrawled moniker of another on a piece of paper, in an album or, in extreme cases, on some part of their anatomy. I also reckoned it might actually be a pretty easy way to earn a quick buck.

Autograph collecting (as identified in ANL Munby's 1962 book, The Cult Of The Autograph in England, has its roots in the 1820s and 30s with a pre-stamp postal system called the Free Frank, available only to members of parliament or the House of Lords. Instead of paying for their postage like everyone else, MPs would sign their name on the front of the parcel and receive free postage. Young ladies of the period, clearly with little else of a practical nature to occupy them, collected these Free Franks rather like I used to collect Panini football stickers (with Lords Byron and Nelson the Hoddle and Waddle of their day), the aim being to collect a full house.

Free Franks died out with the advent of the Penny Black in 1840, but it seems the desire to hoard useless relics overcame our Victorian ancestors almost immediately and, as various Romantic poets popped their clogs, a new craze had already begun. John Keat's friends, after the poet's untimely death in 1821, had with characteristic, insufferable sentimentality, devoured his estate for just about any relic of the man that they could carry. In the process they cut out several of his signatures from manuscripts and letters to send out to friends and admirers.

But 19th-century autograph collecting wasn't just restricted to these flouncing cloud botherers. Milton's letters, the manuscripts of Alexander Pope, and just about any document signed by royalty were all desecrated in the search for celebrity autographs. This destructive craze eventually burned itself out but a small number of devotees continued collecting signatures quietly and without fuss through the next century.

Then, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, several events fuelled a resurgence of interest in autograph collecting. The deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon were the catalysts for an entire rock and roll memorabilia frenzy - partly fuelled by Yoko Ono cashing in (or poignantly honouring her husband's memory whilst making herself one of the richest women in the world, if you'd rather put it that way), and the gargantuan growth of the Elvis industry. Signatures became the cheapest way to get a piece of the action.

As well as these deaths, the Eighties economic boom witnessed another scramble among those with money to squander in search of the latest investment opportunity. Whether it was Swatch watches or condominiums, these shiny suited, Filofax-toting folk were itching with collecting fever, and autographs seemed an attractive, not to mention conveniently portable, commodity.

Throw in Live Aid (in which Paul McCartney died a different sort of death), and the advent of themed restaurants like Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe and you have a recipe for a volcanic market for film and rock, as well as literary and political memorabilia, that has grown dramatically over the last 10 years, dragging autographs along in its wake.

Phil Nelson, a 36-year-old museum curator from Carlisle, was one of those who began collecting autographs in the mid-Eighties. "I'm a big fan of Errol Flynn and the swashbucklers, and the first autograph I bought was an album page signed by him for pounds 120. It appealed to me, it was the closest I could get to having something of his."

Phil's autograph collection has grown to over a thousand signatures, mainly film and television stars, and he now earns a second income as a dealer. He is especially keen on the film The Great Escape and has several of its stars' autographs. "It's nice to get autographs in person because then you know that they're 100 per cent authentic ."

Frustratingly, Richard Attenborough has so far eluded Phil: "I've written to his agent twice and I even wrote to Ken Bates, the Chairman of Chelsea Football Club - because Attenborough is a Chelsea fan - asking if he could try and get it for me. But I've heard nothing."

When does an autograph hunter become a stalker, Phil? "I think that happens a lot more in the States. They get a lot of in-person collectors there and modern stars are getting tired of it. They realise people are making heaps of money out of them and so now they will perhaps only sign one item, or they'll sign deliberately badly." Val Kilmer's and Kevin Costner's marks are particularly sloppy apparently, while Sean Connery is refusing to sign anything connected with Bond. What's more, many modern stars - Keanu Reeves, Jamie Lee Curtis and Carrie Fischer among them - have decided to get a piece of the action for themselves and now authorise the sale of their used cheques. A Keanu cheque will currently fetch up to pounds 80. One dealer is even trying to sell the letter of authorisation.

Celebrity-signed cheques are Phil's big investment tip. This is partly because a cheque carries the kudos of being formerly owned by the subject, but mainly because they are so fiddly to forge; the market is, according to some, littered with fakes. "There are quite a few unscrupulous dealers," reveals Phil. "There is a well-known forger of Beatles signatures in this country (a complete set of Beatles signatures on one page can fetch over pounds 1,000). He is probably the best in the world. He not only forges the signatures, but will sometimes put in a dedication or a name on it for added authenticity. Every sale I go to there's Beatles stuff, you do wonder when they had time to sign it all. A lot of it must be secretarial."

As you may have guessed, "secretarial" means signed by a secretary, common practice among flavour-of-the-month stars who can be inundated by thousands of requests a week. Clearly secretarials are worthless, but it doesn't stop them being palmed off as the real thing.

"At the moment, the market is a bit up in the air because of the amount of forgeries and secretarials on the market. You really need to know what you are looking at by researching the person's autograph you are after," Phil explains. "Secre-taries are the bane of our lives, often they get very good at it. John Wayne's secretary was very good, you can only tell her ones because she joins the double `o' of `Good Luck' at the top, he joined them at the bottom. Some stars use things called Autopens which can sign 100 bits of paper at a time, they are difficult to spot, too."

So, provenance is important, particularly when you are spending the thousands that a Chaplin or a Churchill will cost. Most auction houses offer lifetime guarantees of authenticity with their sales but they do tend to be rather snobbish about autographs per se, as opposed to manuscripts and letters. Felix Pryor is a manuscripts consultant to Phillips Auctioneers in New Bond Street and editor of The Faber Book of Letters. "You presumably know the distinction between the word `autograph' and `an autograph?'" Er, naturally. "The popular meaning of `autograph' is a signature, as in autograph album. We don't use it in that sense, we use it as an adjective to mean `in the handwriting of', so that you will get an autograph letter, as opposed to a typed letter, which means it is handwritten by the subject. It is not necessarily even signed by them, just written by then. In some ways, we are rather sniffy about autographs because a signature is a mere signature, whereas a letter, for example, can appeal on 101 different levels."

The distinction between an "als": autograph letter, signed; and a mere "aps": an autograph page, signed, is an important one when you are buying from a catalogue. Other abbreviations include "ls": letter, signed; "tls": typed letter, signed; "d": dedicated; and so on. The clarity and quality of the signature also affects its value. Some stars, like Robert De Niro, have a more abrupt style of signing autographs to their usual signature which can affect its market value. (Though Alan Rickman is "a nice signer. If you send him a photograph he'll sign it with a silver pen," says Phil.) Dedications tend to reduce the value of a signature, too, although an interesting trend in America has seen values of some dedicated autographs rise because they are more likely to be genuine and cost-conscious buyers feel they are getting more words for their money.

So, with these tips ringing in my ears, I set out to bag me a star. Which is where we began, outside the gates of BBC TV's Elstree studios in the freezing cold one Wednesday night with Tammy, Sheryl, Jeanneane, Danielle and their fellow Boyzone fans. Aged between 13 and 16, these passionate young ladies live in Borehamwood and are to be found holding their noisy vigil outside the studios every Top of the Pops night. They rarely get past the gates, of course - there is a two-year waiting list for tickets - but still they come to scream as the blacked-out Granadas swoop through the gates carrying the vessels of their desires - Back Street Boys, the Spice Girls, Boyzone, Peter Andre, MN8 and, tonight, Ant and Dec. Some do stop, of course. Managers see to that. "Back Street Boys came out last week and we got their autographs!" one of the girls squeals. "And I kissed AJ three times!" interrupts another.

So what do they do once they have the autograph? "Frame it, or put it in a scrap book with pictures of them." And do they think these autographs will be worth money in the future? "Yeah, of course, but we collect them because we want to drool over them. That's AJ, he's really nice," she said pointing to one of her treasures.

I had planned to wait to catch Ant and Dec on their way out, but my stay had to be cut short when I made the mistake of asking whether their affections might be transferred to Upside Down if Boyzone were to die in a car crash? This provoked an unexpected mini-riot of bomber jackets and frizzy hair, and I beat a hasty retreat.

The next day, I hit the West End where Bob Hoskins, Gene Wilder, Maggie Smith and Dame Diana Rigg are all appearing at the moment. Surely, I could get one of them to sign a programme? But, as I was soon to discover, autograph hunting is a demanding and degrading business requiring the predator to be both shameless and pushy (which may be why Americans are such accomplished hunters). "It's not for me, of course," I heard myself whine pathetically to stage door managers.

I loitered outside the Groucho Club and Angels theatrical costumiers, tried to peer through the coloured glass of The Ivy and even lingered by the NCP car-park in Brewer Street where I once saw Robert Lindsay, but not a celebrity sausage did I see. Usually you spot at least one famous face on Shaftesbury Avenue, not today. Not so much as an Anthea Turner. Hope seemed lost until dear old Bob Hoskins came up trumps. When I returned to the stage door of the Gielgud Theatre waiting for me was the booty I had sought: a signed programme.

I hot-footed it to Frasers, an autograph dealer on The Strand, to get Bob valued. Frasers has over 60,000 (it has to be said very highly priced) autographs and items of memorabilia (including one of Paul McCartney's violin bass guitars and Mike Oldfield's tubular bells). A couple of hours spent perusing their stock can reveal all you need to know about fame, especially its price - their top item is a signed photograph of Marilyn Monroe, a snip at pounds 13,995. Here, famous rivalries are finally concluded; a Tyson signature beats an Ali. Blur's autographs are currently priced at pounds 85, Oasis's will set you back pounds 150; Paul Newman's, at pounds 275, easily outranks Robert Redford; and, as for the Beatles (pounds 1,500), versus the Stones (pounds 550), well, Jagger must be livid. The market also charts the ascendancy of new stars, like the cast of the Channel 4 hit comedy Friends (Jennifer Aniston's signature is pounds 55), or Elizabeth Hurley (pounds 45) while less voguish celebrities like Edward, Michael J and Samantha Fox are each reduced to the same fiscal humiliation: pounds 15.

Death's market value, meanwhile, is as healthy as ever; it did wonders for River Phoenix and Ayrton Senna values, and one dealer admitted eagerly awaiting Margaret Thatcher shuffling off, as prices for her autograph will certainly climb. Even a contractual demise can help, Frasers are asking pounds 150 for a complete set of Take That autographs. I must tell the Borehamwood girls.

As for my original Hoskins: "Well, you might get pounds 5 for it in one of our postal auctions," the assistant reckoned, adding perhaps too late for my benefit: "You'd have been better off getting Maggie Smith's. Now, she is good." !