Collector's Corner: Sign here please - for a healthy return

Celebrity signatures are setting the pace for high yields, but beware of duds, says Gwyn Jones
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The Independent Online

Anyone offering investment returns of 900 per cent over eight years would rightly be received with a degree of scepticism. Yet this is what some collectors have earned from autographs - forget children's autograph books, this is a market worth huge sums if you've got the right names.

Fraser's Autograph Gallery, a division of auction house Stanley Gibbons, started an Autograph Index in 1997. It has tracked 100 leading personalities for the past eight years and in some cases the value of their autographs has risen seven-fold.

Overall, the index has risen 204 per cent - far more than most conventional asset classes. So confident is it of making money, Fraser's has launched portfolios, including the historical figures set, which carries a guaranteed return.

Invest now for a set period of between four and 10 years and Fraser's will guarantee a return of between 4 and 6 per cent a year. The rate varies with each portfolio because it is impossible to duplicate a collection - many items are unique.

"We hope that the value will be well above that figure," says Tim Fraser in their investment division.

"We would then advise people on the best route to sell those autographs to get the maximum return," he adds. "The market has been growing generally, but the more historic pieces are the ones that will continue to grow in value and they're the ones I would say invest long-term money in. Things like royalty and Apollo 11."

So whose signature has risen in value by 900 per cent? Paul McCartney's signed photograph started off at £125 in the index, but has risen to £1,250. While you would think that it would be the dead whose signatures rise the fastest, if the personality is in demand then it can also depend on just how keen the living are to sign.

"Neil Armstrong is probably the hardest person to get a signature from who's still alive," says Tim Fraser. "I'm sure when he passes away the value of his autograph will go up quite a bit more - it's scarcity factor for people who don't sign very much." The Armstrong photograph in the Fraser's index has risen 637 per cent from £475 to £3,500.

The downside to this lucrative market is the proliferation of fakes. Fraser's has stringent testing facilities, comparing new samples with its huge archives of signatures from contracts and marriage certificates, but it's estimated that at least 70 to 80 per cent of those available are forgeries.

Much of the blame lies with internet sales as people realise there's money to be made and jump on the bandwagon. There are many small dealers who are reputable and will be very strict on where autographs come from, but there are many more that aren't.

This hits the market two ways: while those dealers who are very fussy about their stock are good for the buyer, it's not so great if you're selling. Persuading a small, reputable dealer that your autograph is genuine will be tough - the good ones will generally only use their own collectors.

The best dealers will also offer some form of certificate of authenticity and a guaranteed money-back offer if you're not satisfied. However, remember the certificate is only as genuine as the company itself. Make sure the company you are buying from has a regular retail premises or has been going for years as an established mail-order business.

And don't forget that even if you are completely satisfied that an autograph is genuine, if you want to resell it at some point, you will have to be able to persuade a potential buyer.

How to spot a fake

1.It's too cheap - or it's suspiciously perfect.

2. A major giveaway is that the signature and the ink simply don't "flow ".

3. The signature is underneath the gloss on a picture

4. Autopens are used by busy stars who don't want to sign themselves, and by fakers. You can spot them because the signature will be at a constant depth due to a constant pressure when signed and is in the centre of the photo. If it looks perfect then it's probably fake.

Fraser's Autographs: 01481 708 271; www.stanleygibbons.com

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