Signatures to treasure : YOUR MONEY

An old IOU could be valuable, writes Clifford German
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ONE FRIDAY night, 40-odd years ago, an old friend of mine went into a pub just off Fleet Street for a quiet drink on his way home. He found a boisterous party in progress, led by a gregarious, curly-haired Welshman. It was a good party, and my friend was quickly drawn into the conversation.

When the Welshman suddenly discovered he had run out of cash, it seemed churlish to refuse the offer of an IOU, although my friend knew he was unlikely to see his money again. He still has the IOU, with "I owe B- K- £10", and signed: "Dylan Thomas". On the face of it, everybody was happy. The poet and his friends got their drinks, the brewery and the landlord made an extra sale or two, and my friend still has a valuable piece of history.

There may well be other, similar notes in existence, maybe several. And an authentic signature by the famous poet, with such an explicit commentary on his lifestyle to complement it, could now be worth several hundred pounds at auction, according to Felix Pryor, a consultant on manuscripts and autographed letters at Phillips, the fine art auctioneer of New Bond Street, in central London.

Dylan Thomas is highly sought after because he was colourful and lived a brief, not very well organised life. Consequently, much less of his material has survived than that of T S Eliot or W B Yeats, who lived to ripe old ages and left substantial written records.

Thomas also had the poet's knack of encapsulating vivid images in small spaces. Phillips has a typewritten postcard from him to John Johnson, publicity manager of the Group Theatre, whom he had never met. It reads: "You'll recognise me easily. I'm short with lots of hair," and is signed. It is part of a collection of autographed letters, books and manuscripts that Phillips is auctioning on 16 March, and is expected to fetch between £300 and £400.

Autographs have been collectable since the early 19th century, and are rather less subject to the vagaries of fashion than other collectables, although time and tide do leave their mark.

Sotheby's has a catalogue, dated 1901, which advertises in large type the sale of 20 letters by her late glorious majesty, Queen Victoria and, as an afterthought, a manuscript copy of John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale (rather rare)".

In general, figures from the worlds of literature, art and music are the most sought after, and items that enhance public perceptions of their subject are more valuable than those that contradict them. So Dylan Thomas's IOU would be more desirable than a note from the poet declining the offer of a drink, however rare an event that might have been.

Soldiers and statesmen are more subject to fashion, while sportsmen are generally not highly rated, except for a handful of 19th-century cricketers - and most of their surviving signatures are found on bats, which are a different area of interest.

Politicians, especially latter-day ones, are not particularly popular either. Signed photographs of Mrs Thatcher in her time as Prime Minister, for example, are relatively common. And while history has yet to decide whether she will be classed as a politician or as a statesman, they might well not reach £100.