Signing off... The world's greateast autograph-hunter

Tommy Scullion, an Irish grocery driver, devoted his long life to writing to famous people, hoping that a combination of flattery and beautiful calligraphy would spark them to reply. In this way he built up one of the world's finest collections of autographs.

Popes, dictators, murderers, spies, artists and Nobel Prize-winners were induced to raise their pens, and their letters to Mr Scullion were packed away in boxes in the house in which he lived his entire life, in the village of Broughshane in Co Antrim, Northern Ireland. In two weeks, the collection of about 40,000 signatures is up for auction so that the proceeds can be used to create a small museum in Mr Scullion's memory.

One of 10 children, he left school at 15 and never married. He kept a relentless schedule of about 25 letters a week. He scoured every newspaper for new names of people to whom to write, then set about finding a suitable address, using a calligraphy he had taught himself.

He had replies from Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, T S Eliot, Abba, Edward Duke of Windsor, Pope John Paul II, Albert Schweitzer and Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese woman who, as a nine-year-old, was caught in a famous photograph running naked after a napalm attack in 1972.

Pablo Picasso sent him a dated autograph with an artistic flourish. When Mr Scullion bumped into Grace Kelly and her husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco, on holiday, they were so charmed that they added him to their Christmas card list.

He also collected signatures from the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, the serial killer Charles Manson, the Kray twins – who sent him a poem – and the double agent Kim Philby, who replied from Russia. Not content with getting a signature from O J Simpson, he also collected them from all the lawyers for the defence and prosecution.

Sometimes it took years for the coveted signature to reach him. The letters were still coming after he died in hospital after contracting MRSA, aged 72, in 1996, including one from Thabo Mbeki, later to become president of South Africa.

Mr Scullion kept the collection in boxes, making only a half-hearted attempt to catalogue them. He left a will, unsigned, bequeathing the collection to the village museum. This presented his legatees with a problem: there was no village museum.

Now his family is hoping to solve the problem by buying a building adjoining the village doctor's surgery and transforming the middle floor into a museum with facsimilies of some of his most interesting autographs, with explanations of how he acquired them. They hope that the auction, next week, will raise more than £50,000.

His brother Wilson said: "There were 10 of us and he was the only one who never left home. He worked as a grocery driver. He never drank or smoked. He played golf off scratch and spent his money on travelling.

"He also read a great deal. He bought every magazine and newspaper. On Sundays when we'd be coming home from church, he'd buy every newspaper on the stand. Then he'd list people in them that he wanted to write to and then try to find addresses. He started writing to people when he left school at the age of 15. He taught himself calligraphy. That impressed people. He would flatter their egos. If you stroke someone's ego well enough, it's amazing what you can get. He was very persistent and would write over and over again to people.

"He would also try to get autographs of people in their different capacities. For example, he would get an archbishop's signature and then would get it again if they became a cardinal.

"He would also get the autographs of everyone involved in an event. He got all the Watergate people, not just Nixon."

Richard Davie, from International Autograph Auctions, is selling the 400 lots at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel at Heathrow airport on 12 July. "It is a spectacular collection," he said. "One of the finest ever put together and it spans over 50 years."

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