House of 1,000 stars

Starting as a childhood hobby, one man's autograph obsession has produced a gallery in his own home. Penny Jackson meets him
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The Independent Online

Had a top racing driver not replied to a teenager's request for an autograph, 26 High Street, Arundel would be a rather different place. As it is, the ground floor of the Georgian house is filled with a collection of celebrity autographs that was started when the owner received a signed photograph from Nigel Mansell almost 20 years ago.

Had a top racing driver not replied to a teenager's request for an autograph, 26 High Street, Arundel would be a rather different place. As it is, the ground floor of the Georgian house is filled with a collection of celebrity autographs that was started when the owner received a signed photograph from Nigel Mansell almost 20 years ago.

Robert Saunders, now in his thirties, little thought that the response of the Formula One driver would set him on the path to becoming a collector with a worldwide following. "I started writing to celebrities, mainly racing drivers because that was a passion of mine, when I was 15. They were pretty good about replying," says Saunders, fresh from the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed where the celebrities are on display quite as much as the cars.

His youthful enthusiasm took a more professional turn when he realised there was a market for the likes of Ayrton Senna, Niki Lauder and Jackie Stewart. "I broadened my horizons to cover everything from films and Hollywood to space and aviation, but it was no longer just an innocent hobby. People will pay a lot for an item belonging to someone who is no longer alive."

One gets an idea of the scope of his collection from the gallery Saunders runs in Arundel. In the the two front rooms of his house in the heart of the picturesque, hilltop town in West Sussex, the walls are covered with familiar faces and less recognisable signatures. Saunders himself is pictured with many of his quarry from Rowan Atkinson to Patrick Moore.

"It is a very well organised business these days. Celebrities turn up at shows put on by autograph clubs where they may charge around £15 to £20 for a signature. Of course the more they place on the market, the less they are worth. An autograph from someone like the late Marlon Brando or Bob Dylan, however, are worth a great deal because they are so rare."

Arundel has proved a fruitful place to set up a gallery of this kind. An historic town with a castle and cathedral it has antique shops, the Priory Playhouse and a regular farmer's market which takes takes place in the square opposite the gallery. An ideal commercial spot, but one which Robert Saunders is giving up now that his wife is expecting a baby.

The house, which is on the market for £650,000, has to have a partial business use since the local authority regards it as important part of the commercial scene. At present the galleries on the ground floor lead straight off the street, with the kitchen and utility room at the rear. The kitchen is 20ft long and has a period fireplace with stone hearth and an Aga. The house, on three storeys, dates back to the 1600s but was given a makeover in the 18th century.

"Our garden backs on to the castle so we are surrounded by a lovely old wall with vines growing up. You can see one of the turrets from there," describes Saunders. It is more than 80ft long with mature apple, pear, fig and cherry trees and is mainly laid to lawn. It also has a brick built studio with its own small kitchen and lavatory.

The house itself, which has recently been updated, has drawing room on the first floor overlooking the high street and a bedroom and bathroom. Two further bedrooms and a bathroom are on the floor above.

Arundel is popular with a wide range of buyers, according to Molly Miles from Cluttons, the selling agents. There is a direct rail link to London Victoria and also Gatwick. "It is also an ideal spot for second home owners because it is close to the sea and the South Downs. Every year there is a summer arts festival during which artists open up their homes to show their work." The galleries at 26 High Street, would suit an artist, she suggests.

Robert Saunders is used to supplying all tastes and passions from footballers to politicians. Among his most treasured items are a handwritten letter from Albert Einstein and also Winston Churchill (refusing a lunch invitation in 1922) and a full house of all 12 astronauts who have walked on the moon. "It was on a rainy day in Chichester that I just happened to bump into Charles Duke, the 10th man to walk on the moon. That was one of the most memorable occasions that I got an autograph by chance".

Cluttons: 01903 882213

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