I have sought but one person's autograph in my life, and that was Bob Feller; and that was outside Yankee Stadium when I was 11 or 12, and the Yanks had just creamed the Indians, and Feller was sore and mean, So he slammed open the door to the players' entrance, and pushed through the crowd like a snow plow in high, and I was sore too. So I went home and sat down to write Ike or the police-I forget which-but I never finished the letter. Feller's autograph didn't mean that much to me anyway. I had, after all, Billy Martin's.
Billy Martin's autograph came my way by pure accident. A patient of my father's happened to mention that he was a friend of Billy Martin's, at which my father happened to mention I was a Yankee fan. So the friend asked his friend to send me a post card. Billy wrote, "God's speed," and sent it off. That's all the card said: "God's speed. Billy Martin." It constituted my entire autograph collection, and still does, if I can find it.
All this is to introduce the news that I don't know beans about autogtraphs, and cared about just as much, until I fell into an article last week about how valuable autographs are, and what are the going rates. Billy Martin was not on the list. But Conrad Veidt was, and his autograph ( $35) is worth $20 more than Mickey Rooney's, though considerably less than Mary Miles Minter ( $47). If that surprises you, what do you make of the fact that you can get $45 for Lawrence Tibbetts' autograph, but $5 less for Sidney Greenstreet or Groucho Marx, and that Sabu's autograph ( $35) is worth almost twice as much as Tony Randall, Shelley Winters, Dale Egans, Janet Blair, Katy Jurado and Louis Jourdan ( $3 each) combined?
Confused by what seemed a hodgepodge of values, I turned to a book I had bought two years ago, but had never opened, the "Stein and Day Book of World Autographs" by Ray Rawlins. I bought the book on speculation, assuming a contingency would arise, as it did, just as I know it will for "Werewolves of North Carolina." The Stein and Day book is mostly an alphabetical catalogue with famous names posted alongside pictures of their signatures. But Mr. Rawlins' introduction to the subject seems comprehensive, if necessarily brief, and it clearly sets out the two factors that make some autographs worth more than others.
First, there is the matter of rarity. Evidently one of the most valuable autographs in the world is that of Button Gwinnett, once the president of Georgia, and possibly the least celebrated signer of the Declaration of Independence. A holograph letter of Gwinnett's sold for $51,000 in 1927. It's present value is listed as "incalculable."
Rarity would certainly account for Mary Miles Minter's name being worth more than Mickey Rooney's, although it would not explain why her signature is worth more than Katy Jurado's or why it is set at the amount of $47. It may be that Miss Menter simply signed her name less frequently than others. This would explain the high price on Sabu's autograph, since people associate Sabu more with the word, "Aiyee," than with the world of letters.
Second, there is the matter of context. A signature on a letter or document is automatically worth more than a mere signed name. And the document itself gains in value for what it contains. For example, a note that went as follows:
How are you?
Sir Francis Bacon would be worth something less than:
Have just finished "Hamlet." Hope you like it.
The same goes for:
Dear Mr. President,
Mr. Mitchell thinks I have a great idea, and i'd like to run it up the flag pole. Got a minute?
I can understand this system, though I still do not see what is intrinsically valuable in an autograph. It is mildly interesting to observe that Henrik Ibsen's name looks as if it had been inscribed by a tortured rat, and that Joan Sutherland's Joan Hancock looks like Spaghetti-Os, and that Montgomery of Alamein wrote like a typewriter. But unless you're a graphologist, it's hard to delve any deeper. For myself, I know this: Better to own a Goucho Marx or Sidney Greenstreet any day, than a half a dozen Lawrence Tibbettses, with two Conrad Veidts thrown in. Sabu, I admit, is something else.
Still, I can't and don't complain. I do have a Billy Martin, somewhere. And who knows in the course of the world's progress what "God's speed. Billy Martin" may mean to eventual history? Yeats, who always thought of prosperity, once signed a check, "Yours sincerely, W.B. Yeats." And think how rich some of our forefathers' relations would be today if their careless ancestors had not torn up hundreds of pieces of paper two centuries ago, muttering: "Another damn note from Gwinnett."