It’s still one of the most common questions anyone asks a celebrity: Will you sign something for me? Autographs are the oldest form of memorabilia, particularly in the world of entertainment. Asking for someone’s signature as a memento has existed for hundreds of years, but it was around the 19th and early 20th century when collecting really began to gain momentum. Theatre fans could have their playbill signed by their favourite performers, while stars of the newly popular medium of cinema could send signed photos to fans thousands of miles away, to feel some kind of connection.

Today, autographs compete with selfies as the go-to memento for fans all over the world. It’s also a multi-million dollar industry, with comic conventions and meet-and-greets monetising the process, as well as a healthy secondary market of collectors buying and selling online.

Collecting autographs can be addictive, but also enormously gratifying. There’s the thrill of meeting your favourite star, and coming away with something aesthetically pleasing once that meeting has taken place. But how do you start? We’ve talked to collectors and experts to narrow down the key things to consider when building your collection…

It’s About Quality, Not Quantity

You may think being an autograph hunter means having a vast archive of autographs from anyone who’s anyone. While it’s true that some dealers’ and collectors’ hauls run into the thousands, many keep their collection small and focused.

“It’s about passion,” says Stephen Lane, CEO of Prop Store, who specialise in memorabilia auctions that include rare autographs. “There are certainly trends with regards to genres and film titles, properties and franchises. Some [collectors] will be very title-specific, some will be character- or actor-specific as well.”

Author and broadcaster Mark Searby has a collection in the “high hundreds”, but has been careful to combine the autographs that mean something with items that are special on their own. “I’ve always had signed stuff, but it’s always been things I’ve wanted,” he tells us. “Most of my [signed items are] limited edition… Not just any old bits and bobs, stuff where I think ‘oh it would be cool to have that.’”

While he admits that the value of an object may be a factor, the chase is led by the heart rather than the bank account: “It’s something a little bit special. It’s something a little bit personal to you, in that you actually met these people.”

Beware Forgeries

Auction sites can be a great place for people living far away from their celeb of choice to pick up a signature. However, it’s difficult to verify whether an autograph is real or a forgery, and the internet is flooded with sellers purporting to be selling the real thing, when in reality it has never been near famous fingers.

Searby was the author of the book Al Pacino: The Movies Behind the Man, and has a few signatures from the Scarface star that he has ensured are genuine through personal connection. “You need to know someone close to the subject, or who has an ongoing relationship, so that you know it is a genuine signature,” he advises. “eBay is filled with fake signatures. I was schooled in the way that Al Pacino signs his stuff, and that’s because the stuff that I bought was from someone connected to him. So I can spot a fake Al Pacino signature a mile off – and trust me, there are millions of them online.”

Star Wars actor Anthony Daniels, the man behind C3PO, has a section of his website dedicated to fake autographs titled “Dark Side Forgeries”, while cast mate Mark Hamill often verifies signatures for fans who post them on Twitter. “I owe it to all true fans to protect them from being victimised by dishonest dealers!” he posted via his account.

Stay Informed

The pinnacle for most autograph hunters will of course always be meeting their hero in person, and there are many ways to better your chances of that if you have the time – and, in some cases, money. Seasoned autograph hunters will wait hours in a film premiere crowd to catch idols such as Tom Cruise, who is famous for spending a particularly long time with fans at events.

Conventions are a more formalised means, where very big stars offer a brief meeting, an autograph or a picture for a certain amount of money. They don’t come cheap, however – an event in Europe this summer saw professional photo opportunities with A-lister Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olympian Usain Bolt and UFC star Khabib Nurmagomedov on sale for hundreds each, promising little more than a photograph and perhaps a handshake. For some, that’s a fair amount for a moment with their favourite star, but guaranteed interaction clearly has a price.

Be Creative – And Polite!

Finding a unique item, or something that requires numerous autographs, can add interest to any collection as well as foster the thrill of ‘collecting’ signatures associated with a certain film or show.

For Searby, that show is HBO’s 2000s hit The Wire, and his item is something that you may not come across too often: “I have a first pressing of Homicide: Life on the Streets, the book by David Simon, which was the inspiration for The Wire,” he reveals. “I have it signed by about 30 cast and crew of the show. It’s been an ongoing project of mine, and it started when David Simon and [The Wire star] Dominic West were signing copies at an in-store event. Then it just sort of escalated, where I would see someone from The Wire promoting other work, and I would talk to them and ask them to sign the book rather than a DVD or picture.”

Some cast members were easier than others, however. “Getting Idris Elba was obviously a big thing, but I managed it!” he says with a chuckle.

Having a continuous project offers him the chance to scratch that collector’s itch, and end up with something truly individual to him. “I’m really proud of it,” he says. “The Wire is such a huge ensemble both in front and behind the camera. It’s also not something many people have – I see collectors with big, signed Star Wars or Lord of the Rings posters, but this is something a little bit different.”

Not Everyone Will Say Yes

Some celebrities simply do not ‘do’ autographs if you see them in the street. Sometimes it’s due to their schedule, or to their commitments to conventions that mean their autograph is now a source of income. Sometimes they simply don’t want to.

Actor Bryan Cranston announced his ‘retirement’ from signing in 2018, while The Beatles’ Ringo Starr famously recorded a video saying he would not sign anything more after years of answering requests. According to director John Waters, Jodie Foster has refused requests for autographs by mysteriously saying, “They won’t let me”.

So, what happens when you see someone famous in the street and they won’t sign something for you? Our advice is to respect their privacy. They might seem extraordinary on screen, but celebrities are human. They may be having a bad day, might not have the time, or perhaps simply don’t want to. It may be disappointing, but it happens, and the important thing is that you keep your hobby fun and respectful.

You can find Mark Searby on Twitter @Mark_Searby.

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