The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) was a collector of maps and manuscripts. Although Aristotle's collection is known as the world's first-ever autograph collection, the hobby of collecting autographs merely became a hobby at approximately the beginning of the 19th century.
The definition of autograph collecting is simply to assemble a collection of signed material by notable human beings. The most typical type variant is a signed paper cut. But the variation is huge as it can be everything from a guitar, a movie poster, a baseball, or even a computer (if your surname is Jobs or Wozniak).
The autograph itself can also vary. Is it simply a full-name signature? Or maybe first name only? Is there a hand-drawn doodle beneath the signature? Is the item co-signed by someone else as well? Is the signature dated? There are so many possibilities that are relevant, especially when it comes to value.
To answer the above question, all details must be the same for all. Otherwise, it simply wouldn't be fair. And here's why: the value of a set of Beatles autographs varies from $2,000 to $1,000,000. That's indeed a massive range! At the low point, we could find a full set of Beatles autographs in poor condition, signed on a napkin. At the high point, we can find a perfectly fully signed copy of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band" from 1967 with a value of $300,000. Or why not The Beatles' first-ever management contract from 1962 with a million-dollar value. The $2,000 napkin, and the $1,000,000 contract are both signed by the same persons, yet there's a gigantic difference in value.
To make this reasonable, we need to set up fair rules:
– Full name autograph
– Signed on a paper cut
– Signed only by one human being, with no co-signer
Another critical component is that we must exclude historical names where there are no known autographs in existence. A signed paper cut of Jesus Christ would much probably be the most valuable autograph in the world, but it's somewhat irrelevant since such items don't exist. The same goes for Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and many other important historical figures.
So who is the winner? The answer is Shakespeare. The English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) has written some of the most important and well-known works in English literature. Yet, no handwritten manuscript of Shakespeare has survived. However, six autograph examples of Shakespeare do exist. Due to the importance of Shakespeare, and the minimal quantity of his autographs, the value is extremely high. In 2006, Sotheby's sold one of the six examples for 4.6 million dollars. Interestingly, that is also the only one of the six examples that are in private hands. The other five are all owned by British institutions, including the British Museum and The National Archive.
If any of the six Shakespeare autographs were to be sold at auction today, then the hammer price would much probably be in the eight figures. Yes, $10,000,000 would, of course, be a new all-time high for an autograph, but if anyone deserves that record, then surely it must be the greatest to ever use a pen, namely William Shakespeare.
Alexander Bitar is an international dealer of high-end collectibles. Based in Stockholm with office in Beverly Hills, some of Bitar's specialities are entertainment memorabilia as well as autographs and manuscripts.