I'll Trade You Two Madonnas For One Marilyn...

At some of Herman Darvick's recent auctions in New York, a campaign poster signed by Bill Clinton and Al Gore commanded $770, an autographed photo of blues singer Billie Holiday fetched $1,540, and a piece of paper signed by Marilyn Monroe as "Mrs. Joe DiMaggio" sold for $1,430. Then there was the beeper contract inked by Amy Fisher, a.k.a. "Long Island Lolita": Bidders lifted its price to $1,430.

Hobbyists are shelling out big bucks for practically anything signed by living or deceased luminaries. Many collectors stick to one category, such as Nobel prize winners or aviation aces. For others, the thrill is making contact, however briefly, with celebrities of any stripe. Pen at the ready, these are the autograph hounds who stalk the famous outside stage doors and at ballparks.

Autograph values adhere to a pecking order. At the bottom is a lone signature on a scrap of paper. Put the same signature on a photograph, and the price goes up. Put it on an important typed letter or document, and it brings more still. A noteworthy manuscript written entirely in the hand of the celebrity generates top dollar.

"Content in autographs is equivalent to location in real estate," says Bob Erickson, president of the Universal Autograph Collectors Club (UACC). At a Sotheby's sale in December, a page from an 1857 handwritten speech by Abraham Lincoln that contains the phrase "a house divided against itself cannot stand" went for $1.54 million; a document signed by Lincoln appointing an assistant paymaster in the Navy brought just $3,850. The Civil War period remains a hotbed for collectors. The Robert F. Batchelder catalog (215 643-1430) features an 1860 acrostic poem by Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth to actress Mary White. Price: $35,000.

The time frame in which a notable personality signs a paper is critical to its value. Signatures of all U.S. Presidents are in demand, but especially so are the mnes they signed while serving as Commander-in-Chief. And an athlete's autograph carries a higher value if it was inked during active playing days.

TOGETHER IS BETTER. Sometimes, autographs are worth more in tandem. Collectors would love to get Lucille Ball with Desi Arnaz (they rarely signed their complete names together). New York attorney Bob Bennett, a seeker of movie- star and cartoonist autographs, figures his photo still from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, signed by director Frank Capra and stars Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, is worth $300 to $400.

Some autographs are so scarce, it doesn't matter when the ink dried. A bona fide William Shakespeare signature is valued at more than $1 million; the few known examples are in museums. American-history collectors covet anything in the hand of Button Gwinnett, who was killed in a duel not long after lending his name to the Declaration of Independence. A scarce Gwinnett letter is valued at $165,000, says The Price Guide To Autographs, published in 1991 by George and Helen Sanders and Ralph Roberts ($21.95, Wallace-Homestead Book). The same authors, who are updating the general guide, put together the 1994 edition of The Sanders Price Guide To Sports Autographs ($12.95, Scott Publishing). Before buying or selling, compare prices in guides and check with different dealers.

Autographs will typically rise in value when a famous person dies. At that point, the more of the celebrity's handwriting samples you have, the better. As with any collectible, condition is critical. A brittle document or a crinkled photo detracts from a signature's value. The acid content of most paper manufactured in the mid-19th century will cause it to deteriorate. Barbara Pengelly, a Fort Washington (Pa.) dealer (215 643-5646), claims she will deacidify any items she sells.

Of course, an autograph will be worthless if it's not the genuine article. And forgeries are only part of the problem. Many celebrities and politicians have a secretary sign for them--or they rely on the autopen, a mechanical contraption that has been in wide use since the days of President John F. Kennedy. Steer clear of dealers who won't back what they sell with a written, lifetime, money-back guarantee of authenticity. The UACC (P.O. Box 6181, Washington, D.C. 20044) and the Manuscript Society (350 N. Niagara St., Burbank, Calif. 91505) can advise you.

With contemporary signatures, you'll probably have to wait years to realize appreciable price increases, if any. A celebrity currently in vogue may not mean a lick to future generations. "You don't know if Madonna is going to be like Marilyn Monroe," says Steve Nowlin, owner of History Makers, a dealer in Indianapolis (800 424-9259). These days, some Madonna signatures go for about $200 and up.

Fans who line up to pay for an athlete's signature at a card show should be cautious. Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose are establishing current prices when they charge for signatures. They're also flooding a market that ultimately thrives on scarcity.

GOOD LUCK. Collectors can often coax signatures from famous people by mail. You can write to actors or ballplayers in care of the studio or the team they play for, though your chances of getting back an authentic signature are slim. You may have better luck if you can obtain a home address. Hobbyists with personal computers post addresses of famous people in the collectibles forum on CompuServe, the on-line service. (They also use the forum to peddle signatures.) Collectors can sometimes find addresses in Who's Who or Celebrity Register. Pen and Quill, which is sent to UACC members, also lists addresses; a recent issue featured addresses for the three surviving Beatles, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

You can improve your odds of getting a legitimate handwritten response by writing a provocative letter. If you've got a ticket stub, photo, or program from a celebrity's performance, you might send that along to have it signed, if you're willing to risk losing the item. Get a response, and you may have created your own valuable little piece of history.

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