Bob Howell

I signed a check this morning and it set off a series of thoughts regarding signatures. Since I was a young tyke, I wondered how people made any sense out of the chicken scratching on checks, legal documents and autographs.

I imagine that celebrities had to have some of the easiest-to-read signatures, so when it came to signing an autograph the fan receiving the signature could easily know who it was from.

I'm a fan of the PBS program "Antiques Road Show." Watching it has given me some insights to the value of items like autographs. According to the appraisers on the show, a lot of the signature's value is determined by the content of the letter and its provenance — which has to do with the place of origin or early known history. 

For instance, I received a letter signed by Dr. Wernher Von Braun, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. I was in the eighth grade and had done a project on the Marshall Center when a family friend who worked for Dr. Von Braun came by our house and after looking at the project took it back to Huntsville. Little did I know that a few weeks later I would receive a typed and hand-signed letter from Von Braun encouraging me to continue my interest in the space program. I was thrilled ... to say the least.

The content of the letter and knowing its provenance probably increased the letter's value to somewhere around $1,200 or more depending on the buyer and the manner of sale (auction or retail). Maybe I could visit the Antiques Road Show when it comes close to our area and find out the value of my letter,

Believe it or not, some of the best-known celebrities have some of the hardest-to read-autographs. Take for instance one of the wealthiest and most artistic celebrities — known far and wide. I'm talking about Walt Disney. When he signed his name, it was filled with flourishes and frills ... so much so, it was really difficult to make out the name.

When Jack Lew was Secretary of the Treasury some time back, it was virtually impossible to figure out whose name was on the currency. I could make out the "J" in Jack ... but the rest of the letters were a series of neat, rolling loops.

The biggest and most easily recognized names in U.S. history appear on the Declaration of Independence. It's the bold name of John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress. A lot has been written about what we should read into the size and bravado the signature brings to the document. BTW, only 26 copies of the Constitution remain today. While most are in museums, three are in private collections. I wonder what you'd have to pay for one of those rare signed documents?

The most expensive autograph in the U.S. is on three documents belonging to the first president, George Washington. His personal signed copy of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the first Congress were sold for $9.8 million in 2012.

If you're looking for the rarest of the rare autographs, you would probably turn to William Shakespeare. There is quite a bit of controversy about just how many of the bard's signatures are legitimate. The consensus appears to be there are only six items bearing Shakespeare's signature that are considered real.

When I started collecting baseball cards, I was stunned to find that a card known as the 1909, T206 Honus Wagner topped the listed as the most valuable of all cards ever issued.  The "T 206" was a tobacco card that most recently sold for a whopping $3.12 million. Meanwhile, Mickey Mantle's rookie card from the Topps company sold for $2.88 million.

And that's with no autograph. Generally speaking, an autographed card has only a fraction of the value of a non-autographed card. That's when an autograph slashes the value instead of increasing it.

Hope you have a happy time with your signature. It says a lot about you.

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