The Top-Performing Alternative Investments: Celebrity Autographs
Fueled by supply shortages and increased demand, the autograph market is said to be red-hot -- the rarest items offer up to 20 percent in annual returns.
How It Works: The autograph market focuses on the trade of investment-grade memorabilia including photos, documents, letter and books signed by historical figures, politicians, classical and contemporary musicians, movie stars, sports and literary figures and space explorers, among others. Items are available for purchase and resale at auction houses, both brick-and-mortar and online, and through autograph dealers.
Who's Investing and Why They're So Good at It: Until recent decades, the autograph market was dominated by hobbyists and historians with limited means who collected for enjoyment's sake. Today it has evolved into a legitimate alternative investment strategy of 300 million collectors-strong.
Paul Fraser, director of Paul Fraser Collectibles, made his fortune sourcing unique investment-grade signed collectibles with only the highest provenance. He turned a personal passion for music into a business of selling collectible records and eventually become responsible for brokering the deal with the Smithsonian Institute for John Lennon's signed boyhood stamp album. He and his company have sold over $300 million in autographed memorabilia.
But there are still people like movie and TV critic Jane Louise Boursaw, who has amassed a personal collection of 100 autographs including Melanie Griffith, Doris Day and Tom Selleck, by simply making requests to the celebrities via mail. Another, less dignified, tack is taken by those who hound celebrities at movie premiers, restaurants and airports with dozens of photographs for them to sign.
What They're Making: According to Paul Fraser, autograph collection has a tremendous growth market fueled by supply shortages and increased demand, especially in the case of the finest rare and unique autographed memorabilia, which Fraser says have historically produced annual returns up to 20%.
The celebrity autograph market alone is knocking the stock market, real estate and gold out of the park with a 300% increase over the last decade, according to Fraser, whose 100 Autograph Index analyzes the world's top 100 most valuable autographs, comparing their market value from 1997 through present-day. The reclusive Neil Armstrong, who stopped issuing his John Hancock years ago, is the titleholder of most valuable living celebrity signature. Over the 12-year period from 1997-2009, it experienced a staggering 1057.9% increase in value, from roughly $750 to $8,700. But that's a mere pittance compared to Henry VIII whose letter asking the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon is worth over $430,000.
A Canadian man is still waiting to see if the XBox 360 he had autographed by then-governor Sarah Palin in Wasilla will fetch the $1.1 million he's asking for as a starting bid on eBay (EBAY).
Why They Really Do It: Star watchers and history buffs get instant bragging rights when they acquire that Tiger Woods-autographed Major Moments Collection from the 1997 Masters, the Marilyn Monroe-signed photograph or Albert Einstein-penned manuscript of equations. The sizable growth market and generous returns are an added bonus to having a tangible connection to their idols.
Malcolm Forbes of Forbes magazine perhaps put it best when he said, "None of my other investments give me the joy that autographs do because they make me feel that I am holding a piece of history in my hands."
How to Get Started: Investors whose capital is limited can always start by sending photos to their favorite celebrities by mail to have them signed. Celebrity mailing addresses are available at websites like Startiger.com, Yahoo's A1 Autograph Group and Stefan's Autographs.
If your resources exceed the price of a stamp, start browsing reputable online auctions and catalogs and study whose signatures are selling for what and compare the prices against valuation books. Many experts advise against buying from members of exclusive autograph societies who sell at fixed prices since items from these sellers tend to be overvalued.
When choosing which celebrities to invest in, autographs from deceased people may be the best way to ensure safety as their reputations are already cemented and supply of their merchandise will only continue to decrease. The rarer the items, from one-of-a-kind to five-of-a-kind collectibles, fetch the best result.
When you're ready to make a purchase, visit an auction or a dealer like Paul Fraser Collectibles or Stanley Gibbons, where you can browse by category. Right now on the Fraser site, the first company check signed by Orville and Wilbur Wright is up for grabs for just under $56,000.
Amateurs Be Warned: Millions of dollars in fraudulent memorabilia are sold each year. Don't outright trust an autograph's certificate of authenticity. They can, and are, easily forged. Go to an expert third party to have the signature authenticated. Joe Orlando, president of PSA/DNA Authentication Services warns, "If I say the item's authentic and grade it on quality and I'm the seller, there's a problem."
Collectors must also be aware of memorabilia signed with autopens, by proxy and with preprinted signatures. While not technically fakes, these autographs are far less valuable.
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