Published: 06:00, 22 July 2020
| Updated: 07:22, 22 July 2020
Ever fancied owning the autograph of your hero? Then prepare to spend big and tread carefully in a field teeming with forgeries and unscrupulous sellers.
Because trying to obtain something which has a genuine signature on is a minefield where one false step can see a mighty hole blown in your bank account.
And if there's one man worth having by your side to guide you through the perils, it is surely Garry King.
The Rochester-based expert has been dubbed the 'King of Autographs' courtesy of decades of experience and a reputation for only dealing in the real thing.
In addition, he provides a service using his expertise to weed out the fakes from the real things.
But even he admits, despite all his best efforts, authenticating items with any real certainty can never deliver a 100% guarantee.
"You can only be absolutely certain if you've seen it signed yourself," he explains.
"I can certainly check an autograph and believe it to be genuine but I can only ever be 99% sure. For example, someone contacted me recently with a Queen album signed by all four band members, including Freddie Mercury.
"This guy wants to sell it, so I do my homework on it. He sent me a scan and I'll then check the signatures with genuine examples from the era.
"In the case of Queen, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley, the really big names, I'd normally get a second opinion from another expert depending on what the item is.
"If we both considered it genuine, but then I need to actually see it with my own eyes."
And even then, the most sophisticated forgers have ways to replicate the famous names.
"You could easily print signatures on to a cover or put on by a pen using a plotter," said Garry.
A plotter is a clever little piece of machinery which replicates a genuine signature - and fiendishly tricky for the uninitiated to tell the difference.
Adds Garry: "You have to look for signs the plotter leaves. It has a certain way in which it works and if you know, you can check.
"But you can't be 100% sure and even then, there could be a really smart forger out there who's managed to do all four [Queen signatures] to a very high degree."
And the reason people go to such great lengths? Well, a genuine signed album by Queen can fetch in the region of £3,000.
It is a price fuelled, of course, by the untimely death of its charismatic frontman Freddie Mercury. And there is no clearer example of how 'death sells' than in the autograph market.
Garry says the most requested autograph is that of late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. "They're very rare and come up for auction maybe one or twice a year - but there's plenty of forgeries out there, of course," he said.
If you own something scribbled on by the late Beatles star John Lennon you can probably afford a rather nice holiday should you choose to sell it. One recent example which Garry sold through his website went for a staggering £2,600.
He explains: "Paul McCartney's signature today fetches £700, which is a lot of money for someone who is still alive and if you were in London at the right time, you could bump into him going in and out of his office. He's easily accessible in that respect. He doesn't always sign but he's accessible.
"But if he popped his clogs tomorrow, that £700 signature would probably go up to £2,000.
"Normally, the first few days after someone famous dies, people will pay stupid amounts of money and it could go for anything. Then as the auctions start ending they drop off and it gradually starts to go down.
"Or then you have the likes of Michael Jackson who becomes embroiled in claims and the bottom falls out of the market.
"It's the same with Rolf Harris - his market just sunk without a trace."
The Beatles, unsurprisingly, continue to command eye-watering prices. All four members together can command a price of anywhere between £4,000 to £7,000 - even more if they are all on an album or photo.
A signed postcard featuring the signatures of Dartford rockers the Rolling Stones is currently up for grabs for £2,500 while you'll get one pence change from £1,000 for a signed David Bowie album. A cheque signed by Marilyn Monroe will set you back £2,999.
The aforementioned Michael Jackson sells for anything between £800 to £1,500.
But bargains can be had. The signature of 1966 World Cup hero Geoff Hurst will set you back less than £20 and a signed photo of Sir David Attenborough less than £30.
The big, historic names, are attracting a new wave of buyers - seeing the autograph market as a wise investment opportunity.
Demand is always high for the likes of racer James Hunt, astronaut Neil Armstrong, F1 hero Ayrton Senna, boxer Muhammad Ali and footballers George Best and Pele. All of which continue to rise in value.
Adds Garry: "There's one person who has been buying things from me recently - a multi-millionaire whose name you'd recognise. They realise they're not just nice to have on your wall but the ones he is buying are only going to maintain and increase in value.
"Now is the time to invest. If you invest wisely they pay off. That's why I'm still in business."
His fascination with autographs started when he was just 11 and his grandmother gave him an empty autograph book. His first entries were cricketers he gathered from the Bat and Ball Ground in Gravesend, once a regular venue for Kent.
But it was in the 1980s when he was introduced to the dealer circuit that his interest rocketed. He would go and collect the signatures of the big names in London's West End and when his model shop business in Maidstone and Medway was ended by recession of 1992, he turned his focus, full-time, on buying and selling genuine autographs.
"I went to the US in 1999 and met some astronauts," he explains. "You would pay them to sign for you and in my 30 years of trading they have been the best investment.
"Some 30 years ago I bought a Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, signature for £25 which was about the rate they sold for then. I sold one the other week for £1,100."
However, he warns if anyone is thinking of splashing out on a signed item, be alert to the dangers.
He explains: "This business is filled with serious scammers.
"Often a forger will find an autograph album on eBay with half a dozen naff signatures in it, pay £20, put one John Lennon in it and suddenly you have something worth £1,000 or more.
"For a forger, that would be a nice, easy day's work.
"It really is a minefield and unfortunately it makes it very difficult for the likes of me and other dealers who work very hard to make sure we're selling genuine items.
"It's not a big industry and there's only a handful we'd do business with and trust."
But what of the certificate of authenticity (COA) which so often come with any autograph?
"A COA for many is a worthless piece of paper." said Garry. "At best, it will tell you where you bought it from.
"A lot which issue COAs with their dodgy autographs don't have contact names, phone numbers or addresses on them. They might just have an email address which is absolutely useless."
And he warns only specialist autograph dealers can carry out the checks to verify the provenance of a signed item.
"I could show you things which are 100% fake and you could take them into an auction house and they'd say they were genuine and they'd sell them.
"If I was giving guidance to people, I'd say avoid Facebook, avoid eBay and avoid all those social media places where people try to sell stuff.
"Never take any notice of what the person selling it to you tells you. If they are a forger they will have a fantastic story they have very easily made up just by doing a Google search.
"I was shown a Ronaldo signed shirt on eBay and asked if they were real. But as I checked other items sold by the same seller, he had sold three more of the exact same shirt. Which really tells you all you need to know and each was sold with the exact same story.
"If you're going to buy something online, make sure they are AFTAL (Autograph Fair Trade Association Ltd) and UACC (Universal Autograph Collectors' Club) registered. They're not all perfect, but the majority are, and that helps because if you buy something from one of them which proves fake you can go back and get some recompense.
"The website's contact page should also have a full geographic address and a phone number. You'd be surprised how many don't.
"And people who get conned are too embarrassed to admit it which is why people get away with it for years and years."
HOW MUCH FOR KENT'S FAMOUS FACES?
Charles Dickens: It seems a trifle unlikely as Charles Dickens took a stroll outside his Gad's Hill home in Higham that he had to wade through a crowd of autograph hunters. Yet, 150 years after his death, his signature remains one of the literary world's most collectible. And courtesy of his prolific letter writing and tours, there appear to be plenty of examples. Just don't expect to be able to afford one.
In 2017, auctioneers Sotheby's put a letter written by Dickens about the aftermath of the Staplehurst train crash he had been involved in. It sold for £5,250. And they're not getting any cheaper.
In 2019, auction house Bonhams sold a letter he had penned in 1843 for £6,500. Yet that paled into insignificance when you consider the price paid for a first edition of David Copperfield, inscribed by the author himself. The proud owner of that historic book parted with a cool £110,000.
But shop about and you may get lucky. Garry currently has his autograph on sale for a mere £495. In autograph-hunting terms, something of a bargain.
Ian Fleming: If you're a James Bond fan and ever dreamed of owning something bearing the signature of his creator, Ian Fleming, you may be in need of a licence to be ill. The author, who had a house in St Margarets-at-Cliff, near Dover, and who died after being taken ill at his beloved Royal St George's Golf Club in Sandwich in 1964, commands a hefty price tag. Several typed letters, hand-signed, are currently on the market for around the £3,000 mark. Meanwhile, a complete set of presentation copies of Bond novels, each inscribed by the author, is currently on sale with rare book seller Peter Harrington in London for £500,000. Yes, that's half a million pounds.
Peter Cushing: Whitstable's Peter Cushing was not only an old school actor - best known for his role in the Hammer horror movies as well as a brief part in the original Star Wars film - but one who would take time out to respond to fans who contacted him.
As a consequence picking up a signature by the star, who died in Canterbury in 1995, is slightly easier on the bank balance. Armed with £250 should be able to get you your prized possession - a little more and you may pick up a letter signed by the man himself too.
Nigel Farage: He may be the ultimate Marmite politician but you cannot doubt Nigel Farage's influence on the political landscape in recent years. So if you want to nab yourself a signature by a man who was a driving force in us leaving the European Union, then there's some good news. Some autograph dealers are offering framed, signed pictures of the man himself for a mere £32.99. Roughly the same price, coincidentally, as a signed picture of David Cameron, the Prime Minister who resigned following the EU referendum, will set you back.
Bob Geldof: Veteran rocker and Live Aid hero Bob Geldof is a man who, if you time your run right, you may bump into near his Faversham home. And if you ask him very nicely, he may just scribble his name on something for you. If loitering in the vicinity on the off-chance he's popping out for a pint of milk doesn't appeal, then you can take the easy route and pay around £40 to £60 for a framed, signed photo. If you want one of the full Boomtown Rats line-up from back in the day, then you'll be looking at around triple that figure.
Tom Baker: You would think the signature of a man synonymous with being, for many, the finest Doctor Who would fetch a fine price. Think again. Tom Baker, who lives in Tunbridge Wells, has signed photos by the bucketload over the years and therefore prices are a bit of a steal. Especially as you could order directly from the man himself for £20 (until the pandemic put his online store on hold) which provided a reliable level of authentification. Otherwise, you're looking at a signed picture in full Doctor garb for around £30.
Michael Gambon: Anyone related to the Harry Potter movies has seen their prices rise but relative bargains can still be had. So if you want Professor Dumbledore's signature - or at least a photo of the actor Michael Gambon, who lives in Meopham, portraying him, then £50 should do it.
More by this authorChris Britcher
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