Vintage Hollywood is an incredibly rewarding area for an autograph collector. Scarcity and popularity keep values high. Classic films have endured and the stars have emerged as cultural icons. How many teens today can name authors or political figures from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s? But who doesn’t know the names James Dean, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe or Humphrey Bogart?
Values are further buoyed because the buyers with money—Baby Boomers and Generation Xers—grew up in the shadow of that silver screen era. It evokes nostalgia and a longing for a glamour that seems lost in this day of rapid-fire blockbuster action flicks. Prices for the most enduring names have been climbing for years, and recent auctions show that they are holding their value even in the face of the current recession.
The most compelling reward in collecting vintage Hollywood signed photographs is their sheer beauty and owning something autographed by timeless stars. The photos are objects of art with flawless lighting and composition.Demand is high for genuine, high quality autographs and supply is scarce. That fact cannot be overstated. Thirty years ago when I first started collecting vintage Hollywood, there were very few pieces to be found. At that time, they were practically worthless. But as popularity has grown, so has the value. This has opened the door for an astronomical number of forgeries.
Whether you’re collecting vintage Hollywood for the passion for the era, or simply as an investment, you need to collect smart. There’s no substitute for working with an ethical, well respected dealer who specializes in the area to ensure that you are getting authentic items. But there’s a lot you can do to separate likely forgeries from the likely genuine items.Let’s talk about the history of that time and the factors that created the scarcity, and then go over some pointers to help you authenticate and assess the value of vintage Hollywood photos.
Let’s talk about the history of that time and the factors that created the scarcity, and then go over some pointers to help you authenticate and assess the value of vintage Hollywood photos.
Authenticity Tip No. 1: High Quality Photos
In the 1920s and ’30s, the Hollywood studio system created a method of marketing and merchandising each studio’s star independently. If you were a rising star under contract, say at Paramount, the studio would actually employ a team of photographers and public relations people to decide what your look would be, how your hair would be cut, what restaurants you would be seen at and who you dated. They literally marketed you, as a person, to the world.
Just like today, there was no way that a film star could fulfill the demand for autographs. In order to keep up with the fan base, the studios would employ legions of secretaries to sign photographs and mail them out to people who requested them. Secretarial signatures are the norm for any fan request returned by mail. So, not through any devious intentions on anyone’s part, tens of thousands of secretarials were turned out by the studios to send to the fans who would write in for an autograph. Because of this, it’s very difficult to assess how many secretarial vintage Hollywood autographs exist.
The great stars had access to the best quality of photographs. For instance, when you see an oversize Carole Lombard, it’s on double-weight photo stock, and either Otto Dyer or Eugene Robert Richee is usually the photographer. They’re exceptional photographs and they are what Lombard would have had personal access to. So, if a friend, a colleague or a fellow star requested an autograph, she would generally take one of these photographs, inscribe it to the person and present it in person—much differently than something you would receive in the mail from the publicity department of the studio.
These facts give the first important clue in determining authenticity: high quality inscribed photographs are much more likely to be authentic than single-weight glossies, which are probably secretarial signatures or forgeries.
When a Marilyn Monroe signed photograph surfaces, nine times out of 10 it was a double-weight, high-quality photograph, not a flimsy, single-weight, glossy. Marilyn Monroe, in particular, did not sign fan mail. She would sign photographs to friends and intimates, and people who worked with her. There may be a few dozen or so authentically signed Marilyn Monroe photographs in the world. Keep that in mind as you visit websites and galleries that always seem to have Marilyn Monroe signed photos for sale.
Carole Lombard, one of the greatest stars before World War II, died tragically in an airplane crash. She was also part of the star system. So, you’ll see 5×7 head shots of her usually signed “Cordially, Carole Lombard” that are almost always secretarial. They were pumped out by the studios to keep fans watching her films.
On 8x10s and 11x14s, the photos she most likely signed, there are lengthy inscriptions. They’re gorgeous photographs and mostly on double-weight stock. There may be 100 to 200, 8×10 inscribed photographs of Lombard in existence and they generally sell in the $1,500 range.
The 11×14 photographs of Lombard are much rarer—there are maybe 20 or 30 of them in the world. The real long-term values for a collector are these oversize, signed photographs because they are the rarest. They usually bear personal inscriptions and they are the highest form of collecting Hollywood signed photographs. The price for an 11×14 can run from $2,000 to $15,000, depending on a number of factors, including pose, condition, what the inscription says and who it is inscribed to.
You must be extremely cautious when buying vintage Hollywood autographs. Boris Karloff-signed photographs of himself as Frankenstein’s Monster are exceedingly rare. There can’t be but a handful in the world. I’ve seen fewer than five. The ones that I’ve seen were always double-weight studio photographs. I had one once that Boris Karloff inscribed to Jack Pierce, the Frankenstein makeup artist. Bear in mind that these stars didn’t sign these character images for fans at the time, because it took years before these roles reached iconic stature in film history.
Authenticity Tip No. 2: Inscriptions
As you start to collect vintage Hollywood autographs, there’s a great deal of information you need to gather. Let’s say you’re looking at a photograph inscribed and signed by James Dean. Who was it inscribed to? Did this person really exist? Did this person know James Dean? When was it signed? Dean had a tragically short life—is it realistic that he personally inscribed this photo? What type of photograph is it? Is it some flimsy, single-stock photograph, or a high quality studio photograph, something Dean would have had access to? The secret to collecting the vintage, classic Hollywood autographs of Bogart, Gable, Errol Flynn and the other great stars is to ask and answer these questions.
Marilyn Monroe took tremendous pride in presenting her intimate circle of friends with signed photographs, but she didn’t sign them for the fans. To get one, you were somebody that was in her circle—her hairdresser, a close friend, a fellow celebrity. And, again, double-weight, high quality, beautiful studio photographs.
Not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t tell me, “I have a Marilyn Monroe photograph signed in red ink. She loved red ink because it was the color of her lipstick.” That’s simply not true. There’s no such thing as a Marilyn Monroe photograph genuinely signed in red ink. That’s folklore.
No matter which celebrity or era of vintage Hollywood that you are interested in collecting, always remember that the vast majority of celebrity photographs signed in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that are not personalized (a photograph with a signature only, a photograph signed “Cordially, Clarke Gable” or “Best wishes, Jean Harlow”) are secretarials—nine times out of 10. That’s just the way it worked back then. It’s the opposite for the inscribed 11x14s. Nine times out of 10, those are real—not secretarial. The 5x7s are almost always secretarial. The 8x10s are a mixed lot; I would say at least 30 percent are secretarial.
While most outright forgeries are just signed or generically inscribed, the forgers are always learning and sometimes write personalized inscriptions, so always be careful who you buy from.
Always look for the very best quality. It’s generally a better investment to buy one great piece than five or 10 average ones. Try to find signed photographs that are beautiful, that are studio produced, that are double-weight, that are really exceptional photographs, and start with that as your criteria. And, believe it or not, it’s better to have an inscription. There’s more handwriting to authenticate, the better the story—and you have a better shot of getting something genuine.
Authenticity Tip No. 3: Prices
Beware of prices that seem too good to be true. An authentic Marilyn Monroe signed photograph is going to cost you $15,000 to $25,000. There’s no such thing as a $2,000 or $3,000 one. What you see on the market now are just gobs and gobs of single-weight, very poor quality scene stills, and later printed photographs that are secretarial or forgeries.
While a price in the appropriate value range is no guarantee of authenticity, a price that’s too low is a sure sign of forgery.
This article is mainly about signed photos, but I’ll cover a couple of other popular items, too.
A simple autograph album page that Marilyn Monroe would have had thrust into her hand when she was walking down the street or entering a restaurant will bring a few thousand dollars today. A signed check is worth $2,000 or $3,000. At one time, I knew of more than 1,000 of them, so they’re definitely out there.
To assess the value of an item, ask yourself: “What is the object I’m interested in buying?” Is it signed on an album page? Is the album page in nice condition? Is it signed in pencil or pen? Does it have something affixed to it that makes it less attractive? Visual appeal influences the price. Is the photograph creased? Is it solarized? Is it stained? Is the ink faded? Is it signed in an attractive place on the image? Is it signed in a dark area which makes it hard to see? Does the inscription obscure the person”s face? All of these distinctions factor into determining what an autograph is worth.
Another key factor is when the item was signed. The price is higher if stars signed the item during their heyday. Photographs from the 1930s signed in the 1930s are worth one price. The same photographs signed years later, say the 1960s or ,70s, are worth a fraction of that price.
Pricing is completely subjective. I may say something’s worth $10,000, and somebody else might say $5,000, while somebody else may say $15,000. How do you take those wide swings in value and try to stipulate some type of standardization? Really and truly, it’s aesthetics. It’s what the item is signed on. It’s when the item was signed. It’s to whom it was signed.
For instance, I have this amazing William Randolph Hearst inscribed photograph. It’s oversized and inscribed to none other than Marion Davies, his mistress, on Valentine’s Day, where he writes, “To Marion, your Valentine’s present. Love, W.R.H.” And, then, he writes a poem, a love poem, on this photograph. I value this photograph at $25,000 because it’s the ultimate William Randolph Hearst piece you could ever possibly get. Yet a regular Hearst inscribed photo would only be valued at $1,000 or so.
The Smart Collector
Look for inscriptions. Look for quality photographs. Research the inscription. Don’t jump at the “to good to be true.” All these pointers will guide the collector of vintage Hollywood toward authenticity. And the single most important thing is to buy from well respected dealers or auction houses that offer a lifetime money back guarantee of authenticity. Happy collecting!