As early as June 2008, while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still battling for delegates in the Montana and South Dakota primaries, major newspapers began to take note of the rising value of Barack Obama’s autograph. The Los Angeles Times ran a fanciful piece in which they inquired that if Barack Obama signed a check for $4,600 to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and Hillary endorsed the check, would the combined value of those two signatures make the check worth more than the face value?
George Houle, of Houle Rare Books and Autographs in Los Angeles, gave a prophetic answer: “Autographs of politicians are not in much demand until they get to the White House.” He went on to discuss supply and demand saying, “Ultimate value would depend on how many autographs of [Obama’s] come to the market.”
Well, on November 4, 2008, the American people elected Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States, pushing Obama-graph fever into full swing.
A few days after the election, Scott Laming of AbeBooks told Autograph, “The demand for Barack Obama signatures is immense at the moment and we are still selling high priced items. In fact, in the two days since I emailed you, we have confirmed another sale of The Audacity of Hope for $3,500, trumping the previous $2,495 sale. This kind of price jump is almost unprecedented.”
Demand for anything Obama has gone through the roof. “In the days leading up to Election Day, when more and more polls were indicating that Barack Obama would be the next president, secondary market interest in his 2008 cards issued by Topps and Upper Deck greatly increased,” said Brian Fleisher, senior market analyst for Beckett Baseball. “Two weeks ago, [Obama’s] Topps Campaign 2008 card was selling for roughly $5. In the days leading up to the election and in the hours since the results were announced, sales have jumped to as much as $40, with most selling in the $20-$25 range.”
Who are the lucky collectors who managed to get a genuine autograph during the campaign? How do Obama’s signing habits compare the signing habits of the last five presidents? How do you protect yourself from fakes? How much will it cost to add an “Obama-graph” to your collection—and what does the future hold?
On the Campaign Trail
Despite the security that blanketed Obama on the campaign trail, first-hand stories of meeting Obama, taking pictures with him and obtaining his autograph abound.
In the article “On the Campaign Trail” in the May 2008 issue of Autograph, Robert Moore wrote about chasing the primary candidates across Iowa before the Iowa Caucus in December 2007. Over the four Barack Obama rallies Moore attended, Obama signed a photograph and two magazines for him. At his first event, Obama didn’t sign at all.
Last April, two high school seniors in Scranton, Pa., ditched gym class to rush over to a diner where Obama’s motorcade had made an impromptu breakfast stop. They met the candidate, and he signed excuse slips for them to show their teachers. Unfortunately, both boys still got a one-day suspension for leaving school grounds, but they got genuine Obama-graphs and the story of a lifetime.
In August 2008, CBS News talked to 11-year-old Elijah Morgan of Harlem, N.Y. Elijah loves to collect player autographs on baseball cards, but after attending an Obama rally, he had a new autograph and a new hero: Barack Obama.
“I shook his hand,” Elijah said. “Took a picture. He told me he signed an autograph that said ‘Dream big dreams.’ And then he signed ‘Barack Obama’ and basically told me I could be anything that I want to be.”
Obama made a surprise campaign stop at a bowling alley in Altoona, PA. He warned the crowd that he hadn’t bowled since he was 16, and after a few gutter balls, Obama promised that his economic plan was better than his bowling. “It has to be,” a man called out from the next lane.
Lorrie Benson, 34, of Altoona was at the bowling alley and was thrilled to get Obama’s autograph. But she wished she had something special for him to sign. “All I had in my purse for him to sign was my pay stub.”
Samaria Williams-Levy, a third-grader in Fort Myers, Fla., got two children’s books signed. One was Barack by Jonah Winter and the other was Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope, by Nikki Grimes, in which he also inscribed “Dream big dreams.”
Asked what these books meant to her, Samaria said, “It makes me feel special. This election was historic and I am very proud that we have the first African-American president.”
Tove Myhr, an autograph collector in the small city of Verdal, Norway, became interested in Obama after watching his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Since the news media were already predicting that then-Senator Obama could be a future presidential candidate, Tove sent three photos downloaded from the Internet to the senator, asking him to sign. She received all three photos back inscribed to her and signed by Obama.
The Attack of the Dreaded Autopen
On the campaign trail, Obama connected on a personal level with the throngs who came to meet him and hear him speak. At first, Obama would meet and sign for as many people as he could. Eventually, so many people clamored for his autograph that his staff began collecting the items in plastic bags with their names written on them. Telling the fans to be patient and wait until Obama could sign them after the event, they would take the items to a back room and give them back later.
Many people were lucky: Obama authentically signed their memorabilia. But it appears that more were not. Reports are that Obama’s staff often used an Autopen to sign the items for him. An Autopen is a device that uses a pen, pencil or marker to sign an authorized facsimile of a person’s signature. Autopens are commonly used by presidents and other politicians for official purposes and autograph requests by mail. A high percentage of autograph requests mailed to Obama’s Senate offices were filled by Autopens, but his use of one on the campaign trail was unprecedented.
When Barack Obama takes up residence in the White House, Autopens, and to a lesser degree, secretarial signatures (signatures signed by secretaries or other assistants) will fill the vast majority of autograph requests. Secretarials make authenticity even harder to ascertain, because each one is unique, like an authentic autograph. And now there are models of Autopens that can write inscriptions, so even personalized items signed in the White House can’t be assumed to be authentically signed.
Since President John F. Kennedy, presidents and politicians have relied on the Autopen. Kennedy himself was reported to have had six different Autopen signatures. The best way to detect one is to compare it against known Autopens. Autopen signatures from the same template will be virtually identical. If you superimpose one image over another, the signatures will align almost precisely.
Protect Yourself from Buying Fakes
Expertise at authenticating Obama’s autograph is good, but it is not at the level of past presidents yet. Buying from a respected dealer with a lifetime money back guarantee of authenticity is the safest way to go, especially if the autograph is independently authenticated as well. Obama’s large, dramatic signature is easy to copy, particularly if it consists primarily of his initials. And like most popular personalities, forgeries are rampant.
A survey in November found that 83-percent of Obama autographs on eBay were likely forgeries. Our research found, however, that by December that changed. Forgeries and Autopens dropped dramatically due to policing by eBay and the increase in listings certified by autograph authentication services PSA/DNA, James Spence Authentication and Global Authentication. We found no likely forgeries or Autopens certified by these services. Another good authentication service that specializes in historic, vintage and political autographs is PASS-CO, but we didn’t find any Obama autographs that they certified on eBay.
Autograph’s research of dealer and auction websites besides eBay proved how important is it to be careful who you buy from. We found no likely Obama forgeries on the websites of dealers and auction houses that are members of the Professional Autograph Dealers Association (PADA) and the Universal Autograph Collectors Club’s (UACC) Registered Dealer Program (make sure the seller is a Registered Dealer and not just a member of the UACC). We tried to survey Abebooks.com, a good website for collectible books, but only the covers of books are shown. We did not inspect AFTAL dealers, a reputable dealer association in the United Kingdom, but we expect results to be similar to PADA members and UACC Registered Dealers.
While there are many reputable dealers and auction houses that are not members of these organizations—including the largest auction houses, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Heritage Auctions—there are hundreds of others that sell forgeries as genuine. So beyond members of the dealer organizations, results were dismal. A whopping 96-percent of Obama autographs we examined that were not certified by the authentication services previously mentioned were either likely forgeries, copies, Autopens or autographs that were highly suspect. Some were certified by forensic document examiners and other authentication services that are known to certify fakes as genuine. A certificate of authenticity (COAs) is only as good as the dealer or authenticator who issues it.
What Obama Autographs to Get?
Traditionally, autographs signed while a president is in office are the most prized and often much more valuable than items signed before and after. Signed photos are very popular and exciting to hang on your wall, but modern presidents sign a lot of them. Signed 8×10 photos of Obama today, signed before inauguration, bring about $800 to $1,500 authenticated. Ones signed as president might bring about $1,500 to $3,000 or more. Not since Kennedy have we had a president as popular as Obama, so only time will tell.
Christmas cards authentically signed by the president and first lady (and sometimes the entire family) will probably come to market, and a wide variety of other presidential memorabilia will be signed by the president. Most of these items may be worth from about $500 to $2500 or so signed in office, but with Obama’s popularity, these numbers could be low. Items that feature a full Obama signature will, in most cases, carry premiums over similar items that don’t.
Among the more desirable and valuable autographs are letters handwritten and signed by the president, as well as signed, typewritten letters, documents and speeches. Content is king: pieces that discuss or are related to historic events, or something very personal or a passion of the president, or a letter written to an important figure, can be worth thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars more than, say, a letter thanking someone for a present.
As the first African-American president, we anticipate that Obama will sign presentation copies of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery or Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have a Dream.” These might be given to organizations, and key individuals in his campaign staff, the White House and other officials, politicians and celebrities to thank them. These would be highly desirable and valuable, but most would likely not come up for sale for years unless Obama gave some to organizations for fundraising purpose.
True first editions (first printing of a first edition) of Obama’s books will be among the most valuable Obama collectibles, whether signed in office or not. The most valuable is Obama’s 1995 Times Press book, Dreams from My Father—only about 7,500 were sold. Unsigned true first editions now sell for as much as $9,500, with signed ones being offered for up to $12,000 to $15,000. Signed true firsts of his 2006 book, The Audacity to Hope are being offered for as much as $5,000 to $8,000, and even signed Obama books that aren’t first editions are bringing $400 to $1,000. This is a topic we’ll cover in more detail in a later issue. Be careful and do your research and learn about the book market before you buy.
Getting the President’s Autograph
So, how can you get a genuine Obama autograph as president? There are no sure ways available to most of us regular citizens, but here’s some advice:
If you’re sending an item to the White House, make it unique. A request for a signature on a photograph is likely to get tossed right into the Autopen in box. But a unique item, such as your own copy of Moby Dick, the president’s all-time favorite book, might get you a personal signing. An Autopen signature on a valuable collectible will degrade its value, so be sure to include a clearly visible note on the item asking for it to be returned unsigned if it can’t be authentically signed by President Obama. This is especially important for first editions of his books. You may be able to inspire a personal response by showing familiarity with the president’s life or his work and the issues he’s addressing at the moment.
Be sure there is a way to easily identify the item as signed while in office. A dated letter or dated signature are clear proof. Getting an item signed that was not available before he was in office and getting it authenticated right away would be solid proof, too.
If you have the opportunity to meet the president in person, try to think of something compelling to prompt a personal signature. Bob Potvin, in his Bob Potvin’s North Brookfield Blog, tells the story of worming his way into a receiving line in 1994 for President Bill Clinton. When he met the president he asked, “Mr. President, how can an old Boy-Stater obtain a presidential signature card?” Clinton obliged, signing page three from his speech and giving it to Mr. Potvin.
What Does the Future Hold?
Barack Obama is on track to becoming one of the most popular presidents of all time, and the value of his autograph will rise with his popularity. When Obama is sworn in as the 44th president on January 20, America will be poised, waiting for promised change. Autograph collectors will be waiting, too, for their chance to catch history in eleven letters—Barack Obama.
Sidebar: Comparing Presidential Signers
Gerald Ford (No. 38) lived to the age of 93, and was active in speaking engagements and book signings for many years after leaving office. Perhaps due to the high volume of autographs, or because he was not an elected president, the value of his signature is usually less than many of his successors.
Jimmy Carter (No. 39) is the easiest autograph of the living presidents to obtain. He makes frequent public appearances and has authored many books. There is a trend at his book signings to limit the signing of other memorabilia, but if you can catch Carter before or after a booksigning, he is usually willing to sign a photograph or a baseball.
Ronald Reagan (No. 40) signed autographs for a lifetime—as a movie star, governor of California and as president. His signature while in office is considerably more valuable than his autographs as an actor. Because of his advanced age and the onset of Alzheimer’s, Reagan was only active in public life for a few years after leaving office. Those who met Reagan have mentioned that he was very good about signing items.
George Bush Sr.(No. 41) is known as a good signer, but he is making fewer appearances as the years go by. A professional collector recounted a meeting with him in Toronto in 1997. The security detail had spotted him as a professional collector, and told him no more autographs. George Sr. overhead and intervened. “That’s okay. I’ll sign a few more for him. I like the kids being entrepreneurial.”
William Jefferson Clinton (No. 42) is the first president to have entered pop culture as a celebrity, and he has become much tougher with professional collectors in the past few years. His security detail spots professional items like high-quality photographs and rare memorabilia that Clinton avoids signing—except while Clinton was campaigning for wife Hillary during the Democratic primary. At almost every campaign stop an aide would gather material to be signed and Clinton would sit at a table and sign it all personally.
George W. Bush (No. 43) was an autograph hound’s dream. From his campaign throughout his days in office, President Bush has always been an eager signer. Collectors report that he doesn’t even use handlers to gather the items. He seems to prefer taking the item from a fan, signing it and handing it back himself. And, unlike Bill Clinton, George W. is willing to sign anything—photographs, baseballs, magazines and more.
President Barack Obama Trends
The value of Obama’s signature will depend on how many autographs come to market compared to the demand. Demand should remain extremely high, due to his international popularity and the significance of being the first African-American president.
Autopens, which mechanically sign signatures, help handle the high volume of autograph requests the White House receives. But Obama’s use of the Autopen on the campaign trail is unprecedented. Autopen autographs tend to decrease the value of collectibles, especially first edition books.
Trends show that Obama’s signatures during his term in office will generally have a greater value than those before or after. But signed true first editions of his 1995 book, Dreams from My Father, should be among the most valuable autographs of all, whether signed in or out of office. The challenge facing collectors is getting past the Autopen.
Collectors saw increased security from Obama’s detail during the primary. Granted, there were numerous occasions where the frenzy of the fans reached paparazzi levels, but getting a genuine signature was a challenge at campaign rallies. Obama’s handlers were leery of the pro collectors, prioritizing the candidate’s time with more personal connections with voters.
Michelle Obama, the new first lady, may also provide an in for collectors to obtain a presidential signature. She is a generous signer at her public appearances, and provides fun insights into the next president:
• He collects Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comics
• He owns a set of red boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali
• His favorite book is Moby-Dick.
On the campaign trail, a story spread that Obama refused to “bump hands” with a fan, and that his campaign was trying to eliminate the gesture for fear of associations with “terrorist handshakes.” In fact, the fan had asked Obama to sign his knuckles—that was what Obama refused to do. So there apparently are some items our new president won’t sign.