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The History of Autographs

November 15, 2018 8 min read

The History of Autographs

"Hang on to that. It's going to be worth a lot of money someday."

How many times have you heard a variation of that sentiment, or even said it yourself?

If you're anything like most sports memorabilia collectors, that number is countless.

However, have you ever thought to ask yourself who the first person was to express this thought? More importantly, who was the first person who took it seriously and said, "Yeah, I am going to make this worth something someday."

Collectors, autograph hounds, or however you identify yourself, if your thing is collecting signatures from the famous and extraordinary folks of our day, and days gone by, this didn't just emerge out of nowhere. It has a history that extends almost as far back as recorded time itself.

Babe Ruth Sports Memorabila

Take a walk with us through the history of autographs, where we'll find out how this fascination started, and how it has evolved. We'll even highlight a few particularly interesting stories related to autographs, some funny, and some tragic.

The Ancient Origins of Autographs

For many people, autograph collecting has its roots way back to ancient Roman times, but those ancient autographs didn't look like the autographs we think of when we talk about things like “getting baseballs signed by Willie Mays.”

Sealed with a Ring

Some of the first inclinations of autograph collections began with the signet rings Romans used to seal documents with wax. They would drip wax onto the envelope, then press a ring into the wax before it hardened. Each of these rings bore a mark specific to the individual who wore it. Ben Roethlisberger Signed Steelers Helmet Sports Memorabilia

The Dictator Sulla's son-in-law, Scaurus, was one of the earliest collectors. He sought after these rings to add to his own personal collection, and his interest started a trend of people collecting, rather than using, the rings.

Many later collectors wanted to one-up Scaurus' collection by dedicating their own collections to official state institutions. One example is Julius Caesar. He dedicated six cabinets specifically designed to house ring collections to the Temple of Venus Genetrix.

Even Earlier Seals

As ancient as they are, these Roman rings were not the first example of seals being customized to individuals.

The Walters Art Museum is home to a cylinder seal from a Mesopotamian artist in the Akkadian period, which is dated to around 2350-2150 BCE. The artist apparently designed the seal for a farmer named Ur-Inanna, because the cylinder bears the inscription, "Ur-Inanna, the farmer."

Two scenes appear on this cylinder, both with a nude heroic figure at the center. In one scene, the hero is fending off two roaring lions. In the other, the hero wrestles a water buffalo.

This may not bear much resemblance to the simple jotting down of a name we associate with signatures now, but these were images others must have associated with Ur-Inanna.

Walter Payton Signed 1985 Bears Jersey Sports Memorabilia

Signatures on Art – Early Memorabilia

Skipping ahead a bit in time, we find that autographs evolved with the application of artists' signatures to their works. These signatures are not limited to paintings, however. They extend to works of art like vases, trinkets, and even mosaics.

Just like your signature on a bill at a restaurant marks that meal as yours, an artist's signature on their creations lets others know who's responsible for this particular piece.

The very word "signature" stems from a Latin root word, "signo." This word means "to set a mark upon, mark, mark out, or designate." Thus, a signature signifies that an item is about to be marked or sealed. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson Signed Sports Memorabilia Photo

This is because the Romans used to add their signatures, as well as their signet ring seals, to documents. So the signature was actually a precursor to the seal. It is fun to wonder what kind of cool seals today's athletes could come up with to accompany their signatures.

The interest in signatures on art intensified during the Renaissance period when patrons needed any marks of individuality they could find to display their wealth and status to their peers. This interest didn't stop with visual art, as it could be found on book manuscripts as well.

Rich manuscript collectors would create alba amicorum, which translates to "albums of friends." These were books that one's friends and family would sign, so the owner of the book could display their network of friends to visitors.

People then would show off their alba amicorum the way you might brag now about having someone famous in the contacts on your phone.

Sports Memorabilia Collection as a Contemporary Hobby

We've come a long way since the days of alba amicorum. In America, the evolution of autographs came about as the result of a kick start from William B. Sprague, the country's first major autograph collector.

Sprague tutored members of George Washington's family, and around 1815, he received permission to select letters from our first president's correspondence as long as he left copies.

1985 Chicago Bears Team Signed Helmets Sports MemorabiliaHe selected around 1,500 letters, and his collection of autographs grew from there. By the time he died, his collection hovered in the range of 40,000 pieces. This began the era of the autograph as a hobby and fascination of collectors in America.

In the 1830s-1850s, people began collecting more than the autographs of dead authors and dignitaries. They started to value and collect signatures from living literary figures like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Politicians also saw a rise in requests for their autographs.

By the time the 1890s rolled around, Walter R. Benjamin had established a retail business on Broadway in New York City with the express purpose of selling autographs and manuscripts. He marketed his pieces as the only way to obtain the autographs they contained. If you approached many of the celebrities who signed autographs for Benjamin out on the street, they would direct you back to his shop for the genuine articles. Stephen Curry Autographed Warriors Jersey Memorabilia

From there, it's easy to see how the modern sports memorabilia autograph became popular. Athletes take the place of authors for all but a select few individuals these days. Instead of Benjamin's autograph business, we now have trade shows and conventions that allow athletes like Pete Rose to create an autograph-selling industry.

Unforgettable Autograph Stories

Everyone has a story of the superstar they chased down for an autograph and how it went down. As much as we all hate to admit it, many of these stories are pretty much the same.

These stories are usually some variation of, "I interrupted him during a meal, and he was so nice," or "I ambushed her at the airport, and she was actually really mean to me."

There are, however, some pretty exceptional autograph stories out there, some diamonds in the rough. Here are a few of our favorites.

The Great Bambino

It's no surprise that Babe Ruth would show up here. The Sultan of Swat signed thousands of baseballs, cards, and other pieces of sports memorabilia in his lifetime. There are bound to be some good stories among all those signatures.

One of these stories comes from Marshall Hunt, who was a sportswriter for the New York Daily News. Hunt was also one of the people Ruth employed to sign baseballs for him. That's because he didn't have enough time in the day to sign them himself. He couldn't keep up with the demand!

One day, Hunt signed a few hundred baseballs for the Babe at the hotel they shared and left them on Ruth's bed, just as he had asked. The next morning, Babe approached Hunt and said, "Say, kid, don't get too good with that pen." Tom Brady Autographed Sports Memorabilia - Signed Brady Jersey

It's probably no surprise that Babe Ruth's autograph is one of the most commonly forged in all of sports history. Mint condition pieces with Ruth's real signature have auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars, so there's quite a bit of motivation for forgers.

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso is probably the most famous and recognizable artist of the 20th century. He was also one of the most prolific. Estimates of his total number of artworks have put it anywhere from around 10,000, to well over 100,000.

The catch to being such a prolific artist is that fans wanted more from Picasso than just his autograph. When they saw him out in public, they wanted a piece of artwork all their own from the man himself. They frequently asked him to draw them little sketches to accompany his autograph.

Since signing the check at a restaurant is one of the most common places we all leave our signature, it's no surprise that this was the occasion for one of Picasso's most humorous autograph anecdotes. He often obliged fans when they asked for his so-called "artographs," but he was no fool when it came to knowing the value of his work. 2016 Chicago Cubs Team Signed Baseball Bat

When one restaurant owner asked Picasso if he would be willing to pay for his meal with one of his signed drawings, Picasso told him, "I only want to pay my bill, not buy the restaurant."

John Lennon

Our previous stories have been funny tales involving famous people. We hate to end on a down note, but the story of John Lennon signing an autograph for his assassin is too spooky to pass up telling. There is a silver lining however, though it's not a silver lining for Lennon himself.

The crazed fan who shot John Lennon was Mark David Chapman. Chapman obtained an autograph from Lennon on his copy of Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy which read, "John Lennon 1980."

Chapman got this autograph on December 8, 1980, as Lennon was leaving his apartment in New York City to head to a recording session.

Chapman then hid the album in a flower urn before shooting Lennon in the back when the famous Beatle returned home hours later. A maintenance man from New Jersey named Philip Michael found the album in the urn when he wandered past the crowd that had gathered around the crime scene. Patrick Mahomes Signed Sports Memorabilia Football JerseyWhen Michael realized what he had in his possession, he turned the piece of evidence over to the police.

The craziest thing is what happened next. Philip Michael got the album back from police, complete with circles investigators had made around Chapman's dusty fingerprints. Michael kept that copy of Double Fantasy under his mattress for almost 20 years.

In 1999, Philip Michael sold this one-of-a-kind piece of rock and roll history to a collector in California for almost half a million dollars. The piece then sold again in 2012 for $850,000.

The Art of the Autograph

Autographs may have started for reasons of official documentation and evolved to show the value of a work of art, but sports autographs are the current pinnacle of autograph history.

Whether you consider autograph collecting a hobby, or a form of art collecting, there's no denying that the form is as storied as Hank Aaron's legendary home run.

We hope you've enjoyed this trip down memory lane. Considering the way autographing began as a complement to a person's individual seal, we'll have to admit we're a little disappointed that practice does not carry over into the present day. Kevin Durant Signed Warriors Jersey Memorabilia

Who knows, maybe a Mike Trout or a Ronald Acuna will start stamping their rings into the baseballs they sign? They might come up with some pretty cool symbols for their personal signet rings. With that thought in mind, who knows what kind of craziness could come from someone like Terrell Owens or Dennis Rodman!

Starting your own autograph collection is a great way to connect with this history and dip your toe into the world of sports memorabilia. Check out our collection of signed baseballs to find the starting point for your own autograph collection. Drew Brees Autographed Saints Sports Memorabilia Jersey

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