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Collectors Make Their Mark Selling Scraps of History : Autographs: Signatures of notables such as Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein have staying power, O.C. dealers say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You can gauge a celebrity’s popularity by the value of his or her John Hancock.

For instance, a signed photograph of then-teen singer Debbie Gibson sold for up to $95 a few years ago.

“Today you can have her for $20,” memorabilia dealer William W. Miller said. “It’s like playing the stock market.”

That’s why his store, the Odyssey Gallery in Newport Beach’s Fashion Island, specializes in personalities of the less ephemeral variety. The signatures of notables such as Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein have a tad more staying power--and price-tag power. A letter dated July 27, 1790, from Jefferson to Connecticut Gov. Samuel Huntington--both of whom signed the Declaration of Independence--retails for $14,000.

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“Contemporary people are subject to wide fluctuations,” Miller said. “We opt to stick with people of universal appeal who transcend time and generations.”

Miller and his business partner, Darrell Talbert, did not start with that lofty philosophy when they opened their original autograph store, Odyssey Group, two years ago in Corona. For the first couple of months, they sold relatively inexpensive signatures by the pop stars du jour.

“Our tastes became more refined,” Miller recalled. Soon they exchanged the profits from their first $30,000 investment in minor VIP autographs for rare historical documents--as well as memorabilia of pop stars such as the Beatles and Madonna.

“The business took off like wildfire,” Miller said. “Our first month, we spent four figures (on memorabilia). Within half a year, we were spending six figures. It’s similar to real estate in that regard--we kept putting back into (the store) what we got out of it, which grew and grew.”

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Miller’s analogy has ties to his former career. The 31-year-old Corona city councilman developed apartment complexes in his hometown until he found a job he liked better.

“I was tired of the mundane world of development, and I was looking for something else to do,” Miller said. “My wife and I were redecorating our house and wanted some memorabilia, so we went to a collection show in San Bernardino.

“That’s how I got hooked--it’s an addiction. This has provided me so much more pleasure.”

In the excitement, the inspiration for his newfound interest got lost in the shuffle. “To this day, I don’t have a single piece of memorabilia in my home,” he said.

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He and Talbert--also a former real estate developer--opened their second store, in Newport Beach, in November. Browsing the gallery is like visiting a museum full of extraordinary exhibits.

There’s the 1938 note from Albert Einstein, warning a friend in Austria to leave the country during the rise of the Third Reich ($5,275). There’s the doodlings of a man’s face by George Gershwin ($3,500). There’s the canceled check for $44.31 signed by Ernest Hemingway in 1932 ($3,400). There’s a soldier’s leave of absence approved by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797 ($6,575). And there’s a letter from Britain’s Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell scripted in 1650--the store’s oldest document ($11,500).

Then there are the souvenirs of contemporary folk heroes: autographed pictures of Marilyn Monroe ($7,750) and Elvis Presley ($1,875); Lon Chaney Jr.'s passport ($2,875) and Buddy Holly’s escrow papers for a home in Lubbock, Tex. ($4,500).

A collectible’s value is guided by national auctions, held a few times a year, mostly on the East Coast. “The market is determined by what someone is willing to pay,” Miller said. “Collectors monitor the auctions at the leading auction houses--Christie’s and Sotheby’s--and then follow the trend.”

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The selling price of a collectible increases with the complexity of the item: A personalized message from one celebrity to another would sell for more than an autograph to a fan; a letter sells for more than an autograph, and a letter that refers to something of historical import commands more than routine business correspondence. The condition of an item--whether it is torn, folded or smeared--also bears on its worth.

“An autographed photo of Clark Gable would go up more than quadruple in value--from about $850 to $5,000--if he were in his Rhett Butler costume,” Miller said. “And if it were a picture of him and Vivian Leigh in her Scarlett O’Hara costume, it would be worth $10,000 to $15,000.”

The hard-to-come-by autographs of standoffish celebrities, such as Greta Garbo, are worth more than signatures from affable stars who respond to fan mail, such as Jimmy Stewart. “It’s a case of the nice guy finishing last,” Miller said.

Over the last decade, price tags on rare autographs and documents have climbed exponentially. A photo signed by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that went for $300 in 1981 now retails for about six times that, or $2,500; an oath of amnesty for a Confederate soldier signed by Abraham Lincoln increased in value more than 600%, from $950 to $6,000.

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“This is a business driven purely by supply and demand,” Miller said. “There weren’t very many collectors 10 years ago. But the publicity given to the auctions by the media has increased the public’s awareness of collectibles.”

Now that they’ve been discovered, historical memorabilia have nowhere to go but up in value, Miller said.

“They’re a limited resource,” he pointed out. “After all, no one’s manufacturing Thomas Jefferson letters--at least, they better not be.”

Forgeries, of course, are a major concern in the trade. “We spend a good deal of our day authenticating volumes of material,” Miller said. Many of the historical letters have been published in books and can be compared against the facsimiles. Customers are given a lifetime guarantee of authenticity by the gallery.

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On occasion, Miller and his partner have the unpleasant task of telling a customer that the autograph on a starlet’s picture found in grandma’s attic is a fake.

“Some people are crushed by the news,” Miller said. “Marilyn Monroe in particular was notorious for having her secretaries sign her photographs.”

Machine-inscribed autographs, he added, are especially easy to detect because of their sameness and lack of fluidity.

Miller’s galleries represent more than one-tenth of 15 or so U.S. historical memorabilia stores, he said.

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Collectible sales are a multimillion-dollar industry, said Miller, who declined to discuss his own stores’ sales figures.

The Gallery of History at South Coast Plaza is one in a national chain of seven document stores, said Ruth Canvasser, the Costa Mesa manager. “We have access to 130,000 documents,” she said.

One of her current prizes in stock is a letter from Benjamin Franklin to his nephew, dated 1773, referring to events precipitating the American Revolution. It’s priced at $29,999.

Selling his inventory can be a bittersweet victory, Miller said: “These things are one of a kind, so you know you can never replace them.”

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Miller’s favorite and most expensive item--which he says is the only “Gone With the Wind” working script in existence, complete with handwritten notations--is priced to move slowly at $85,000.

“I don’t care if it ever sells,” Miller said.

Appreciating Autographs

In part because of high-profile memorabilia auctions--where a Founding Father’s letter home can fetch thousands of dollars--collecting has become increasingly popular over the past decade. That has sent the value of rare autographs and documents soaring. Some examples:

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Person Item 10 years ago 5 years ago George Washington Signature $1,000 $2,000 Abraham Lincoln Signed oath $950 $2,500 Marilyn Monroe Signature $250 $750-$900 Thomas Jefferson Signed letter $1,000 $2,000-$3,500 Laurel and Hardy Signed photo $300 $600

Person Today George Washington $5,000-$6,000 Abraham Lincoln $5,500-$6,000 Marilyn Monroe $2,000-$2,500 Thomas Jefferson $12,000-$14,000 Laurel and Hardy $2,000-$2,500

Source: Odyssey Group.


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