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The Popularity of Signed Philatelic Covers



Before you think I'm trying to somehow rubbish traditional First Day Covers and devalue thousands of beautiful cover collections, rest assured I'm not. In fact I would point out that, when a specific area of collecting experiences a dip in popularity, that is often the shrewdest time to start buying! My aim is to highlight the growth in demand for famous signatures on covers which has piggy backed on the hype that drives today's celebrity culture. Just as shrewd people buy items during a period of low popularity, the trick with items that come in to fashion is to spot the potential "greats" from the likely "also runs".

So what should you look for if you want to tuck away a few signed covers to hopefully appreciate in value? I've offered a few suggestions of actual signatures I think could be good in the final paragraph but, for now, let me suggest what you should think about avoiding.

Fakes and forgeries are an obvious trap for an inexperienced buyer. Research your vendors as best you can. Even well established, reputable dealers can get caught out by a good fake so be extra careful when bidding online for covers that seem "too cheap". If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. While prices at the reputable dealers may be higher, you can feel more confident in the authenticity of signatures and have more confidence in any guarantees they offer for the signed items they sell.

So how do you go about spotting the future legends and avoiding the dogs? Relevance, well deserved fame and future rarity are the key three tests I would apply.

Relevance is key on many smaller cover issues. Wartime event covers might be signed by less well known names but, if they were an active participant in a truly historic event, their autograph should maintain its value well. However, the relevance test can often get tested and stretched when it comes to modern celebrity signatures on philatelic items. The late, great Bobby Moore is a valuable signature to acquire but it is likely to generate more interest (thus command more value) if it was applied on a footballing item that features one of the clubs he played for (e.g. West Ham United) or the England football team which he captained to victory in the 1966 World Cup. If it was a signed resteraunt menu the autograph would become less appealing (thus command less value) because it fails the relevance test. So when it comes to philatelic covers, I would want any celebrity autograph it bears to be highly relevant to the theme of the stamps, postmark and any cachet.

Judging whether a celebrity's fame is well deserved and likely to last for decades to come is somewhat more subjective. How many reality TV stars are remembered a few years down the line? Soap actors and actresses? TV presenters? But now think about politicians, film stars, sporting heroes and explorers. A very rare signature is that of the first man ever to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, as he largely refused to sign anything for many years before he died. His fame is guaranteed to last in the global memory for centuries to come because of the historical significance of the Apollo 11 mission he commanded. His fame can be compared to that of early Antarctic explorers and aviators. Their names are etched in history and their signatures will likely always be in demand for generations to come. Similarly, a sporting great has to ACHIEVE greatness to carve their name in the stone of sporting history or else their fame will fade within a few years. During his playing days Paul Gascoigne was probably talked about in the media far more than Bobby Moore but which one of them IS considered the real footballing hero because of what he ACHIEVED and which signature will prove best to collect?

When you look at the signatures that command a great value today the common thread is almost always because the person really achieved something significant that stands out. Ask yourself which of these signatures you would want; Paul McCartney or Justin Bieber? Gordon Brown or Margaret Thatcher?

The third test, future rarity, is far less easily predicted or calculated. Neil Armstrong is a rare signature because he largely and deliberately stopped signing autographs. Bobby Moore is much rarer than it might have been because of his premature passing. Obviously a premature death can create future rarity but, as Neil Armstrong shows, an unwillingness to seek the celebrity spotlight is equally significant. If investment is your primary aim then all you can do to be confident of future rarity is buy covers bearing signatures of famous people who are no longer with us.

I will sign off by putting up some suggestions for signatures that could prove a worthy invesment. Arnold Machin, designer of the iconic Queen's effigy used on so many GB postage stamps (passed away in 1999). Margaret Thatcher, the UK's first female Prime Minister. The Red Arrows - the RAF's aerobatic display team - wont last forever and, while they're relatively cheap, covers bearing team signatures from seasons past could do well if and when the team are disbanded. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

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