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Collector's Guide

History of Collecting

To those of you new to autograph collecting, welcome to a pursuit which goes back centuries. Even in the days when many important figures, notably royalty and military leaders, could not write, people had the urge to collect letters and documents relating to their own interests. Today, the most important of these are frequently to be found in major public collections, where you might find something as remarkable as a document signed by William the Conqueror - who could only 'sign' with his mark, a simple cross. But collectors can still find and collect interesting, sometimes very important letters and documents written by some of the most exciting figures in history, the arts, music, literature or science.

These letters and documents give us the most immediate connection possible with the past. Seeing changes in handwriting, spelling, even the quality of paper, tells us something about the era and the people who lived then. At one time, even the grandest of people paid little attention to standard spelling, but this changed by the 18th century. And for the less well educated, spelling could remain a challenge. Emma Hamilton's spelling was quite individual and her attention to punctuation was minimal, to say the least. But her emotional, generous character comes through in her handwriting, and no biography can give you that sense of approaching her as well as holding one of her letters.

An autograph collection, like a good library, will be a reflection of the interests and personality of the person who has put it together. It may centre on a particular field, a period in history, one figure, a series such as British Prime Ministers or American Presidents, or be a compilation of your various interests. A collection could also focus on something unusual, for example, letters with interesting vignettes or letterheads, or letters written from a particular place.

Part of the excitement of the collection will be the pleasure of the chase: finding that elusive letter or document which is needed to fill a gap in the collection. Then there is the pleasure of stumbling across something quite unexpected, that very interesting letter which you hadn't realised even existed. An autograph collection should be both a pleasure and intellectually stimulating.

Building Your Collection - From the Modest to the Impressive

We will, of course, have the question of how much one will spend on a collection.  The answer is as much or as little as you wish or can afford.  On this website, you will find a small selection of cut signatures.  The Victorians were very good at this - they would cut the signature from a letter and place it in their autograph albums. Collectors today weep at the thought of all those lost letters, but that is no reason to entirely ignore the simple signature, which can at least give collectors the opportunity to own something by an admired figure.

Moving up the scale, we come to letters and documents, and here the value is determined by a number of factors - the identity of the writer, the rarity of that writer's material, the condition of the letter and, very importantly, the content of the letter. It is possible to find a cheque signed by Dickens for under £1000, but a letter discussing his work can go up to a five-figure sum, depending on the detail. A glance through the catalogue on this website will give you a glimpse of what is available, and you will see the enormous range of available material, and an equally wide range of prices.

Collect what interests you, and your collection will continue to give you pleasure for all the time you own it. I will also share with you the thought of a collector I respect very much who felt 'privileged to steward these letters' during her lifetime. That is the way we should all see it - these letters and documents are the record of how people lived and what they felt, to be handed down to future generations who will use them as research and a means of understanding their past.

Autograph Collector's Abbreviations

Autograph collecting, like so many other fields, has its own set of abbreviations and shorthand. Luckily, it is quite easy to understand, once somebody has told you what all those abbreviations mean!

For those of you who are new to autograph collecting, here is a quick guide to the most common abbreviations: 

ALS - Autograph Letter Signed. This is entirely in the hand of, and signed by, the person named in the heading.

LS - Letter Signed. The letter has been written by a secretary or assistant, and signed by the person named in the heading.

TLS - Typed Letter Signed. As you would expect, a letter typed and then signed by the person named in the heading.

DS - Document (either printed or manuscript in the hand of a secretary), signed by the person named in the heading.

AL - Autograph Letter. A letter written by the person named, but not signed. This can include letters 'signed' in the text, such as "Mr. Charles Dickens thanks Mr. John Smith for his kind invitation . . ."

AQS - Autograph Quotation Signed, frequently an author quoting a line from his work and signing it for inclusion in the autograph album of an admirer.

AMQS - Autograph Musical Quotation Signed. A few bars of music, signed, generally by the composer of the work quoted. These were frequently found in Visitors Books, or on small cards.

n.p. - no place. If a place is named in square brackets ([...]), this indicates that the place is known to the cataloguer, but has not been stated on the letter itself.

n.d. - no date. The square brackets rule above also applies here.

n.y. - no year.  Again, the square brackets can come into play.

Paper Sizes, in diminishing order. All sizes are approximate.

Folio - c. 350 x 275mm, generally used in the 16th and 17th centuries.

4to (or quarto) - c. 250 x 200mm, popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

8vo (or octavo) - c. 175 x 125mm, popular in Victorian times.

12mo or 16mo -  smaller than 8vo.

Now you are ready to start collecting!

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