Autographs have long been a treasured collectible. Many collect them for sentimental reasons, to serve as a reminder of a specific event like a sports victory or artistic legacy. But for ardent collectors, autographs can hold significant monetary value as well. With some historical figures, few signatures are in existence today, and thus these signatures have become extremely valuable and cherished. George Washington’s Act of Congress, one of the most notable recent examples at auction, was sold at Sotheby’s in 2012 for $9.8 million.
Though the act of collecting famous signatures is a popular hobby in contemporary culture, the practice has been around since the 1st century. Ancient Greeks and Romans understood the importance of preserving history, and thus held autographs in the highest esteem: they displayed original manuscripts of literary greats in temples and gathered signatures from popular playwrights and philosophers.
Graphology, the study of handwriting, is so fascinating to this day, that prominent museums dedicate entire exhibits to its craft. Such is the case with “The Magic of Handwriting,” an exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York that showcases 140 items from Brazilian collector Pedro Corrêa do Lago. Included are neatly drawn letters from Queen Victoria, signed photographs from the likes of Frida Kahlo, and even a parchment papal bull signed by Anastasius IV that dates back to the 12th century. Each artifact furthers the intrigue behind how and why each artist wrote and signed things the way they did.
Apart from their ability to preserve a moment in history, autographs are each unique in their own right, which can make them even more valuable. John Hancock’s signature is now a living legend, and has become synonymous with the word “signature,” itself after Hancock’s large, grandiose placement on the Declaration of Independence made quite a statement. Historians are uncertain as to why Hancock signed as he did, but regardless, there’s no denying its prominence among the other signatories. So what exactly does this mean? We’ve highlighted some of the most famous signatures below and highlighted their individual characteristics – and analyze what they reveal about the signee.
While some autographs are toned-down and modest, others can be more ostentatious. Signatures are central to a person’s identity because they are part of how we present ourselves to the outside world. Signature analysis experts evaluate each distinctive feature, down to the slants and angles, to determine different signatures’ meanings in relation to their creators.
The size of a signature is seen as reflective of a person’s self-esteem and awareness of how others perceive them. In theory, the bigger the signature, the more outgoing and affable a person presents to the public. Author Jack Kerouac often signed with just his first name in large letters, which could indicate a favorable view of his personal accomplishments.
- Large: generally associated with greater self-esteem, wants to be recognized, strong sense of self-confidence and mastery of craft
- Medium: balanced sense of self, modest, firm understanding of how you are perceived to the outside world
- Small: low self-esteem and confidence, doesn’t recognize worth, might be deliberately holding back
Much can be said about the slanting and angles of a person’s signature. Inclination correlates with a person’s expression of feelings and emotions. Inventor Orville Wright’s signature slants slightly upward near the end, suggesting a sense of optimism that is paralleled in the brilliance of inventions.
- Right slant: generally associated with one who takes initiative, is affectionate and more outgoing
- Left slant: less motivated, lacks self-esteem, finds it harder to assert themselves emotionally
- Straight: strong grasp on work-life balance
Many signatures are completely illegible, which reflects a desire to remain more mysterious and an inclination towards deflection. The style is not always used in a malevolent manner; rather, it’s possible that the notary is a less efficient communicator. Activist Susan B. Anthony’s signature is written clearly and definitively, suggesting an accomplished, approachable sense of self.
- Legible (name easily recognizable): generally associated with balanced, strong sense of duty, socially open and straightforward, assertive
- Semi-legible: impatient, anxious
- Illegible (completely unrecognizable): lack of self confidence, tendency toward avoidance
- First name more legible than surname: approachable and direct, friendly
- Surname more legible than first name: closed-off, reserved upon first contact, craves familiarity
The use of excess lines in autographs often reflects feelings of assertiveness and the appetite for recognition. English author J. R. R. Tolkien’s signature is underlined, suggesting a sense of self-importance, allowing his accomplishments to shine without explanation or commentary.
- No underline: generally associated with those who are unassuming, self-assured, doesn’t feel the need to make presence known
- One underline: wants existence to be recognized but not excessively, could mean lack of confidence in certain circumstances
- Multiple underlines: takes credit, makes presence well-known, yearning for importance and recognition
More elaborate signatures have different embellishments in the form of shapes, lines, and initials. In Albert Einstein’s signature, the famous physicist only uses his first initial “A” when signing to highlight his family name.
- Strike-throughs: generally associated with those who are self-critical
- Circles or loops: craves reassurance, overthinks most circumstances
- Dotting: makes presence known, not easily forgotten
- Use of initials: private person
Every influential creative has their own unique signature. We’ve gathered some of the most famous signatures from various art forms to determine their signatures’ meanings and how those qualities are reflected in their life and work.
Autographs are valuable to collectors for a variety of reasons. Not only do they represent a particularly memorable event or bear historical significance, but they can also reveal a bit about the interests of those who collect them. The practice of collecting famous signatures dates back to the ancient Romans and Greeks and becomes even more relatable after understanding what a signature can reveal an individual’s personality. As time goes on, signatures will continue to hold value and prestige, depending on scarcity and other important factors.
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