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Signed Books May Raise Questions for Collectors

A first printing of a favorite book may be a prized possession, but the same book signed or inscribed by its author is even better. How much better? How much value does the author's signature add? What about author inscriptions? Is it better to have just the author's signature instead? And how do you know if an author's signature is authentic?

There is no formula which dictates how much value is added by the author's signature, but you begin to get a feel for the dynamics involved when you understand what drives the value of an unsigned copy of the book. Is it a book that is valued for primarily for its content rather than its collectability? I can think of several reference books which have gone out of print, driving up prices where pockets of demand remain. Author signatures or inscriptions rarely affect the value of such books.

Collectable book values are driven by different factors, and will increase-often dramatically - with the presence of the author's signature or an inscription. The incremental value depends on several factors such as the significance of the author, the significance of the book, and how generous the author is (or was) with signing. John Irving almost never signs his books, and therefore his signature would easily double the value of a copy of "Hotel New Hampshire." Tom Clancy's signature, on the other hand, is rather common-you could have gotten it last year at his Sam's Club appearance. It only adds a few dollars to the value of one of his books. Some authors' signatures are more valuable than their books and vice versa, but for collectable books the combination will always have greater value than the sum of the parts.

Is it better to have just the author's signature rather than an inscription? Again, it is helpful to consider what drives the book's value. Inscriptions are just as irrelevant as signatures in a book where the content drives the value. But opinions begin to vary when considering other kinds of books. Many dealers and collectors favor signatures alone, thinking that anything personalized may decrease the book's future resale value. I generally disagree, but I can relate a local example which supports it.

Everyone knows the coffee table book " Annapolis," photographed by Kevin Fleming. It is out of print despite high local demand. I have yet to come across a copy that is not signed by Fleming, and about 99% of them bear personal gift inscriptions. It is the perfect gift book, which is the source its continued demand, but most people are uncomfortable giving Mr. and Mrs. Brown a book previously inscribed to Mr. and Mrs. Jones. I suppose few things shout "second-hand" more loudly. In this case the presence of Fleming's personalized inscription actually lowers the value of the book, but a look at what drives the book's value gives a clear enough explanation.

Despite that example I prefer author inscriptions over plain signatures. They often reveal something about the author. If addressed to you they personalize a book, making it more valuable to you. And suppose you go on to fame and celebrity yourself. Then the inscription could become very valuable indeed as an association of two notable people. There are also arguments in favor of inscriptions that relate to authentication. Which brings us to the next question.

How do you know if an author's signature or inscription is genuine? You cannot know unless you personally witnessed the author signing the book. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Reputable dealers, expert handwriting analysis, and even chemical analysis of paper and ink can give you great confidence in the authenticity of an item, but none of these is infallible. An inscription contains more of the author's handwriting, greatly increasing the accuracy of these authentication tools. A signature is fairly easy to fake but the deception is much harder to maintain through a longer piece of writing. A personalized inscription may also provide a crucial link in the history of the book's ownership, known as provenance. This chain of ownership is one of the most important authentication tools. Most of the signatures and inscriptions in books are genuine but it bears noting that there is an unavoidable element of faith required in purchasing signed material ("Pssst. Wanna buy a Michael Jordan signed basketball?").

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