May I Have Your Rather Valuable Autograph? Al Wittnebert, an elder statesman of the autograph business, says there is a code of honor in seeking famous signatures — and that it can be a lucrative way to make a living.
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May I Have Your Rather Valuable Autograph?

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May I Have Your Rather Valuable Autograph?

May I Have Your Rather Valuable Autograph?

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Imagine being asked for your autograph or picture everywhere you go. Now, image the autograph-slash-picture-taker won't take no for an answer. It happened to Senator Barack Obama last week, when a very persistent guy kind of got in the senator's face, and he physically tried to stop Obama just to get a snapshot. Take a listen.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

(Soundbite of crowd)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Thank you, thank you.

Unidentified Photographer: Senator, can I get a quick picture with you? Please?

Senator OBAMA: You are wearing me out, brother.

Unidentified Photographer: (Unintelligible) Come on, man! That's not right!

Senator OBAMA: Thank you. Good to see you.

STEWART: Well, it turns out that that gentleman went after autographs and pictures with Obama several times that day. Obama's campaign said the man was a professional autograph-reseller, and apparently, he was looking for a photo to go with his autograph so he could up the price.

Now ,would it be worth it to risk Secret Service getting on your case? Apparently so for this guy. Is there enough demand out there to make a living doing this? Apparently so. And is there a code of honor about seeking out someone's scratched-out name on a piece of paper? That's what we're going to find out.

Al Wittnebert is somewhat of an elder statesman of the autograph business. He's the CFO of the Universal Autograph Collectors Club, and an autograph dealer, joining us on the line from Florida. Hi, Al!

Mr. AL WITTNEBERT (Chief Financial Officer, Universal Autograph Collectors Club; Owner, Al Wittnebert Autographs): How are you doing today?

STEWART: Doing great. So you saw the Obama video. What did you think about it?

Mr. WITTNEBERT: I think Obama needs to get over himself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTNEBERT: When you're in a public eye, especially running for office or something, you're supposed to kiss babies, pose for pictures, do the stuff. If he's selling it on eBay, is it relevant? I mean, he - everybody else does it. I mean, you know, it's just, you know - it makes him look petty.

STEWART: Are there rules of the road about when it's OK to approach someone for an autograph even after they may have said no?

Mr. WITTNEBERT: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, the thing is that's the time to ask him, you know, when he's on the campaign trail. If he gets in the White House, you have virtually no chance. So, I mean, now is the time, I mean...

STEWART: Well, away from the Obama story, in terms of when you were just approaching any sort of celebrity or someone in the public eye, when is it OK to approach someone for an autograph? And when is no, no?

Mr. WITTNEBERT: You know, in truth, I think no is no universally. If somebody says no, you walk away. I mean, I've been told no by many people. You know, you take it, and you just, you know, walk away. There's times when that happens. I know there's a great story with Paul Newman.

He stopped signing autographs when people would start slipping him pieces of paper under the stalls in the men's room. And he said, that's it, not doing it anymore. And I think, you know, there's an appropriate time. Years ago, we always had a code. I mean, basically never disturb anybody while they're eating.

You never disturb anybody while they are with their families. The time to approach them is book signings, public events, things like that. Where, very much like Obama, I'm running for office, here I am, I'm out there. That's part of the game. But, you know, privacy is privacy. I mean, you really don't want to cross that.

And yet, now, you know, some of the younger guys, they really don't really care, you know, about the privacy of the individual, or the - you know, they've gotten very much like the paparazzi, to where the invasion is more the - you know, more of a sport than anything else.

STEWART: What is some of the lengths that you've seen people go to to find out where someone is going to be just to go get that autograph?

Mr. WITTNEBERT: Oh, absolutely - well, you know, bribery is not out of the question, especially, you know people that work at airports, you know, in the VIP lounges, you know, big hotels where the celebrities may stay. That type of thing. I mean, there's always somebody, you know, that will take, you know, a few bucks to say, well, if you did this, or if you happen to show up here, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITTNEBERT: And that's really where they get their tips. So, you know, it's all - it's just a matter of, you know, finding out where they are, how they are.

STEWART: And for the autograph seeker who is doing this for cash, can you really make a living off of this?

Mr. WITTNEBERT: It depends on who you - I mean, you know, it's very much like, again, the paparazzi. They get more money for shooting certain things than they get, you know, for shooting ordinary things. You know, the example that I use is that you're going to, you know, make better money, you know, by getting somebody that, you know, very hot at a particular time. You'd do better getting a Britney Spears than you would getting, let's say, a Burt Reynolds.

STEWART: So, the price of the autograph is based on the celebrity status at the moment.

Mr. WITTNEBERT: Absolutely. And it doesn't necessarily hold that value. You know, going back to the analogy I just made, Burt Reynolds during the, you know, 1970s was the hottest actor there was. So I mean he would have been at the top of his game during that time, but - you know, it just depends on, you know, who or what.

So, I mean, as a long term investment, not necessarily, you know, I think you could invest in better things. I mean, you really have to have a passion of, you know, of the autograph, you know, to make it worth anything to you.

STEWART: Let's ask you about that. Let's go into the passion of this. I mean, the big question is what is the point? What is the meaning of getting someone's signature on a piece of paper?

Mr. WITTNEBERT: Well, what you have, basically, is a frozen moment in time. I mean, you know, you've had an encounter, or somebody's had an encounter, to which you have proof of that encounter, by the signature. I mean, it is the most personal thing that each of us has, is our signature. I mean, it shows who we are. It's, you know, it's an extension of ourselves. So basically what you're getting is a personal memento from whomever it is that you particularly admire at a particular time.

STEWART: And that's probably the difference between a real fan, who just really loves somebody's work, versus somebody - these guys who stand outside of Letterman and say - hey, sign five of these autographs on a three-by-five card.

Mr. WITTNEBERT: Yeah. Well, you know, you can always tell, you know, when they want more than one, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: More than one is the tipoff? To a pro?

Mr. WITTNEBERT: More than one means that there's a - you know, that there's some kind of an agenda, and - you know, whether it's a collector or whether it's, you know, a seller. Collectors like them because they like different, you know, variations to be able to do comparisons and such.

The seller, of course, wants to get as many as he can because he can put them out on the market. But again, you're not talking, you know, huge money on any of these. I mean, you're talking, you know, between, you know, 10 to 25 to 30 dollars, you know?


Mr. WITTNEBERT: Depending on who they get.


Mr. WITTNEBERT: Because then, of course, whomever they sell them to is going to resell them.

STEWART: Al Wittnebert, of the Universal Autograph Collector's Club, thanks for being with us.

Mr. WITTNEBERT: My pleasure.


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