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‘Sign’ of the times: Are signatures a thing of the past?

Above: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, fully signed by The Beatles. Sold by RR Auction for $179,358.

With credit card companies eschewing them, are signatures signing-off?

Two articles recently took contrarian viewpoints on whether or not the handwritten signature is going the way of the dinosaur.

An antiquated notion?

In the New York Times story “Credit Card Signatures Are About to Become Extinct in the U.S.,” writer Stacy Cowley notes that as of April 2018, American Express, Discover, Mastercard and Visa have stopped requiring card users to sign receipts during transactions. With the advent of microchips to authenticate purchases, “the signature has really outrun its useful life,” said Mastercard’s Linda Kirkpatrick.

“I think they’re done,” added Mark Horwedel of the Merchant Advisory Group, a trade group that represents large American retailers. Horwedel predicts three-quarters of his group’s members will have stopped asking customers to sign their names on credit card receipts by the end of the year, the article states.

Ludwig van Beethoven signature autograph RR Auction
Receipt signed by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1820. Sold by RR Auction for $101,414.

The NYT article paints the signature as an antiquated notion on its way out:

The signature, a centuries-old way of verifying identity, is rapidly going extinct. Personal checks are anachronisms. Pen-and-ink letters are scarce. When credit card signatures disappear, handwritten authentications will be relegated to a few special circumstances: sealing a giant transaction like a house purchase, or getting a celebrity to autograph a piece of memorabilia — and even that is being supplanted by the cellphone selfie.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart signature autograph RR Auction
Signed note to a friend by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, circa 1786. Sold by RR Auction for $217,017.

The story even included this video where people talk wistfully about the significance of their signature as it relates to their personal evolution, as if the “extinction” has already happened.

It’s clear that signatures have little bearing on 21st century purchasing validation. NYT also included this humorous video of two friends on a comedy buying spree in L.A., signing obviously fake names on their receipts, including Justin Bieber, Jessica Alba, Vin Diesel and Oprah – even “Mr. Fake Name.” None were rejected by the cashiers, even when pointed out.

Edgar Allan Poe autograph letter signature RR Auction
Signed handwritten letter to a friend by Edgar Allan Poe, 1843. Sold by RR Auction for $76,467.
Sir Isaac Newton signature RR Auction
Document signed by Isaac Newton, 1721. Sold by RR Auction for $53,805.
Handwritten letters John F. Kennedy signature PT-109 1943 RR Auction
Handwritten letters by John F. Kennedy to the families of the soldiers killed by the Japanese on his PT-109, 1943. Sold by RR Auction for $200,000.

Signatures still carry a certain cachet

In his Washington Post article, “The digital age killed cursive. But it can’t kill the signature. Here’s why,” Adam Arenson disagrees that there is no value left to the handwritten signature. He asserts that signatures still carry a certain cachet, “a power we can attribute to their long history as marks of personal authenticity.”

From clipping signatures from handwritten letters, to in-person requests of notable figures, to printed “carte de visite” calling cards, all the way to signed glossy photographs of the modern age, collectors have sought and savored autographs for centuries.

Abraham Lincoln signed carte de visite 1863 RR Auction
Abraham Lincoln signed carte de visite, 1863. Sold by RR Auction for $90,750.

Said Arenson in the WaPo story:

And yet signatures still matter. Documents signed by Abraham Lincoln — even mere receipts — fetch thousands at auction. And even the absence of a personal signature attests to its power: I have peered at the signed “X” on many government documents — the mark of a Native American on a treaty, an ex-slave on a deposition, a veteran on a pension claim — wondering at what we cannot know about them because the subjects were unable even to sign.

Bottom of handwritten and signed letter to his son-in-law by Benjamin Franklin, 1781. Sold by RR Auction for $48,644.

What does RR Auction think?

We certainly agree with the Washington Post article here at RR Auction. Though signatures may not be necessary for making credit card purchases, they nonetheless still hold value in the arena of autograph collection and historical artifacts.

“Our business was built on signatures,” said RR Auction founder and CEO Bob Eaton. “Interest in historically significant autographs on manuscripts, documents and correspondence has only increased in our 40-plus years as an auction house.” Eaton further notes that celebrity autographs from entertainers, politicians or other notable personalities – whether on the previously mentioned formats or on photographs, posters, books, etc. – continue to garner passionate collector interest and huge paydays for consignors.

Handwritten and signed letter to Maj. General Benjamin Lincoln from George Washington, 1782. Sold by RR Auction for $62,500.
1973 job application filled out and signed by Steve Jobs RR Auction
Job application filled out and signed by Steve Jobs, 1973. Sold by RR Auction for $174,757.

Bill White, lead autograph appraiser at RR, said there’s no sign of signatures slowing down in the collectibles marketplace. “With handwritten items becoming more scarce in the digital age, it’s very exciting to own something put on paper with pen, pencil, quill or whatnot,” White said.

Collectors desire these items because there’s a palpably personal feel to them –
a more vivid connection to the author.

So while perhaps signatures will become obsolete in realm of credit card purchases, RR Auction will still seek out the very best examples of history-makers putting their John Hancock on it.

Read about how Steve Jobs signatures are a hot commodity here.

Scroll through some of our best-sellers, including items with signatures, in this list.