Death in the Memorabilia Industry — expected or shocking.
With the untimely and tragic death of Chadwick Boseman (beyond a great actor, a seemingly exceptional man) this past week, I would like to discuss the role that death plays in the memorabilia industry to help protect the collector from making a hasty and likely costly decision.
Although undeniably morbid, death plays an integral role in the memorabilia industry. From an autographs standpoint, the moment a celebrity passes away is the moment that the quantity of their autograph is forever set. At that point, the supply of that celebrity’s autograph can only dwindle (by way of being lost, destroyed, etc.) and never be replenished. In theory, the cost of their autograph should go up because of this, assuming they were in demand by collectors, but this is not necessarily always the case.
Death is never predictable, but the cases where death becomes more of an expectation than a surprise do exist. Whether by way of illness, age or circumstance, there are instances where death is more expected for an individual. Why does this matter? The memorabilia industry operates as an efficient market (i.e. known information drives pricing) and unlike something like the stock market, there is not much “insider” information to be had. Because of this, I believe you can segment celebrity deaths into two segments: expected or shocking.
Regarding expected deaths (again, an extremely morbid topic), take for example celebrities such as Kirk Douglas (who passed away at 103 years of age), Muhammad Ali (who fought a decades long Parkinson’s battle in the public eye), and Aretha Franklin (who had a multitude of health issues reported during the last decade of her life). Although terrible to say, these deaths likely came as less shocking than that of Chadwick Boseman, a seemingly healthy middle aged man until all details were disclosed. This “expectation” results in the price of celebrity memorabilia, particularly autographs, to already begin reflecting the inevitable. Looking at the price of autographs of these three celebrities, one would be able to see that the price immediately before and months/years after their passing has remained about the same or has seen a slight increase, at best. If you want an autograph from a celebrity in this category, you should expect the cost of one to remain steady.
One thing to keep in mind is a “death bump” in pricing that almost every celebrity experiences immediately upon news of their death. This is the result of more casual and impatient fans flocking to buy an item of a celebrity, essentially bottlenecking supply and increasing prices temporarily. This is the absolute worst time to buy an autograph of a celebrity.
With that said, when is the right time to buy the autograph of a celebrity that suffered a shocking death? This applies to tragedies such as Chadwick Boseman, Kobe Bryant, Amy Winehouse, Mac Miller, Juice WRLD, Whitney Houston, Chester Bennington and Heath Ledger among many others. Because of circumstance, the price of autographs and memorabilia of these celebrities will increase dramatically and almost instantly. If you are unable to purchase an autograph literally minutes after news breaks about such an event, you have likely missed the opportunity to buy an autograph of theirs at previous pricing levels. For example, Kobe Bryant’s autograph value went from mid hundreds for a basketball to easily over $1,000, Mac Miller signed photos were attainable for $100 or so but now sell closer to $1,000, and Heath Ledger autographs could have been had for under $50 and now sell in the thousands on clean slips of paper.
The circumstances are extremely unfortunate, but collectors should be wary about purchasing autographs immediately after death due to not only the “death bump,” but also the fact that scammers and forgers typically take this as an opportunity to rip off collectors by peddling fake autographs. Looking at eBay’s completed sales a few days after Boseman’s passing, of the first 142 listings that I see sold as a “Chadwick Boseman signed photo,” only 4 are authentic in my opinion. An already tragic event that is exacerbated by pathetic people taking advantage of fans.
If you are a fan of a celebrity that had an untimely passing, I highly recommend that you wait. You have already, unfortunately, missed the boat on pricing and in almost every circumstance, the price of the person in question lowers slightly or levels off. Do your research, do not rush into anything, and realize that owning an autograph does not make you any more of a fan than you were when you did not.
Rest in Peace Chadwick Boseman.