Opinion: Are these autograph auctions a con?

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster and sits on various trustee boards

My father died last year and we've been busy clearing out my parents' home. In one of the drawers in my teenage bedroom, I found my old autograph book, containing the names of a couple of prized Liverpool footballers of the 1970s - snagged, I recall, by standing at the players' entrance at Anfield for hours on end.

Collecting football autographs was an innocent hobby back then, but today a signed shirt - with the names of, say, the Liverpool heroes who won the Champions League final in Istanbul last month - can raise thousands at a charity auction.

At a local fundraiser I attended recently, I met two individuals at the bar. One was from a sporting memorabilia company, the other from a big charity. Both had budgets allocated for the event in the hope that what they clearly regarded as the country hicks in the audience wouldn't recognise the real value of the signed shirts that were being auctioned and that they could therefore get them for a steal. The charity chap told me he planned to sell them on at a profit at his organisation's next black-tie event.

Both tried hard to convince me (as long as I promised not to tell any other bidders) that a nasty piece of fluorescent nylon with a few illegible scrawls on it would be worth hundreds of thousands in years to come - the sporting equivalent of an old master. Maybe my interest in football has dropped off, but I was bemused.

All the more so because - and here I had better not name names - I have a contact who can get signed shirts. He tells me that those soccer superstars who can write are happy to sign away if you catch them in the right mood after a day on the training pitch. So here we have objects with no intrinsic or aesthetic value, which can hardly be deemed rare, yet they sell for thousands. Are any charities worrying about the ethics of participating in this trade?

It may just be, as many a fundraiser has reassured me, that this is a harmless way for people to make a donation. Yet my own observations suggest there are buyers out there at our events who are genuinely seduced by the idea that one day these shirts will be their pension. That makes me feel uncomfortable. It may just be envy - after all, when I sign copies of my books at literary festivals, I don't see Securicor vans pulling up to spirit them to a bank vault. But deep down I wonder if I'm taking part in some sort of swindle.

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