It is a balmy night in Beverly Hills outside Mr. Chow's, a favorite movie-star hangout, and Steve Woolf is waiting patiently for Sean Connery to arrive.
He's not alone: around him is a crowd of Hollywood's ever-present autograph hounds. But there is a difference between Woolf and the others. They are looking for a moment of memorabilia, some piece of stardust to treasure. Woolf is a businessman, and for the past two decades his business has been autographs.
For him, an autographed photo of Sean Connery can bring in between $300 and $500.
A former car salesman, Woolf is one of a new breed of professional autograph chasers. For the past four years, his company I.P.A. Network (I.P.A. stands for In Person Autograph) has generated more than $100,000 a year in revenues.
Woolf, of course, is far from the only player selling celebrity autographs. Major auction houses like Christie's sell autographs of historic figures, and numerous sports memorabilia houses sell the signatures of athletic heroes.
But Woolf and his son, Jeff, don't have licensing deals with celebrities. Their business is out in the trenches, asking, begging, cajoling stars to sign pictures of themselves. It's a tough racket.
"Most people tell me how great it is that I get to meet all these famous people at glamorous Hollywood events, but it can be difficult and discouraging," Woolf admits. "Take a recent night at Mr. Chow's when I waited hours for Lauren Bacall, Salma Hayek and Angie Everhart. All three women came out and they stiffed us no one would sign. I remember when Salma Hayek first started out in her career she was so nice and accommodating, but now she is the biggest snob."
Keeping the cash
Nonetheless, Woolf admits that the profits from celebrity signatures all go to him which is why many stars don't want to give their autographs away. Woolf doesn't pay a cent for his inventory, and he pays his son a flat salary.
"And so what?" Woolf asks. "These people make millions and are afraid someone else might make a few bucks off their name. They also don't realize that it might be sold to someone who really wants their autograph and will hang it in a beautiful frame and cherish it for the rest of their lives."
There is no shortage of competition in the autograph-hunting game, and also no shortage of scam artists people who prey on unsuspecting fans by forging celebrity signatures. Woolf's motto is, "buyer beware," and he has devised his own authentication process. Every celebrity autograph he sells is documented with a picture of the star making his or her signature. The location and time of day when the autograph was signed are also included.
Mark Felicio, who recently bought a store called Alfie's Autographs in Hollywood, says there are only three people he trusts to collect autographs, because honesty is in short supply in the business.
"A few people know how to approach a star and get what is needed," he said. "For example, at a movie premiere they can get six (signed) pictures going in and six coming out if they are doing things right."
Celebrity autographs are like any commodity. They go up and down in value depending on the laws of supply and demand, which means that the more autographs a star signs, the less they are worth in the marketplace. James Woods, for example, enjoys accommodating his fans, but all that signing diminishes the value of his signature. Madonna almost never stops to sign autographs, and that means a rare signature from the Material Girl carries a hefty price tag.
The toughest celebrities are the reclusive ones, like Marlon Brando. Sometimes the effort to get their signatures can be downright humiliating. Take the day Woolf hid in the bushes near a movie studio for hours dressed in a suit and tie waiting for Brando to show up. He felt it was worth the risk.
"His autograph goes for between $1,200 to $1,500 because he never signs," Woolf said.
When Brando finally arrived, Woolf approached the star's car cautiously and asked for his autograph. Brando rolled down the window and told him to see a psychiatrist. "You want my autograph, why?" Brando asked. "I am just a regular guy."
The kid factor
Woolf struck out that day, but his son convinced Brando to sign months later through sheer persistence and perhaps because he was a kid. Many stars who wouldn't sign autographs for grown-ups will do it for children. Unfortunately, the 20-year-old Jeff Woolf has now grown up, and no longer has that advantage.
"Now I'm just another face in the crowd," says the young Woolf, who is on his way to college and a degree in business.
Like his father, Jeff has his war stories, like the Friday night when he and a group of friends spotted Cher's limo and followed it to a house in the Hollywood Hills where she was recording an album. After hours of waiting and being hassled by security guards, they spotted Cher coming out at 1 a.m.
"Cher said, 'What in the world are you doing out at this hour?'" The younger Woolf told her he was a huge fan and really wanted her autograph.
"Cher made me swear on my life that I wouldn't sell it," said Woolf, who broke his promise and made a handsome profit on the signature.
Despite the stresses of autograph hunting, its embarrassments and the ever-present need to authenticate and document its products, Woolf enjoys the thrill of scoring a star signature.
"You've got to love what you are doing," he said. "Because where else can you stand on a street corner and make well over six figures a year and have fun?"
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