Signatures on celebrity checks more prized than cash

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Marilyn Monroe check, dated 1950. Courtesy of Leland Auctions.

Celebrities don’t write many checks anymore. There are other ways of paying bills for the rich and famous including credit cards and electronic means.

Paper checks, however, were the standard method for responding to debt in the good old days. Consequently, such checks signed by celebrities over the decades have become quite popular with autograph collectors and others.

The check that movie actress Marilyn Monroe signed with full script MM flourish back in 1950 might now be worth considerably more than the $200 she once cashed it for.

Historically, paper checks have been used in civilization for centuries. Pioneered in Europe, the first printed checks began appearing in America early in the 1700s. Generally however such checks were not frequently in use in the United States until after the Civil War.

Recently the legendary celebrity and sports memorabilia auction house, Leland’s, offered the personal check of General Winfield Scott. The famous military officer and one-time presidential candidate signed the check in the 1860s. He died shortly after the end of the Civil War.

A far more fascinating celebrity check, one signed by Sitting Bull and his adopted son One Bull, has been offered by Leland’s. It was Sitting Bull who directed the famed Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, the battle that killed General George Armstrong Custer and some 200 soldiers. Sitting Bull was the chief of the Sioux Indian nation and spiritual leader of the Lakota. One Bull was said to have been directly involved in the battle. The check, drawn on the First National Bank of La Fayette, Ind., in 1884, was valued at thousands of dollars.

More paper checks were in use early in the 20th century and thus more would-be celebrities were filling them out and signing them in full.

Checks inscribed back then and in auction circles today might include one signed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 or a group of checks from Yukon adventurer and White Fang author Jack London written between 1911 and 1914. The London group of 13 checks were written in the years just before his death at age 40.

A group of checks recently auctioned nationally were signed by baseball great Honus Wagner. Known as the Flying Dutchman, Wagner became even more famous for his image on one of baseball’s most valuable tobacco cards. The checks with a flowing signature in black fountain pen were written mainly from 1919 to 1920.

From time to time checks signed by baseball immortal Babe Ruth surface in auction houses like Leland’s and other places. One such check, an American League payroll check to Ruth, came to light in recent years. It was signed George H. Ruth in the form the Yankee slugger used only in formal documents. The payroll amount was $7,288 – what the Babe was paid every two weeks in 1930.

Just one year earlier a reporter asked Ruth why he was making more money than the President of the United States. Ruth quipped, “Because I had a better year than he did.”

A seldom seen payroll check of President Franklin D. Roosevelt has also been offered at Leland’s. Dated June 30, 1934, the amount was for $5,625. According to Leland’s, it was only the second FDR payroll check ever offered to the public.

Checks signed by sex goddess and Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe are clearly prized by collectors. One from 1950 when Miss Monroe was just a 24-year-old minor star, made out for $200 created a great deal of excitement among collectors. A second MM check, written in 1953 by the platinum blonde for $5, also attracted interest at the auction house.

It was during the 1950s that automation came into use with the nation’s paper checks. The Bank of America and the Stanford Research Institute developed a coded numbering system for checks in an effort to ease massive check handling by hand. Gradually each check was provided with a magnetic ink character recognition that revolutionized sorting.

Other notable celebrity checks that have been sold at auction include a 1950s a triple-signed document from Hollywood star James Dean who died tragically at age 24. Dean signed a $10 check made out to himself and endorsed it in 1953. It was cashed at the Chase National Bank.

Checks of Hollywood great Greta Garbo have occasionally come into the marketplace. Leland’s once auctioned a Garbo check written out to the Accurate Cleaning Company for $48.71. The check was not canceled. Reportedly the company never cashed her checks and as a result Garbo ended up firing them. The saved check from Miss Hollywood herself turned out to be much more valuable than the original cleaning bill.

Other star checks cashed or otherwise extend from baseball’s Ty Cobb and football’s Vince Lombardi to showbiz’s Madonna and movieland’s W.C. Fields.

Various groupings of celebrity checks are regularly offered by leading auction houses as well. The many offerings range from astronauts and baseball players of the past to B-list Hollywood movie stars and literary achievers.

At their height, paper checks in vast numbers were returned to their signatory. Often they were stored shoebox style‚ by the hundreds if not thousands to provide necessary records of payment for various venues including the Internal Revenue Service. As record-keeping methods evolved, saving old paper checks became less and less fashionable or necessary.

Often these returned-by-the-bank checks ended up left behind for disposal by relatives and estate managers. A smaller portion of celebrity checks came from sources such as Greta Garbo’s Accuracy Cleaning Company who kept the checks and refused to cash or deposit them at the bank.

Today not many celebrities or even average citizens are bothering with paper checks compared to the past century. Latest figures from the federal government indicate only 15 percent of consumer payments at the point of sale are being paid by paper check these days.

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More Images:

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Check to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, dated 1934. Courtesy of Leland Auctions.
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Greta Garbo check, dated 1980. Courtesy of Leland Auctions.
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Sitting Bull signed check from the 1880s. Courtesy of Leland Auctions.
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Famed poet Walt Whitman celebrity check from the 1880s. Courtesy of Leland Auctions.

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