In a piece about the sorts of folks who hound celebrities for autographs, Barry Koltnow writes in the Orange County Register, inter alia:
After all, autograph-collecting (philography) has been practiced since the ancient Greeks, although I doubt whether any Greek would have asked Paris Hilton for an autograph.
Unlike most of our ‘origins’ commentary, this one has some basis in fact, but it is clear that it is a major misunderstanding among the philographic community. A quick scan of the web will turn up numerous instances of the first “autograph” being sought as Aristotle’s (hence, I suspect, the ‘Greek’ origins for this). But the intro of a page on collecting autographs pretty much clarifies things, if you’re a Classicist:
In ancient times, the autographs of great men were regarded with reverence. The Athenians considered the original manuscripts of their poets the chief treasures of their city, their cultural patrimony, and displayed them in their temples. Aristotle collected manuscripts and maps, and formed the first considerable library of antiquity as well as a museum of natural objects.
Aristotle’s own manuscripts are perfect examples of both the perceived value of manuscripts and the fact that secretarial autographs are an ancient problem indeed. Aristotle died in 322 BC leaving his papers to his successor Theophrastus, who in turn willed them to one Neleus. Neleus took the writings from Athens to Scepsis, where his heirs let them languish in a cellar until the first century BC, when Apellicon of Teos discovered and purchased the manuscripts, bringing them back to Athens. When the Romans under Lucius Cornelius Sulla occupied Athens in 86 BC, he carried off the library of Appellicon, complete with Aristotle’s papers, to Rome. There they were published by philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes, who, while reviewing them, determined that most did probably not represent works which Aristotle himself prepared for publication, but appeared to be notes of his lectures taken by his students.
etc.. What is clearly being confused/conflated is the idea of an autograph in the modern sense (i.e. a signature of a celebrity, athlete, whatever) and the idea of an autograph in its proper sense (i.e. a manuscript written in the author’s own hand). They aren’t quite the same animal …