Ballymena collector Robert McAuley talks GRAEME COUSINS through his vast collection of autographs and historical memorabilia
Just over a week ago the News Letter ran a story about a Ballymena man with a unique stamp collection commemorating King William’s biggest battles in Ireland.
However, that particular collection of first day covers was only the tip of iceberg as far as Robert McAuley’s horde of memorabilia is concerned.
The 79-year-old’s huge collection of autographs, stamps and manuscripts commemorating some of the most important people and events in of the past 100 years, is all the more amazing given that he hated history at school.
The News Letter visited him at his Co Antrim home and found out more about the eclectic and valuable items he has accumulated over the years.
He said: “If I can remember right the first autograph in my collection was one I had to buy because the man was dead and gone – it was Edmund Hillary, the first man who climbed Everest.
“You hear a lot about autograph hunters, but most of the time it’s signatures people are after.
“An autograph just means something that’s hand written, it doesn’t have to be your name, it could be a note that says, ‘the weather is nice today’.
“A signature is someone’s handwritten name – what people usually mean when they ask someone famous for an autograph.”
Most of the autographs in Robert’s collection are attached to historically relevant items.
For example he has contractual letters written by such wide-ranging figures as Adolph Hitler, King William and Jack Ruby as well as a Destination Moon movie programme signed by Neil Armstrong and a cheque signed by General Custer.
He commented: “My uncle Tommy fought in the Second World War and got three medals for fighting the Germans in Germany, fighting the Germans in France and fighting the Japanese in Burma.
“He didn’t know I have the Hitler autograph.
“I don’t think he’d be too chuffed at that.
“For me it’s about collecting autographs, whether or not I agree with their politics or what they’ve done doesn’t come into it.
“When I show them to people I tell them that they’re holding history in their hands – that’s what it’s about.
“When I was at school one thing I couldn’t stand was history, yet now I could spend all day talking about it.”
Robert’s walls are adorned with signed photos from the likes of Muhammad Ali, Donald Trump and Diego Maradona. He also has a lot of Royal Family memorabilia including a Christmas card from Charles and Diana sent to one of their bodyguards.
He was a member of the same Ulster Protestant Volunteer organisation as the late Ian Paisley, and has correspondence between himself and ‘Big Ian’ in his collection along with his UPV sash.
Robert, who was a butcher in Ballymena for five decades, was inspired to start collecting autographs by Broughshane man Tommy Scullion, who is regarded as one of the world’s greatest autograph hunters.
His collection of autographs was sold at auction for £75,000 in 2008. Following his death in 1996 at 72, his brother Wilson spent a decade cataloguing his collection of 40,000 signatures including Pablo Picasso, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa.
Robert said: “Tommy ended up with one of the best collections in the UK. He got me started. I wrote to different ones, some wrote back, some didn’t.
“Some of the first people I wrote to were Zara Phillips, Sarah Ferguson, Elton John, they all sent me their autographs.
“I wrote to the Duchess of Cornwall and I’ve a letter from her. The Royals have their own franking office kept under lock and key. When I got that one delivered the postman said, ‘you must be very important, here’s a letter from Buckingham Place that you have to sign for’.”
One particular correspondence led to what could be described as a raw deal: “I wrote to Michael D Higgins and I sent him a lovely first day cover of John F Kennedy and asked him to sign it.
“He sent me up a signed photograph of himself but he kept the first day cover.
Asked what the prized possession of his own collection was, Robert said: “That one of Neil Armstrong, I like that very much. Along with the General Custer one I’d said they’d be worth in the region of £3,000 each.
“Those two I got from specialist auctions, the same with the Hitler one and the King William one. They’d both be worth a lot of money as well.”
His vast stamp collection was put together along with his wife Margaret who sadly has had to move into a home as she has dementia.
He said: “I live on my own now. I visit Margaret every day. She doesn’t know who am I, who she is, where she is.”
Robert and Margaret have a daughter Elizabeth and two grandchildren – Charlotte, 16, and Harry, 15.
“I’ve promised that after I’m dead and gone, the grandson will get my collection,” he said. “If I was to sell anything any money I’d get would go to Alzheimer’s.”