Life & Culture

‘Autograph hunting was my addiction’

For Adam Andrusier, a hobby became an obsession - and then a profession.


Memoirs about overcoming addiction are nothing new. But what happens when you go cold turkey but still surround yourself with the thing you once craved?

For Adam Andrusier, the drug in question was no Class A substance, but autograph collecting; something he picked up as a boy in Pinner, egged on by his father. What started as an enjoyable hobby — poring over Who’s Who and doorstepping Nelson Mandela and Ray Charles — became a fixation that took him through his teenage years, into his time studying music at Cambridge, and arguably climaxed when the grandson of Holocaust refugees found himself in possession of Hitler’s autograph.

His memoir, Two Hitlers and a Marilyn, is a whistle-stop tour through suburban Jewish life in the 1980s and 1990s, recalling an era when celebrities did not chronicle their every move on Instagram, and when purchasing a coveted item involved a cheque in the post not next-day delivery. It’s funny and frank, as much a coming-of-age story about a Jewish teenager as it is one of autograph hunting.

It’s also an exploration of obsession, and of Andrusier’s relationship with his passionate, compulsive father, whose desire to amass things (especially postcards of synagogues destroyed by the Nazis) ultimately threatened to suffocate the wider family. Without issuing spoilers, suffice to say there is marital strife and a fair amount of Israeli dancing (another of his father’s obsessions). It’s not a misery memoir, but Andrusier is open about the tumultuous relationship between father and son, and the toll it took, as well as his own realisation that collecting was a habit he needed to kick.

He grasped this while beginning to build a career as a dealer — Andrusier, now 47, is today an internationally renowned dealer of rare autographs and manuscripts — and coming into contact with more and more collectors. “I got deeper and met these people who were unusual and quite obsessive, and by that point I’d identified those things with my dad,” he says. “I realised there was some sense of inheritance going on, and that I wanted to extract myself.”

Anyway, he saw that he couldn’t be both buyer and seller — keeping his best acquisitions wasn’t exactly good for business. But giving up, he admits, “was a bit of a relief, a bit like giving up a drug. I don’t need this any more, I don’t have to do it.” Plus, it was what his mum would tell his dad: “what are you keeping it for, what’s it for?”

Having been on both sides, he thinks collectors are motivated partly by wanting to make sense of life, something Andrusier is rather moved by. “It can actually look like quite a meaningful life, a lifetime spent collecting objects that tell a story about your tastes and who you were.”

But others are driven to acquire things. He cites a collector of Laurel and Hardy publicity postcards. “This guy just bought more and more. He had, on the walls, 125 of them and most were the same pose. That doesn’t look too healthy.”

Then there’s denial. “You collect these things and there’s this notion that at the end you’ll have this kingdom with all your things,” he says. “But actually you’ll be dead, and your kids will be having to figure out what to do with all these things you’ve amassed.”

While there are recreational collectors, Andrusier is aware that for many it goes further. Does this reformed addict ever feel akin to a drug pusher? “Yeah,” he says. “I suppose I feel that with most people the problem is so chronic that if it wasn’t me it would be someone else selling to them. I suppose I get caught up in it, I get charmed and find it interesting even if I worry about it. I’m interested by that desire to buy particular things and commemorate their earlier lives in this way.” So while he doesn’t want to create his identity “by amassing objects”, he is taken by the instinct. “Probably because I’ve had a dad who has done the same.”

His childhood, with his father’s flights of fancy and his own celebrity-chasing, comes across as joyful but eccentric.

“No matter how crazy you suspect it might be, you don’t know,” he says. “But I was quite aware it was a bit weird, certainly, the synagogue collections and the Israeli dancing. And there was always the soundtrack of my mum saying to my dad this is really mad, why are you doing this?”

Andrusier, who remains close to his mother and sister, is clear the book is only his version of events. But he is now on good terms with his father, helped by therapy and distance. “I’ve been able to say some things over the years, and to write this book,” he says. “He’s fairly unchanged, he’s very consistent in his passion and enthusiasm, which is one of the things I’ve come to value most about him. He’s got a real zest for life.”

Writing has been a chance to interrogate his youthful hobby. “I had this question in my mind, why was I obsessed with famous people?” he says. The answer that emerges is that pre-teen Andrusier was less focused on celebrity and more on gaining his father’s approval. Indeed, targets were often people his peers would never have heard of; ageing icons his parents suggested like Frank Sinatra, Greta Garbo or the wrestler Big Daddy.

One of the first was Cary Grant. “I had the thrill without really knowing who he was,” says Andrusier. Grant’s final wife was a client of Andrusier’s father, and she sent a signed photograph. He still has it. “I was quite excited but purely for the reason my dad was excited.” Yet those early acquisitions felt magnificent. “I would pore over them.”

This is not the first time Andrusier’s life has been transferred to the page. A contemporary of Zadie Smith at university, his unusual preoccupation was fodder for her 2002 novel, The Autograph Man. The book’s protagonist was a Jewish-Chinese celebrity-obsessed collector.

At the time he was self-conscious about building a career in dealing. “Then she wrote that book, and everyone was impressed by my connection to it,” he recalls. He didn’t see the character as biographical, and says Smith didn’t either, “but the situations were very much situations of my life.”

Would Andrusier be a collector if he were growing up now? “I don’t think I would have had the famous bug, because it felt like a sort of hangover from a previous era.”

Modern celebrity culture, he thinks, is about cutting ties; in his youth there was more reverence for the stars of yesteryear. And fans want selfies, not signatures, while celebrities bare all on social media.

“That fandom and that sort of excitement about the mystery of other people was much stronger then,” he says. “People don’t find the mystery as mysterious because they feel they have that access.”

Certainly, autograph hunting today is a different game. Teenage collectors are rare, with buyers focused on investment collecting. And the internet “has taken a bit of thrill out of the hunt”.

“People used to go into second-hand bookshops on the Strand and find a book in there,” he says. “Now those people have their stock online. If you’ve got the money you can just buy anything.”

Now a father (his son is 11), Andrusier is still in suburbia, albeit in slightly more urban Willesden Green. Having grown up involved if not enthused by Jewish life, he is more distant from that now, but still has a strong Jewish identity. “It’s always felt like a kind of personal identity, to do with history and my family and a feeling of shared knowledge.”

As a Jew he has consciously steered clear of the type of collecting that fetishises the darkest points of history, including the Holocaust. “I definitely don’t want to be selling Nazi autographs to collectors of Nazi memorabilia,” he says, mentioning someone who collects Nazi memorabilia “who bought Hitler’s bed, and presumably slept in it. “That kind of trading really is quite unpleasant.”

Acquiring — then selling — Hitler’s autograph left him with mixed feelings.

“I did find something about it fascinating, I remember feeling it was a really weird object,” he says. “I grew up with a feeling of him having so much control… this guy who had done unthinkable things to our family and so many. It was a sort of revenge, a way to slightly tame that terrifying image in my head.”

It’s just one episode in an eventful life. Not bad for a boy who felt trapped in suburbia and went autograph hunting to escape. “I’m not someone who ever wishes things were different,” says Andrusier. “I wouldn’t change any bit of it.”


Two Hitlers and a Marilyn by Adam Andrusier is published by Hodder Headline

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