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Life and signs: How one man's autograph quest became an obsession

Zoltán Márián has collected the autographs of nearly 2000 heads of state. Photo / Zoltán Márián.

No world leader can escape Zoltán Márián.

Since 1963, he’s dedicated his life to getting an autographed photo from every head of state or government – be they democrat, dictator or royal.

Now, he’s on a quest for his latest New Zealand autograph: new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Márián wrote to her in early October – before anyone knew who the next prime minister would be – to request her photo and autograph to add to his collection.

There’s been no response yet.

“Maybe now she is too busy for answering but, of course, I will write her again,” Márián says in his lilting Hungarian accent, with a trill on his Rs.

“Sooner or later, I will get her signed photo. I am sure of it.”

A former prosecutor in his homeland of Hungary, Márián leaves no stone unturned a signed photo of each, whether that means tracking down a leader in exile, at a far-flung palace, in a hermit state like North Korea, or when stonewalled by aides – as was the case with former Governor General Sir Jerry Mateparae.

“I think his private secretary ... didn’t place my request before him,” Márián says.

“He wrote that the governor general doesn’t give out his signature. It’s a normal refusal that I’ve received many times.

“I never give up.”

Sir Jerry became New Zealand’s High Commissioner to the UK earlier this year, and Márián wrote directly to him in London.

In September, with no private secretary in his way, he received Sir Jerry’s signed photograph.

“I was very happy to receive it because he was missing in my collection, and I really was very happy to receive it, yes. He’s a very nice man.”

Zoltán and Marie in Budapest. Left: in 1988.

Márián can likely lay claim to the world’s largest collection of leaders’ signed photographs: some 2000 people, and counting.

They include ordinary and extraordinary leaders: everyone from Japanese Emperor Hirohito, Queen Elizabeth and the last Shah of Iran to Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro, Muammar Gaddafi and Augusto Pinochet. He even tracked down North Korea’s Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, but he’s still waiting on Kim Jong Un.

His collection includes more than a dozen New Zealand prime ministers and governor generals, beginning with Sir Keith Holyoake who, in 1965, wished Márián “every success in your interesting and fascinating hobby”, to Sir John Key posing by the pool at his Auckland mansion.

Former Prime Minister Bill English and Dame Patsy Reddy, who became governor general last year, are yet to respond to his requests.

US President Harry Truman obliged (left), as did Pope John Paul II. Zoltán  rejected one from Donald Trump, however, because it was done with an autopen. Photos supplied / Zoltán Márián

Márián began his lifelong hobby at age 13 – his first autograph came from Hungary’s communist leader János Kádár in 1963 – and he’s kept it up ever since, even while heading a public prosecutor’s office in his hometown of Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city.

Unlike other international collectors, who might amass autographs from celebs or sport stars, too, Márián is a purist: the person must be a leader (though he does count Princess Diana and Mother Theresa among his collection), and they must provide an original autograph with their photo – no autopen, stamps, or pre-printed signatures allowed.

Each election, coup, revolution, or leader’s death around the world adds another item to Márián’s lengthy to-do list – and he says fulfilling his dream is getting harder.

“Normally, I write to the person directly, but if they do not answer or they refuse, I need some help,” he says.

“I am very glad because many people helped me, mainly other heads of state, prime ministers, presidents. Sometimes I send my letter to the Hungarian prime minister or president and ask them to forward my letter to a king or queen, and normally they do it.”

She may not have been a head of state, but still...he's proud to have got this from Diana, Princess of Wales. Photo supplied / Zoltán Márián

He had to break his own strict rules of the game for Queen Elizabeth: she really doesn’t give out her autograph to collectors. However, Hungary’s president received a signed letter from her when he retired in 2000, and agreed to gift it to Márián.

“It’s a very kind letter from the queen, now in my collection.”

It’s the only time Márián has settled for a no. He’s chased others for years, including the Sultan of Brunei, who – after 42 years – finally agreed to an autograph.

“The sultan never, never answered me,” Márián says.

“I wrote to our ambassador who represented Hungary in Brunei and I asked the ambassador to do something for me. The ambassador, he’s a nice man, he was very kind to me because he had just listened to a radio report with me in Hungary and he knew a lot about my collection.

“When he officially went to the Sultan’s palace, he found the time to personally ask the Sultan to sign the photograph for me, and the Sultan has signed it.”

From 1949 to 1989, when Hungary was a communist country, Márián’s letters were intercepted by police, who warned him against corresponding with some leaders.

“Twice, when I wrote to heads of state which were like an enemy to Hungary, I was invited to the police station,” he says.

“The police told me to stop writing to these kinds of people, because they opened and read my letters, and they knew the people I was writing to. But I never stopped writing. So I was once again invited to the police station and they told me, very, very strongly, ‘do not write to fascist heads of state, do not write to American presidents’ and so on and so on. But I never stopped, and never gave up.”

Those letters led to Márián forming some unlikely friendships: since 1972, he’s been penpals with the last king of Bulgaria, King Simeon II, who was in exile at the time.

“He was very surprised that I found him,” Márián says, adding that Simeon – who later returned to Bulgaria and became prime minister – continues to send him postcards from holidays, and New Year’s cards annually.

Their friendship proved fruitful when Márián was struggling to get an autograph from King Hassan II of Morocco. The two royals were close friends, so Márián asked his penpal to step in.

“King Simeon personally asked King Hassan to give me a signed photograph, and King Hassan has signed me a very attractive and beautiful signed photograph.”

Signatures of John Key and Helen Clark

For more than 50 years, another penpal has given Márián a deep connection to New Zealand. In 1965, a Hungarian newspaper published contact details of foreign students seeking penpals in Hungary – and Márián jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the West.

He began writing to Gisborne schoolgirl Marie Andrew (now Moffatt). Back and forth, the pair corresponded for decades, sending each other small gifts. Márián holds a small triangular flag up to his webcam: it’s embroidered with “Gisborne” and a picture of Captain Cook’s Endeavour, and was produced in 1969.

“Still I am saving it and keeping it. It’s a nice gift from her to me,” he says.

Moffatt and her husband have twice visited him and his wife in Hungary, but Márián is yet to make it to New Zealand.

“I am thinking about it, but you know it is very far from Hungary to go to New Zealand, it’s about 24 hours by plane – very, very far, and I do not terribly like to travel so long. But maybe one day.”

 

Márián and elder daughter Dorina helping him organise an exhibition. Photo supplied / Zoltán Márián

At 68, still has time but he’s busy: planning two more exhibitions of his signatures (he’s held four in the past), and writing a book of the stories behind them.

He’s also making plans for the future of his collection: he wants his grandson, Olivér, now 10, to continue it – and scoffs at the idea that autographs are on their way out, replaced by selfies.

“No, no, no,” Márián says.

“A photograph is nothing, by my opinion … Autographs are much more important, it is very special [for a person] who likes handwriting, who likes the signature. The selfie photograph never will replace the autograph. I don’t think so.”

But it’s getting harder to collect them: partly because there are now more people with the same goal as Márián, and partly because world leaders increasingly send him pre-printed or automated signatures, instead of originals.

Those, he says, get sent back or binned – including US President Donald Trump’s, after he sent a photo signed with an autopen.

“It went into the rubbish,” Márián says.