Every Saga Has a Beginning: The Origins of SWAU
Andy Luk grew impatient.
It’s noteworthy because, if you ask any of the 7,000 members of Star Wars Autograph Universe -- the collecting group that was birthed this very moment back on Jan. 23, 2016 -- Andy Luk doesn’t get impatient.
“He’s a stand-up guy who would do anything for you,” Mike Tanski said of his friend for nearly 10 years. “I have a lot of respect for people like that.”
The source of Luk’s frustration was, in many ways, a microcosm of autograph collecting in general. There was misinformation that Luk wanted to clear up immediately.
In a collecting world that was relegated to message boards, one-way blog posts and old-fashioned text messages between collectors, Luk was figuratively frozen in carbonite.
Just a few days earlier, there was cause for celebration.
His good friend Kevin Freistat, owner of Florida-based KLF Sports, had just inked Daisy Ridley - the face of a movie just weeks into a theatrical run that would see it become the highest-grossing film of all-time - to an exclusive signing deal.
The price would, understandably, ruffle collectors who were used to paying far less for Original Trilogy icons like Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher. But this was a new generation in a market that had garnered a decade’s worth of inflation.
Luk and longtime friend Steve Grad, an autographing pioneer and frequent guest on The History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” wanted to spread the word about this exciting opportunity for “Star Wars” collectors.
So they reached out to a Facebook group of which they were both members, and within days, online comments and stories questioned everything from the validity of KLF as a company to whether Ridley had ever actually agreed to a signing.
It culminated with a skeptical article posted to a well-known “Star Wars” site in February 2016.
“Reputation is very important,” Luk says, “and the author never apologized, nor did he write another article saying that the signing was real and that it happened…(that’s when) Steve and Mike convinced me to start Star Wars Autograph Universe.”
Before Facebook, the booming “Star Wars” autograph collecting world was a niche circle. Fans congregated on the Rebelscum.com forums and conducted business, trades and shared news via message boards - a technology that had gone largely unchanged since the release of Episode I.
“It wasn’t conducive to real-time sharing and conversations,” said Tanski, an upstate New Yorker, who first encountered Luk on those same boards. “We discussed making a group so we could keep everyone informed and up-to-date in real time, to combat those who had doubts or wanted to outright lie for clicks.”
Grad, a collector for 40 years who has traveled the globe in search of “Star Wars” signatures, was saddened to see old staples fade but acknowledged that change was necessary.
“It became more of a pain to post on message boards,” he said. “Facebook was more immediate, photographs were easy to post, and unfortunately Rebelscum became a thing of the past. Andy was put off by that and saw a new path for collectors.”
Despite his vision, Luk was reluctant, at first, to take on such a commitment. He was married with a young daughter and rising quickly on the operations side of a career in motorsports, so he was understandably hesitant of the time and work demand.
His passion, however, was never in question.
Luk grew up in Texas and fell in love with autographs when he left his first Oilers game with a scribble from Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. He added that first acquisition to a pile of signed gifts from family friend Nolan Ryan (yes, that Nolan Ryan) and it was a matter of time before this self-described “movie buff” was seeking celebrities, too.
“I was like every collector, purchasing via eBay or online,” Luk remembered. “I didn’t know any better, but I learned a lot and made good friends. Then I learned that I could graph on the streets of L.A. and did it hardcore for about eight years. You get a rush of accomplishment, (but) many people get addicted to that rush and will do anything for it. I’ve seen people lose jobs and family due to the nature and lure of autographing in person.”
His early collection, mostly posters from personal favorites like “Top Gun,” grew with his reputation, but there was always one area in which he was particularly passionate.
“Growing up, I loved A New Hope,” Luk said. “Mark Hamill was my idol and Luke Skywalker was the best character ever created. The story of a kid becoming a hero was so captivating, and I was drawn in with all the lasers, ships, and of course, lightsabers. Carrie Fisher was also very appealing to the eyes.”
Luk ultimately agreed to start the group, and slowly word of SWAU began to spread throughout the collecting world. Grad, who had befriended Luk while the two were autographing on the Hollywood streets, was happy to lend his hand and pedigree to his friend’s endeavor.
“I was honored to be part of its formation,” said Grad, a Chicago native who owns one of the world’s largest “Star Wars” collections. “Andy is quite a driving force and he had a vision. He’s done an amazing job of bringing that to life, and I think the thing everyone should understand is that he actually cares for this community. He saw a great opportunity to educate people and to help this community grow.”
Those early days felt like a virtual extension of waiting outside restaurants for a celebrity or posting back-and-forth on the Rebelscum boards. Tanski said he remembers membership stalling briefly in the hundreds, many of those the familiar hardcore collectors sharing stories and trading pictures.
Between Luk’s hustle and Grad’s connections in the authenticating world, though, the group soon exploded. The partnership with KLF has since produced several of those very-real exclusive signings with Ridley, plus sit-down sessions with Adam Driver, Laura Dern, and outside-“Star Wars” names like Al Pacino and Burt Reynolds.
Luk, Grad and Tanski turned friendships and working partnerships into a pair of private offerings with the once-elusive Harrison Ford (via Coolwaters Productions) and the first send-in signings for Hayden Christensen and Kelly Marie Tran (through Star Wars Authentics). These in addition to a revolving door of opportunities to add signatures from the ILM visionaries who helped create that Galaxy Far, Far Away from behind the camera.
Through all of it, members from around the world grew friendships and forged bonds by sharing photos of awe-inspiring and fledgling collections alike. The group experimented with a mentoring program to help new collectors, and experienced moderators were tasked with everything from answering questions to keeping content relevant and respectful.
Luk, meanwhile, has embraced a no-nonsense reputation, dispatching members who violate established rules while giggling at posts that address him as the group’s “fearless” or “supreme” leader. It’s not uncommon to see a Kim Jong-Un meme accompanying a stern warning or a “Bye Felicia!” playfully affixed to a post banning a member who doesn’t measure up.
It might seem harsh, but the Long Beach, Calif., native just wants the best for a group that is every bit as time-consuming as he imagined. His 18-hour days typically start by shipping packages to members, followed by at least two hours of answering emails and posting discussion threads and replies to the Facebook page. All this comes before a full day of “real work” as Director of Operations for Formula DRIFT even begins.
He’ll wrap up each night with around four hours’ worth of prepping packages to go out the next day, but somehow Luk still finds time to spend with his supportive wife, Erin, and to walk his daughter, the aptly-named Mara Jade, to school each day.
That’s a Ben Solo-like turn from the online persona he projects toward members who cross him.
“There are people out there who only want to make money off people,” he said. “There are others who feel they know so much and give the wrong information. We had a former member try to forge a Harrison Ford autograph just to see if people could point it out. Why even try? Others that get kicked out are just trying to advertise their own business.”
The steadily rising membership of SWAU has recently seen a revamped website and increased social media presence, an offering of online merchandise, and added visibility for the popular Graphcast on YouTube.
For the latter, Luk tapped charter member Tom Cathey, a fellow Houston native who got to know Luk by “lurking” around Rebelscum. When the Ridley scandal broke, Cathey never doubted Luk’s word on the signing’s authenticity -- so Luk repaid that loyalty when he saw Cathey’s name amongst volunteers to moderate his proposed collector profile and discussion show.
“We’ve been buddies ever since,” said Cathey, who owns a small business in Houston. “I’ve learned a lot by listening and asking for advice. I have a pretty good idea, but I still defer to the experts…(and) keeping the guys on track is huge. They like to ramble sometimes and go off on tangents. Pulling them all together is tough!”
Over 90 episodes into the Graphcast, members make it a priority to watch and comment as Cathey, Luk, Grad (schedule permitting) and a rotating cast of experts discuss news, interview guests, and absorb the wisdom offered by the surly and enigmatic Pete “Bendu”.
“It’s pretty crazy, to be honest,” says Grad, the principal authenticator for Beckett Authentication Services. “We could have a community of over 10,000 but we’ve been very selective on who is part of this group. We want to help protect the community from the scumbags who only want to rip people off. It feels great to be part of this - I love the community and the great friends I've made here.”
Though SWAU has already expanded beyond the founding members’ most optimistic dreams, there is no slow-down in sight. Unlike the mystery surrounding the future of “Star Wars” on the big screen, most members are beyond excited when asked about plans for signings, events and continued growth of a club that means so much to them.
“I talk to group members more than my family,” Cathey said. “Without SWAU, I wouldn’t be on Facebook. Some of my best friends are here. I’ve met their families and they’ve met mine. It’s amazing.”
That’s a far cry from that night in January 2016, when the seemingly unflappable Luk was convinced, like his hero on Tatooine, to take his first steps into a larger world.
“I’m so excited for what’s to come,” said Tanski, citing the 2019 Celebration meet-up that brought hundreds of members to a Chicago bar as one of his favorite memories. “The amount of engagement and activity is unprecedented. For us, it was always about building a quality member base that enjoys collecting, not just to make a quick buck. We accomplished that, and it’s growing every day.”
Added Luk: “Our goal is to help people with their collection and to spread education about our hobby. Some people are turned off by our policies, but you can see that we are serious about this. I wanted SWAU to be a place for people to come for not only ‘Star Wars,’ but to discuss autographs in general, and I’m very proud of the friendships we’ve made. Some of my best friends are here, and it’s great to see our members meeting each other all over the world.”