Identifying Non-genuine Autographs


By: Brian G. Kathenes, ISA CAPP

Last week I was going through my files and came across my 'education folder'.  The 'education folder' is a file full of most of my major buying mistakes form my early days as an autograph dealer in the 1980.  It is so named, because every time I made a mistake, I learned - - the hard way.  It contains forgeries, autopen facsimiles, and printed signatures.  At the time of purchase, I thought they were genuine.  Most of them were acquired in my early years as a dealer.  I am not certain, but there is a good chance that I could have taken that 'education money' and paid for medical school.

To hopefully save you from the heavy investment in your 'autograph education', I have described some of the very common, non-genuine items that you may run into in your autograph hunts, whether they are at flea markets, garage sales, or from other collectors.

The number one rule to remember is:  Assume it is not real until proven otherwise.  We all want to believe that we have made a great find.  It is in our nature to discover a treasure for a fraction of the actual price.  Think first.  Not only do you need a keen eye, but you also need a clear head.  Many times I have seen an item at a paper show or flea market and wanted to believe so badly that I found a real bargain I forgot to look it over carefully and inspect it for all the points of authenticity.  Save yourself time, money, and frustration.  Assume it is not authentic -- then inspect it closely to see if it is.

Perhaps the most common fake signatures are on printed letters, signatures, and photos.   There are more engravings with signatures below them than there are snowflakes in Alaska.  Almost all of these signatures are printed.  Look at them very closely, even with a magnifying glass.  Several factors are a dead giveaway of a printed signature; the ink color is identical to the ink color of the engraving; engraved lines can be seen in the signature; the intensity of the ink is uniform throughout the signature.

Many official documents contain facsimile signatures of famous people.  Many Presidential Postal Appointments contain genuine signatures of a Postmaster General, but a steel-stamped or engraved signature of the President.  Coolidge postal appointments are famous for this.

There are many very common printed letters that you may discover in your search for autographs.  Harry Truman sent printed letters, shortly after he left office, to thousands of supporters.  Herbert Hoover sent a printed 3x5 card thanking writers for their “kind birthday wishes.” 

Letters and notes without a personalized greeting or salutation are clues of non-authentic items.  Other famous printed letters include: Winston Churchill's birthday thank you letter, King George's letter dated 1918 to the "Soldiers of the United States..." and many of the cards sent from the White House. 

Another field of excitement, and disappointment, is the discovery of Presidential Land Grants.   Many thousands of acres of land were given away as payment for services rendered to the U.S. Government.  Almost all land grants after Jackson were signed by the President's secretary and not the President. 

Autopens are a 20th century technological tool, and a headache for autograph collectors.  An autopen can reproduce an exact copy of a person's signature thousands of times.  And --- the machine does it with a real pen in its mechanical hand.  Each signature is exactly like the previous one.  Be cautious.  You will need known examples of autopen signatures to determine if the signature in question is an autopen. 

Place one signature on top of one another and lay them both on a light table.  Align them to see if they match.  If they are an exact match, it is an autopen. Some VIPs had vmore than one autopen pattern, so you need them all to be sure.   Other characteristics           of an autopen signature include: an even pen pressure throughout the signature; a drawn appearance; a noticeable minute wiggle or shake on occasion.

There are some excellent forgeries and some very poor attempts.  Avoiding forgeries is best accomplished by purchasing material from a reputable dealer, or retaining a professional, certified appraiser to help you.  A dealer that guarantees material for the life of the item is important, but make sure they are going to be around to make good on the guarantee, if the need arises.

If you want to be a good autograph detective, you must study, study, and study some more.  Your personal library should contain as many books, references, and articles as you can find.  Subscribe to autograph magazines and catalogs.  Stay current on autopens, forgeries , and new discoveries on non-genuine material.  With careful examination and close inspection, you can keep the cost of your 'education folder' to a minimum.