Distinguishing Real from Fake: Autograph Authentication Essentials
Autographs have a special allure for collectors, drawing in fans eager to enhance their collections with signed treasures.
Unfortunately, the rise in counterfeit autographs has made distinguishing the real from the fake more challenging. This article aims to equip you with the knowledge to spot a genuine autograph and steer clear of deceptive forgeries.
Forgery practices have been around since autograph collecting began. Initially, these forgeries were handcrafted and relatively easy to identify.
However, with the progress of technology enabling the creation of high-quality digital images, detecting forgeries has become more intricate. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the risks and familiarize yourself with the telltale signs of forgery to navigate the autograph market with confidence.Table of Contents:
– Difference Between “Autograph” and “Signature”
– Steps to Test a Signature for Authenticity
– Look for Provenance
– Protecting Yourself from Forgeries
– Quality Autograph Authenticators
– What Does Professional Autograph Authentication Cost?
– Becoming Your Own Autograph Authenticator
Difference Between “Autograph” and “Signature”
Firstly, let’s clarify the difference between an “autograph” and a “signature”.
An autograph refers to a person’s handwritten signature, often accompanied by a brief message or dedication (like “Sincerely yours”).
In essence, the term “autograph” encompasses both the signature itself and any additional written content provided by the person.
So, when we talk about an autograph’s signature, we are essentially referring to the written name or mark made by the individual as part of the autograph. In common usage, the terms “autograph” and “signature” are sometimes used interchangeably to represent the act of someone signing their name.
Steps to Test a Signature for Authenticity
Examine the Signature (the Person’s Name) Itself
Examining the signatures closely is a good starting point to determine if they are genuine. One of the most crucial aspects of an autograph is its signature (the person’s name), which frequently indicates whether it is genuine or not.
A printed or stamped autograph will have a signature that is uniform and appears to have been mass-produced, but a legitimate autograph will have a distinctive and individual signature. A legitimate autograph will frequently have flaws and inconsistencies, like smudges, wavering lines, and more; these are indications that the signature is genuine.
In addition, look for inconsistencies in the signature. This can include differences in letter size or spacing between them. Inconsistencies in the way the signature is signed can also be found.
For example, if the person usually signs their name with a flourish, but the signature in question lacks this feature, it could be a forgery.
Compare the Signature to Known Examples
Once you’ve looked at the signature, the next step to confirm the authenticity of an autograph is to compare it to other publicly available examples of the signature.
This can be done through consulting books or other reference materials. WorthPoint subscribers have access to their database of scanned reference materials like “The Beatles: A Reference and Value Guide”, and “Collecting Baseball Player Autographs”, to name just two.
If you’re searching online, It’s important that you look for authentic signatures on reputable websites. This will ensure that your known sample source is indeed genuine.
It is also wise to consider the circumstances surrounding the signature. If the signature was obtained in person (and there’s proof of it), it is far more likely to be authentic than if it was obtained via mail or an intermediary.
The style of a person’s signature can vary depending on the era in which it was written. Celebrities’ signatures may evolve over time, so it’s crucial to ensure that the signature not only matches the individual but also reflects the specific time period.
“Live” Ink Signatures
In autograph lingo, a live ink signature is when someone grabs a pen and signs something right on the spot. It’s all about that real-time handwriting, setting it apart from reproduced or machine-made signatures.
These live ink autographs are seen as more genuine and prized in the autograph-collecting scene because they capture the actual moment someone put pen to paper.
In a live ink signature, the ink flows smoothly, there are no air bubbles or breaks in the flow, and the ink appears slightly shiny overall. With the use of a strong magnifying glass or loop, you should be able to see crossovers – ink tracks where, for example, the crossbar crosses the “T” or any pen line crosses another.
You can also see the actual pen strokes as well as where the nib made a physical impression in the paper.
A rubber stamp is a piece of rubber that has been carved to look like a hand-drawn signature. After being dipped in ink, the stamp is pressed onto a flat surface (like a photo), leaving an ink impression that replicates the original.
It’s very common to see vintage movie star photos with stamped signatures going all the way back to silent film, when stars like Mary Pickford were so overwhelmed with fan mail that stamps made the job of replying and sending promotional photos much easier. A great majority of Mary Pickford “autographed” photos are in fact stamped signatures.
Rudolph Valentino was fond of stamps and employed several versions with lengthy but unpersonalized inscriptions, two in his native Italian and one in English.
Early stamped signatures are fairly easy to spot – they’ll have a flat, sometimes sloppy or even “lumpy” appearance around the edges of the letters. Light blue or purple ink was often used and this tends to give some examples a faded look.
Printed (Faked) or Pre-Printed Signatures
Printed or pre-printed signatures pose a unique challenge.
Some vintage photos with pre-printed signatures were created for mass distribution and fan enjoyment, without any intention to deceive. These photos were often mailed out, distributed during events or used as promotional items to provide fans with tangible connections to their idols.
In contrast, the landscape has shifted in modern times, where there are deliberate attempts to deceive collectors.
Forgers now intentionally create and print signatures onto photos, aiming to replicate authentic autographs.
It’s crucial for collectors to differentiate between vintage pre-prints with genuine intentions and modern forgeries with deceptive motives. Tamino Autographs offers a great illustrated guide on examining printed signatures.
Secretarial signatures are autographs done by someone else, such as the secretary or assistant to a star, or sometimes a relative. As a close associate to the star, the “secretary” is often able to very faithfully recreate the star’s signature and even, in some cases, their handwriting.
Watch out for pre-printed or stamped signatures with added secretarial inscriptions. This situation is especially common on the 5”x7” or smaller movie star promo photos that were sent out by the studios to fans.
Do Secretarial Signatures Still Have Value?
That depends – especially upon the collector. If the signed item is a vintage, quality piece in itself then the overall piece would still have value (though dramatically less, of course than had it been genuinely signed by the star).
Some collectors are of the opinion that the degree of separation is a little bit interesting – after all, at least the secretary was someone connected to the celebrity in question. Some secretaries of very famous people are even known by name. A major example of this is Evelyn Lincoln, one of John F. Kennedy’s best known secretaries who often signed for him.
Conversely, other collectors are wholeheartedly against owning or dealing with a known secretarial signature and would rather have a pre-printed or stamped autograph instead.
The main point here is that it’s important that a secretarial signature is noted as such when being sold by a dealer or at auction, even if it is just a suspected secretarial signature. This will avoid any confusion or disappointment at being “fooled” by something that was believed to have been authentic.
The autopen is a mechanical device designed to replicate a person’s signature automatically. Invented by Robert Legible in 1803, the autopen gained prominence in the mid-20th century, particularly among US presidents.
Originally created to facilitate the mass signing of documents, the autopen’s history intertwines with the demands of busy public figures. Many 20th-century US presidents, including Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, used autopens to handle the huge volume of signatures required in their official capacities.
The device allows for the reproduction of a signature with precision and efficiency. Despite its practical use, the autopen has also sparked debates over the authenticity of autographs, especially when used for personal signatures.
Spotting Autopen Signatures
The autopen marks a signature with a distinct dot at the beginning and ends abruptly with another dot.
Examining it through a magnifying lens reveals key details. If the signature appears unnaturally shaky, it might be due to vibrations in the autopen machine. Watch out for machine-like straight lines, especially when interrupted by unintentional robotic wobbles, indicating where the autopen may have slipped.
Inconsistencies are red flags. Do the lines show hesitation? Does it seem like the pen was lifted from the paper? While some people sign this way, frequent interruptions in the line might suggest a fake.
Look for Autograph Provenance
A major element in evaluating the legitimacy of an autograph is provenance, which is the history of possession of an item.
Real autographs frequently come with proof of authenticity, such as a letter of authenticity or a certificate of authenticity. It’s best to err on the side of caution and presume that an autograph is fake if it doesn’t come with any supporting proof.
Consider the Age of the Autograph
Another important consideration in evaluating the legitimacy of an autograph is its age.
For instance, autographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have a far higher likelihood of being real than those from more recent decades. This is due to the fact that there was initially considerably less of a market for autographs, which made it less appealing for people to fake them.
If you come across an autograph supposedly dated before the 1960s and it’s signed with a felt pen or Sharpie, it’s a fake. Felt pens weren’t around before the 1960s, so authentic autographs from that period should be signed in ink.
Personalized Messages and Signature Authenticity
Signatures accompanied by a personalized message are less commonly forged, and there are a few key reasons behind this.
Firstly, including a message impacts the value of an item. Personal messages often devalue a signature since not everyone desires memorabilia signed specifically to another person. This factor deters forgers, as creating a personalized message implies a potentially lower resale value for their forgery.
Moreover, personalized messages are less frequently forged because they are easier to spot as fake. The additional text provides specialists with more content to analyze, increasing the likelihood of detecting a forgery and rendering it worthless in the market.
Because personalized messages decrease the value and are easier to spot as fake, forgers are less likely to copy signatures with messages.
Use Your Senses
Finally, when assessing a signature, it’s wise to simply use your senses.
Take a close look at the ink that was used to sign the autograph, for instance. A fake autograph could have ink that is more washed-out or faded than a genuine one, which frequently has a rich, deep ink color.
You should also pay special attention to the paper that the autograph is written on. A fake autograph could be written on fragile, low-quality paper that feels cheap, while a legitimate autograph may have been written on high-quality paper.
The most difficult “sense” to use is just “that feeling” you get when looking at a genuine signature versus a fake one. If you’re a longtime collector of a certain historic figure, you’ll no doubt get very familiar with the person and with their handwriting and can often quickly spot something that just doesn’t look right.
Protecting Yourself from Forgeries
The most effective way to safeguard against forgeries is to educate yourself on the signs of potential fakes.
Also, familiarize yourself with the signs of genuine variations in the signatures that you collect. If you’re unsure about the authenticity of a signature, it may be advisable to have it professionally authenticated, or skip the purchase altogether.
Quality Autograph Authenticators
Knowing the authenticator is one of the most important elements in evaluating the validity of a signature.
An authenticator is a professional signature specialist. They have the knowledge, experience, and skills to confirm the authenticity of an autograph. Some of the best known autograph authenticators are:
- Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA/DNA)
- Beckett Authentication Services
- James Spence Authentication (JSA)
What Does Professional Autograph Authentication Cost?
The cost of authenticating an autograph can vary, usually ranging from around $20 to several hundred dollars.
The specific price depends on factors like the authentication service, the celebrity or historical figure involved, and the type and value of the item. For accurate pricing details, it’s best to check with the specific authentication service you plan to use.
Here’s a quick look at collectible autographs across several categories, breaking down the authentication fees charged by the major providers:
|Buffalo Bill Cody
|John F. Kennedy
|Queen Elizabeth II
*Prices as of January, 2024. Consult each autograph authentication service for current pricing.
Becoming Your Own Autograph Authenticator
Among serious collectors – those really into a specific genre or a favorite celebrity – we’ve noticed something interesting. Some serious collectors often become their own autograph experts.
They study autographs deeply, even when the pros provide certificates. Surprisingly, the experts aren’t always right. Sometimes, fake autographs slip past them, and real ones go undetected. So, while professional certificates are absolutely helpful and have value, serious collectors know they’re not foolproof.
For these dedicated collectors, it means staying alert. They understand that pro authentication is useful but not enough. They go beyond just trusting certificates. Instead, they use their deep knowledge and gut feelings built up over years of collecting.
In the end, the process of checking autographs becomes a team effort between professionals and these niche collectors. It shows that even with certificates, the human touch is important in making sure autographs are the real deal.
Conclusion: Study Autographs!
In summary, distinguishing between a genuine and fake autograph relies on a mix of knowledge, experience, and careful observation.
By applying these helpful tips and studying your favorite subject well, you can reduce the risk of falling for a fake autograph and enhance your chances of discovering an authentic one. Always trust your instincts and exercise good judgment when assessing autographs.