Autograph Collecting - Identifying Non-Genuine Autographs
By Brian Kathenes
Last week I was going through my autograph research files and came across my 'education folder.' The 'education folder' is a file full of most of my major buying mistakes and 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, but there are a few recent entries. I am not sure, 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 need a clear head. Many times I have seen an item at a paper show or flea market and wanted to believe that I found a real bargain that I forgot to look it over carefully and inspect it for all the points of authenticity. So 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 around, are in the form of printed letters, signatures and photos. There are more engravings with signatures below them than there are snowflakes in Alaska. Almost all of those signatures are printed. You will need to look at them very closely, even under a magnifying glass. Several factors are a dead giveaway of a printed signature; the ink color is identical to the ink in the engraving, engraved lines can be seen in the signature, the intensity of the ink is uniform throughout the signature. Now you may still want to believe that it is real -- and you may be correct, but if I saw all of these characteristics of a signature below an engraving, I would certainly pass it by.
Sometimes stamped or engraved documents contain signatures of famous people. In the case of many Presidential Postal Appointments, there may be a genuine signature of a Postmaster General and a steel stamped or engraved signature of the President. Calvin 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 a printed letter shortly after he left office to thousands of people.
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 to 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. How do you tell the difference? Look closely at the signature of the secretary and of the president. Do they look similar? In most cases the similarity in ink, penmanship, and style will reveal the truth. But watch out for James Buchanan land grants. His secretary took great care in attempting to imitate the president's signature. So study those Presidential signatures very closely!!
Autopens are a modern technological tool and a headache for autograph collectors. An autopen can reproduce an exact copy of a person's signature thousands of times. And it is done with a real pen in its mechanical hand. Each signature is exactly like the previous one. So be careful. You will need some examples of autopen signatures to determine if the signature in question is an autopen. I usually place one signature on top of one another and lay them both on my light table. Align them and see if they match. If they are an exact match, it's an autopen. But remember, some VIPs have more than one autopen pattern, so you need them all to be sure. Other characteristics of an autopen signature are: an even pen pressure throughout the signature, a drawn appearance, or a noticeable minute wiggle or shake on occasion.
There just isn't enough space in this article to cover forgeries. There are some excellent forgeries and some very poor attempts. Avoiding forgeries is best accomplished by purchasing material from a reputable dealer. 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.
Brian Kathenes is the host of a weekly radio show, and a TV personality. He is a published author and the Managing Partner of National Appraisal Consultants, a full service personal property valuation firm.
He is past Chairman of the New York Winter Antique Show Vetting Committee on Autographs, Manuscripts & Rare Books, and works regularly with Lee and Leslie Keno and Cash in the Attic 's Tim Luke.
Mr. Kathenes has presented seminars and symposia for over 472,000 participants and clients including the International Society of Appraisers ISA CAPP Course and Appraisal Techniques and Practical Information for Archivists and Librarians from the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.