The below piece was first published on Nathan Raab’s column in Forbes at:
Earlier this year, we acquired Winston’s Churchill’s signed letter of resignation to King George VI, dated 1945, after the end of the war in Europe and the loss of Churchill’s party in Parliamentary elections that year. This was a purchase that cost tens of thousands of dollars and led to a great deal of research. Why was it not in the British archives? How had it come to the market? And, as importantly, was it authentic? The two former questions involve issues of provenance, or where something comes from. The last is one of authenticity, or whether something is real, a copy, or a forgery.
We (my firm, The Raab Collection) set about seeing whether the provenance was “good”; did it satisfy our questions about whether this was what it purported to be and was on the market legally?
We found another copy of this resignation letter in the Royal Archives in the UK. What does this mean? It means we had Churchill’s retained draft or copy of a letter he subsequently sent, the one housed in the Royal Archives. Ours had a few cross-outs, so that made sense. And it meant that Churchill had the right to do with this draft what he wished.
So what had he done with it? He had asked his secretary to throw it away! On the top was the word “debris” written in his hand. So this important piece had been saved from the dustbin of history by his secretary. So we had a pretty good sense of what we were dealing with on the provenance side.
So now to the all-important question: How could we be sure it was “good” or authentic? Here are some of the questions we asked ourselves in order to authenticate this Churchill autograph, and they are remarkably similar to those we ask about other documents, regardless of who has signed the piece, with variations depending on the person’s era and habits.
1) Is the handwriting correct? Churchill was born in 1874 and was in public service or publicly visible professions nearly his entire life. As early as the Boer War in the late 1800s, he was on the front lines as a reporter and was even captured as a POW. His letters, therefore, date from the very late 1800s into the 1960s, when he died. And except for the very beginning of his writing period and right before his death, his handwriting remained remarkably consistent. It is bold, unapologetic, generally contains smaller, more condensed letters that lean to the right. It is not overly flowery in look or ostentatious. It is easily legible. His letters, even the typed pieces, often contain the recipient’s name in his pen and a post-script.
2) Does this look like something Churchill would have signed? Churchill’s autographs adorn all sorts of things. He signed many letters, and they are not scarce. But nor are they cheap. The demand far outstrips the supply. His letters are on Prime Ministerial letterhead during the war and then again for his second term as Prime Minister in the 1950s. Outside that, his letterhead matches his position at that time, whether private citizen or serving in Parliament in the early 20th century or his government positions during World War I. He signed photographs, programs, menus, and other such things. His speech notes, unsigned but in his hand, also exist, though these require a more in depth knowledge of his handwriting that comes with time and experience. In the case of his letter to the King, we were able to match the text to the known version in the Churchill Archives and the presence of his edits confirmed this as his copy.
3) How is the name signed? Churchill signed his name most often “Winston S. Churchill,” with the first name connected to the middle initial. However he also signed “W Churchill” and, with letters to close associated or friends, “WC” and “W.” Beware: there is another Winston Churchill whose signature is very different. It’s not a forgery; he was a literary figure in America who happens to share the Prime Minister’s name. This letter ought to have his full formal signature and it does.
4) Are the ink and paper correct? For Churchill, most times this involves looking at the letterhead. Is it right for the place and date? Is it raised to the touch? For photographs, most often they are signed on the border matting, not on the glossy image itself.
5) Is it a known document? There is no one central repository for all of Churchill’s correspondence, though much of it is published in biographies and other works on the era. The Churchill College in Cambridge comes closest and their researchers are quite helpful. This letter has a direct counterpart, the mailed version, at the the Royal Archives. It is a famous letter. So, the answer here is: yes.
6) Does it “belong” somewhere else? The case of Churchill’s farewell letter to the King gave us one challenge: showing that a letter signed to the King by Churchill belonged outside the British Royal Archives. In this case, we determined the existence of the final sent version and Churchill’s notations on this very document showed that it was in fact on the market appropriately.
So where is that document now? We sold it for six figures to a serious private collector who has some of the finest documents of Churchill to reach the market in the past decade.