Autograph authentication: Assess Dissimilarities and Idiosyncrasies in the Writing

Not a month goes by that someone doesn’t contact me saying they have an autograph and “know” it is authentic because the writing looks similar to an example they have seen. But sorry to tell, you cannot authenticate autographs simply by finding similarities in the writing. Bear in mind that up until a few decades ago, children had to take a course in school called penmanship and they were taught from essentially the same books. Therefore if you look at handwritings of different 18th or 19th century Americans, you will find many similarities in the ways they make their individual letters. To properly authenticate, what you must look for are the differences in the handwriting, not the similarities. Understanding that handwritings of a particular era will often have a similar appearance, the consistent difference in even one or two specific letters between accepted examples and a letter you are authenticating can be a telling point. Fortunately, in comparisons, there will usually be at least several individual letters that are consistently different, so you need not rely on only one variation. The principal is the same when dealing with forgeries – rely on the dissimilarities, not the similarities.

Be aware that some people’s writing contains inconsistencies, but is consistent in doing so. FDR sometimes put the letter “e” in the midst of a word in small case and sometimes wrote it as if it were a miniature capital letter. So if you see the letter both ways in his writing, don’t assume that this is the kind of difference in handwriting that we were just cautioning against.

There’s another important aspect to this step. If you look carefully, almost every person has something very distinctive about his or her handwriting. These unique characteristics can manifest themselves in many ways, such as the formation of specific letters, the slant or rise and fall of the writing, the connections between words or the breaks within the words. For example, Lincoln wrote his last name on three planes, stepping upward, Babe Ruth’s “e” often has an unusual, almost jaunty sideways tilt, and Winston Churchill’s “W” has sharp, slanted bottom points. The handwriting of secretaries also has its distinctive points and this also proves useful. FDR had a secretary prior to entering the White House who, when she signed for him, always pointed the “s” in Roosevelt down and left it right there. Fortunately, handwriting idiosyncracies are very difficult to forge well, so their identification is of great importance. We look for them right away.

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