Autograph authentication: Assess for Evidence of Facsimile

This word often used to be written fac-simile.  It comes from the Latin words “facere” (to make) and “similis” (like), and  means an exact copy of something.  We have all seen facsimiles of documents like the Declaration of Independence on fake parchment, the kind sold in souvenir shops. We are offered one of the Gettysburg Address at least once every year by someone who thinks he has found a nugget of gold instead of a worthless copy. Facsimiles were created to honor a person or event, as part of a business promotion, as vanity pieces to impress friends, or were originally bound in books but have been removed over the years, plus for many other reasons. They were generally produced without ever intending to fool anybody into thinking they were real. The problem is that many facsimiles have been around for long periods of time and consequently have that aged look about them that can fool any but an expert. And some facsimiles are of such high quality, and are so deceptive, that they pose more of a problem for us to authenticate than any other category, including forgeries. Here are the types.

a. Printed facsimiles. There are some famous printed facsimiles. A few examples are a letter of Lord Byron to his publisher denying that he ever wrote The Vampire (this facsimile was inserted as an illustration in a very early edition of Byron’s works, and over the past 150 years has taken on an aged appearance), a letter by Sir Walter Scott to the publisher Charles Tilt, referring to himself as the author of the Waverly Tales (it is dated 1830 but is on paper clearly watermarked 1834), a letter of Benjamin Franklin sending seeds to a friend, often with the seeds included (this was a promotion done by a seed company a century ago), a letter of Thomas Jefferson to Craven Peyton on minor banking matters, often with the “original” envelope (and remember, earlier I said that envelopes weren't used during Jefferson's lifetime. This was a 1920's advertising promotion for a Virginia bank), and Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby commiserating with her over the loss of her five sons (the facsimile is actually a copy of a forgery!). King George V sent a facsimile letter welcoming American troops to Europe in World War I (millions were given out).  We are offered a number of these every year.

Not long ago a man in Virginia called and said he had a signed copy of Robert E. Lee's Order No.9, his farewell to his troops, which Lee had given to General Stephens. A couple of dozen genuine examples of Order No. 9 exist, signed by Lee for his officers and soldiers, so new ones could conceivably turn up. However, a high quality facsimile was published over 50 years ago by the Lakeside Press, using as the master an original given to Gen. Stephens. The Lakeside version is done on bluish-gray paper and actually bears the printed name of the press in very light white print at the lower right of the back side. In this man’s case the paper was blue and the recipient was Stephens, so the diagnosis of facsimile was easy. To cement the determination, this man noted that someone had clipped out the very bottom of his document, excising the press name. Another time, a facsimile of Washington's letter to John Langdon indicating that he would accept the presidency was offered to us, this time partly burned in a supposedly accidental fire. The location of the famous original of this letter is known (it is in an institution), so there was no problem in recognizing this as a facsimile, although it came with a good story and the fake fire damage. We discover new facsimiles from time to time so we are always vigilant. A few months ago, we had to return a letter to an auction company because we determined that it was a facsimile. Queen Victoria had written to philanthropist George Peabody and praised his work so highly that he had the letter reproduced to hand out to his friends. This was one of those copies. Even more recently, we found that a photograph apparently signed by Thomas Edison, in which he took credit for inventing the electric light, was a facsimile.

Perhaps the most notable facsimiles are the steel engraved portraits of famous people made during the 19th century and found in books of that period.  These engravings have facsimile signatures of the people below their portraits. The autographs were patterned after authentic examples and have been fooling people ever since. They are invariably in uniform black ink, are almost always centered under the images, and often have the embossed (raised) lettering one finds in fine business cards today. But illustrated letters and portraits were not the only sites of facsimiles in books. Many of Mark Twain’s earlier works have facsimile statements by him in the front.  The most infamous of inscribed books is Grant’s Memoirs. On the flyleaf appears a facsimile dedication inscription to the “Soldiers of the United States.”  These are constantly mistaken for genuine inscriptions and signatures, and even telling the owners that the books weren’t published until after Grant’s death doesn’t deter some of them.

b. Photographically reproduced facsimiles. In this process, the original of an item (usually a photograph) is authentically signed, often in colored ink, and photographic copies are made of it and distributed. When this process is done well, these can be very hard to spot, and when placed under a magnifying glass exhibit all the markings of an authentic signature. Gerald Ford sent out high quality facsimile signed photographs of the dedication of his Presidential Library in Grand Rapids. Another is a photograph of Charles Lindbergh accepting the Orteig Prize for flying across the Atlantic. Recently we saw a letter that FDR had sent to his appointee overseeing the film industry during wartime and found that it was, alas, a facsimile. However, most facsimiles are not of this quality and appear to be what they are – photographs of something rather than the thing itself. The most common examples were 3 by 5 and 5 by 7 inch photographs sent out for stars by movie studios (mostly from about 1920 to 1950) which have white “signatures” as part of the photos. These are usually relatively simple to tell, as they appear flat, there’s no ink on the photograph and they are in a neat, secretarial handwriting. Another type of photographic facsimile used in Hollywood has printed or reverse-embossed signatures pressed in, leaving an indentation often filled in with blue ink.

c. Salutations. Winston Churchill offers a fine example.  In his later years, he received literally thousands of good wishes on his birthdays.  Desiring to be polite, he had facsimile letters sent out in thanks for those wishes. He handwrote one, then that letter was lithographed, often in blue ink, and the reproductions sent out all over the world.  Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover did the same thing. The tipoff to most of these facsimile letters is the salutation or better yet the lack of one. Churchill’s facsimiles had no salutation; on his actual correspondence, like many Englishmen, he generally wrote the entire salutation out by hand.  A good rule of thumb here is, if you see a letter, either handwritten or typed, which begins impersonally, or has a generalized salutation like “Dear Friend,” be skeptical.

d. Form letters. Such letters, even those that have typed personalizations, were very frequently “signed” with facsimile signatures. The signatures can be in ink of a different color than the typing and can be very deceiving. There is a famous facsimile letter of Einstein about atomic energy which appears “typed” in black ink and “signed” in blue.  We see at least one offered by some dealer or auction house every year or so, often with very high price tags. You can usually tell a form letter – it could have been sent to anyone, there is nothing specific in it that would indicate the writer knows the recipient personally, and it usually relates either to fund raising or a political campaign or cause.  Quite often before 1960, the salutation will not be aligned at the left with the rest of the text.  Some other form letters to watch out for are those of Helen Keller and Martin Luther King. Even if the signature on a form letter is real, as happens once in a blue moon, I believe that the letter is worth less than a non-form letter from the same person, even though the content of the form letter is “dynamite.” After all, they were sent out in mass mailings, lack uniqueness and may have been authored by a professional ad writer rather than the signer.

e. Letters or inscriptions to groups. When you see a photograph or letter of a famous person inscribed to a group or organization, be careful, as quite often facsimiles were made of the original to give to all the members.  One example would be a photograph of Harry Truman inscribed “To Lodge 275 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.” Truman sent an authentic original and the organization had the copies made for its members. Yet there are also authentic pieces in this category. Items inscribed to small groups, such as “To Mrs. Newman’s history class,” are unlikely to have been reproduced in facsimile. Some notables, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, liked to write congratulatory letters to groups (such as the Boy Scouts) on their anniversaries. The originals are out there for sale, as are the facsimiles. If in doubt, pass it by.

f. Definitive determinations. As with stamped signatures, an excellent way to spot facsimiles is the lack of crossover indications and pen strokes.  Also, since they are printed, there are often tiny air bubbles which appear as white flecks throughout the inked portions; these are not found in the ink flow of genuine writing.

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