Autograph authentication: Assess for Evidence of Secretaries or Stamps

Secretarial signatures have been around for hundreds of years.  A lot of documents supposedly signed by kings of France up through at least Louis XVI were signed by their secretaries. American presidents after about November 1833 had clerks sign land grants, and some of them did a creditable job (those of Pierce, Buchanan and Arthur were masters at duplicating the president’s real signature).  Aside from land grants, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover had at least one skilled secretary each who signed their names prior to their presidencies. FDR made use of a number of secretaries to sign for him until he reached the White House. Eisenhower had secretaries during World War II and as president and Kennedy had perhaps a dozen, but their signatures are not hard to tell and the real challenges do not begin until LBJ took office. The secretaries used by Johnson, Nixon and Carter as president were particularly adept, and the proliferation of secretarial signatures indicates that LBJ and Nixon preferred using secretaries to autopens. Reagan’s mother answered some of his correspondence and signed photographs for him in his Hollywood years. Fortunately, with secretarial signatures, as with autopens, once secretaries learn to sign, they sign in similar fashion every time. Consequently, if there is a dissimilarity between the secretarial and the genuine signature, the secretarial will generally show that same dissimilarity in each example. For example, Nixon’s long-time secretary, Rose Mary Woods, made the “d” in Richard with an extraordinarily high, tell-tale ascender. And like autopens, secretarial signatures are invariably neater than the authentic ones would be. By the way, in a few cases, notables seem to have planted a “key” to distinguish authentic from secretarial examples: Lyndon B. Johnson put a dot under the letter “B” when he himself signed and Jefferson Davis’s wife added a period after the name when she signed for her husband.

Stamps also have a long history. Henry VIII had a steel stamp made of his signature which he put on routine documents, and some Spanish monarchs did likewise. William Penn had a stamp. Andrew Johnson used one as president, Theodore Roosevelt had one while a politician in New York, Woodrow Wilson sometimes resorted to one as governor of New Jersey, and Franklin D. Roosevelt affixed a stamped signature to a form letter he wrote to clergymen in 1935 asking them to support his social security legislation. Albert Einstein had a stamp that he affixed to form fund-raising letters. Silent movie stars used them widely.  Beware of movie star photographs from 1930 or before that have inscriptions like “best wishes” but do not have a personalization, such as “To Joe.”  Rudolph Valentino in particular liked to use stamps and had several with long but not personalized inscriptions, two in Italian and one in English. Hattie McDaniel also wielded a stamp, even to the extent of stamping autograph albums in front of the owners. But, of course, there was never any kind of personalization on these.

How can you identify stamped signatures? Often they are in light blue or purple ink and have a flat and washed-out look. They may also have air bubbles throughout. Take a look at real handwriting: the ink flows smoothly, there are no air bubbles or breaks in the flow, and the ink generally looks a little shiny.  If you have a decent magnifying glass, you should be able to see crossovers – those tracks of ink where, for instance, the crossbar crosses the “t”, or where any pen line crosses another.  Also, you may see the actual pen strokes and where the nib made an impression in the paper.  Do you have a stamp of any kind?  If so, use it, and then look carefully. It has none of these characteristics.

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