The autopen is a machine that uses a real pen and real ink to draw an exact replica of an autograph. The owner makes templates with different examples of his signature. His secretary inserts one or the other of them into the machine, which signs the correspondence. Autopens have been in general use since the late 1940’s, mainly by presidents, public officials, astronauts, and others who have just too much correspondence to personally sign. The autopen is a real problem because use of a template created by the signatory means that the autograph looks just like his actual signature. The only saving grace is that each template signs each signature the exact same way time after time, so a comparison is all that is needed. If two signatures of a person are the same size and identical or virtually so, they are presumptive autopen examples and should be avoided. There are several books with facsimiles of most known autopen patterns from 1947 until 1988, when the last general autopen book was published.
Eisenhower began resorting to autopens in the late 1940’s and took them with him to the White House; fortunately a book containing his autopen patterns has been published and covers the ground fairly well. John F. Kennedy started using autopens at the beginning of his presidential campaign in 1959 and continued until his death. Strangely, however, his patterns bear little resemblence to his typical, authentic signature as president, so separating the authentic from the autopen is not difficult. The easy solutions stop there. Presidents from Johnson forward have used autopens for routine letters, often even for important ones. Nixon had a number of patterns and used them extensively (it’s safe to assume that of every 100 letters, documents and photographs bearing Nixon’s name as president, just a few of them will prove genuine). Since, unfortunately, not all autopen patterns have been published (or are even known), and the reference books are out of date, with all presidential signatures from November 23, 1963 on, the rule is, assume that any but the most important letters and documents are autopens if they lack additional handwriting to validate them. I know we turn down some good letters that way, but believe in discretion being the better part of valor, and prefer that to buying ones that may prove in time to be autopens.
How can the average collector tell an autopen when he has no appropriate reference books? Look closely at the signature for any signs of shakiness, as the machine sometimes leaves autographs with a slightly tremulous look. Some autopens (particularly in the earlier years) left little deposits of extra ink at the beginning and end of names or at breaks, where the machine stopped in its track. Numerous autopen patterns are more legible than the person’s typical signature, so if you can read every letter of a signature usually found more as a scribble (Nixon and Lyndon Johnson are cases in point), that indicates an autopen. Although some newer autopens include a formulaic, impersonal greeting in addition to the signature, none prior to about 2007 inscribed an item to a specific individual or wrote any individualized content. Thus, extra writing beyond such a greeting precludes the finding of an autopen. In fact, Bill Clinton often signaled that he had payed personal attention to a letter by adding a few extra words in his hand, canceling out the possibility of an autopen. For this reason, we often favor inscriptions on photographs and other items signed after about 1960. By the way, since a jolt to the machine moves the pen, there can be slight differences beween signatures using the same pattern. I recently authenticated two documents signed by Eisenhower as president, one of which lacked a dot over the “i” while the other had it. These had been sold to a client by a dealer who claimed that this difference meant they could not be autopens, which is just not true. They were, as you can see for yourself.
The idea behind the autopen is not new. No later than 1804, Thomas Jefferson started using a polygraph machine (a sort of early autopen) that copied out letters as he wrote them, and these copies he mainly retained for his records. So care needs to be exercised to determine whether a letter of his is the original or a polygraph copy.
Recently we were offered what appeared to be a personalized, handwritten presidential letter with a 2007 date. A review of the generic content made it clear the letter could not have been authentically written. Clearly, computers in the White House, using some mail merge technology, are now generating not merely TLS’s but bogus ALS’s that can insert the recipient’s name in the salutation. We must be aware that computers are bound to have an ever-increasing impact in the creation of inauthentic autographs.