Autograph authentication: Signed Images

Photographs. The first photographs of people to be mounted on paper (and thus be capable of being signed) were taken about 1845. They measured about 2 by 4 inches and were used in place of calling cards.  When a person visited another’s home and found the homeowner out, he would leave the photograph there as evidence of the attempted visit. As a consequence, these photographs were called “carte de visites”, or “visiting cards.” They remained popular until about 1865 when they were replaced by a larger type of photograph meant for keeping in albums which in turn were kept in cabinets. These were thus termed “cabinet” photographs. Generally about 4 by 6 inches, they could on occasion be much larger, with various names such as imperial cabinet.  Both the carte de visite and cabinet photographs had the actual photo mounted to a heavier board, usually with the photographer’s imprint either on the bottom front or the back.  The cabinet photograph remained in vogue until about the turn of the 20th century, when it was replaced by photographs, with sizes pretty much as we know them, ranging from snapshots and postcard size to 8 by 10 inches.  The 11 by 14 inch photograph didn’t become popular until about 1920 and was mainly used by entertainers.  The earliest 8 by 10 inch photographs were often sepia in tone (brownish), but sepia started to be phased out in the 1930’s and yielded to black and white. These in turn began to be replaced by color about 1960.  Beware the signed photograph that is out of this dating context. For example, you are not likely to see a genuine signed cabinet photograph of anyone who died before 1865, nor a color photograph of someone who died before 1960.

Don’t be fooled by photographs that are merely identified in writing on the front by someone else, as was commonly done with carte de visite and cabinet photographs. Fortunately, people who wrote a name on a photograph as identification made no attempt to duplicate the notable’s genuine signature. As an example of this phenomenon, someone recently wrote me saying he had a signed photograph of Stonewall Jackson, which would be quite a find if genuine. When I saw a scan of it, it turned out to be a CDV that had been labeled on the bottom front by someone at the time, “General Jackson.” As even funnier example took place when we first started out. A man called and said he had a signed photograph of Pope John Paul II. When he came to my office and showed me the piece, I almost fell off my chair laughing. Someone had written under the photograph the words “The Pope.”

The first president to sign images was John Quincy Adams, who is known to have signed some small engraved pictures. In the era of photography, Martin Van Buren signed some CDV’s later in life. We have not seen any other president prior to Millard Fillmore in signed photograph form. Signed CDV’s of presidents prior to Andrew Johnson are scarce, with Abraham Lincoln’s being rare, often forged, and very expensive. An unambiguously satisfactory provenance is needed to bid on a purported Lincoln signed CDV. Johnson is uncommon but not quite scarce, while starting with his successor, U.S. Grant, signed photographs become more easily obtainable. Grover Cleveland is the most common of the late 19th century presidents while Chester A. Arthur is the scarcest. Signed photographs of 20th century presidents are easy to find up to John F. Kennedy. He often had secretaries sign photographs for him and an authentic one is quite uncommon and desirable. Lyndon B. Johnson was a vain man who did not mind putting his name to his picture, while Richard Nixon just couldn’t be bothered and usually delegated the signing chore to Rose Mary Woods. With Ford, Carter and Reagan, it is a mixed story.

The possibility of encountering secretarial, stamped and facsimile signatures is greatest in signed photographs, and this is particularly true in the entertainment field. As far as vintage (pre-1950) movie star photographs go, there is a good rule of thumb. The photographs came in 4 sizes: postcard, 5 by 7, 8 by 10 and 11 by 14.  Postcard photographs generally have an obviously printed or photographic signature on the front, if any at all.  Signatures on 5 by 7’s are 80% secretarial, as these were sent out by the truckload by the studios. With just a few exceptions (notably Spencer Tracy), only actors and actresses who were really minor had the time or inclination to sign them on a regular basis. Those on 8 by 10’s are 50% genuine and those on 11 by 14’s are 90% genuine.  There is a reason for this.  Back in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, if you wrote a movie star for a signed photo, you generally got a postcard saying that they were available for a certain payment, 10 cents for a 5 by 7, 25 cents for an 8 by 10 and a dollar for an 11 by 14.  Obviously in those days, if anyone was willing to spend a dollar, they deserved the real McCoy. 11 by 14 inch photos were also the size given by stars to other stars and to close friends and family, and were virtually always inscribed. After 1950 oversize and undersize photographs dropped away, and authentic and secretarially signed photos were both almost always 8 by 10 inches, and the percentage of authentic examples dropped well below 50%. Signatures on photographs after 1990 are suspect in general, due to the increasing unwillingness of celebrities to take the time to sign autographs. Please note that these percentages relate strictly to secretarial, stamped and facsimile signatures. The absolute tsunami of forgeries since about 1995 dwarfs all that as a problem, making signed photographs suspect as a category, and ultra-caution the by-word.

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