Autograph authentication: Know the Identified Forgers

Pre-eminent among the known forgers were Robert Spring and Joseph Cosey.  Spring lived in the mid-19th century and specialized in Washington autographs. They are decently done, but the major problem is that after this length of time they have taken on the look that comes with age, so the unwary can still be fooled. But even a superficial comparison with a genuine example of Washington’s handwriting and signature should be enough to spot a Spring forgery.  Spring’s writing is smaller than Washington’s (always be wary of uncharacteristically small handwriting) and a little less rounded. Joseph Cosey lived and worked in the 1930’s and specialized more in Lincoln and Franklin.  I could never figure out why people were fooled by Cosey’s Benjamin Franklin forgeries. Almost invariably, he would forge pay orders supposedly signed by Franklin as president of Pennsylvania late in his life.  Cosey’s forged Franklin signatures were superb, but they were representative of Franklin’s signature of 10 or more years earlier, rather than the slightly tremulous signature of his advanced age, when he would have signed these pay orders.  Nevertheless, the key to these forgeries was not Franklin’s signature but the countersignature of John Nicholson vertically at the left.  Nicholson’s autograph is quite distinctive, and Cosey never bothered to make his forgery look remotely like Nicholson’s real signature.  The same holds true for one of his forgeries of Washington – the signature was done well, but a countersignature of his secretary, Tobias Lear, looked nothing at all like Lear’s real and very distinctive signature. Charles Weisberg was an adept forger who liked to forge Lincoln letters, which were well done but too wordy to be authentic, and also did letters of Walt Whitman. His Stephen Foster signatures, usually on original printed sheet music of the composer, were also quite well done. He died in prison. Arthur Sutton was a young forger active in the 1970’s who was perhaps the greatest ever at forging signatures of almost anyone. I found it hard to tell his work from the real thing, and am glad that he retired from the forgery racket before he could do much damage. It is an interesting oddity that the work of these famous forgers is uncommon and has itself become rather valuable.

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