Raab in Forbes: Authenticating Abraham Lincoln

As first published on Forbes.com at http://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanraab/2014/05/30/how-the-experts-know-if-that-abraham-lincoln-autograph-is-authentic/.

By Nathan Raab

If you have ever watched “Pawn Stars” or “Antiques Roadshow” and marveled how anyone could tell if something is authentic, here’s a quick primer using Abraham Lincoln. You won’t need white gloves; put down the magnifying glass; cancel that online order for the latest in forensic technology. These seem flashy but a person in the know will not need them here. Our tools: information, experience, and common sense.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. If the document in question is the Gettysburg Address or Lincoln’s inaugural speech, it is probably a souvenir copy from a gift shop. We have not just discovered a long lost American treasure. It might happen some day to someone, but trust me, it’s not today. Each year, countless people try to sell us these copies, innocently believing them to be the real deal.

So is it real?  Here are 8 basic questions we ask ourselves in order to authenticate a document signed by Abraham Lincoln.  There might be others depending on the case, but this is a start. If any one of them arouses suspicion, it will likely not pass the test.

1) Is the handwriting correct?  Lincoln wrote hundreds of thousands of documents, and his handwriting is well known. It changed over time but kept the basic “feel.”  With letters or notes, we don’t just analyze the signature. It is necessary to see how he formed his numbers, how he started the letters, and any other markers within the body.

An entire letter in Lincoln’s hand from 1849, just as he was leaving Congress

2) Does this look like something Lincoln would have signed?  Think about the types of things you sign. They probably fall into just a few categories:  credit card receipts, legal forms, personal cards, etc…  So it was with Lincoln.  He primarily signed letters, brief notes or endorsements (pictured below), and formal documents as President, and he wrote letters and legal briefs as an attorney in Springfield, Illinois.  The entire context of the document needs to be appropriate and pass the “smell test.”  Long, flowery letters would be suspicious coming from a man who did not use two words when one would do.  So if the person has an endorsement from 1864 to his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, that’s a good sign. Lincoln did sign those, and a high percentage of them went to Stanton. If it is the appointment of a captain in 1861, it could very well be good. Again, he signed thousands of these and many survive. But if it is a Civil War discharge, such as that given to every retiring soldier leaving the Union Army, it is not authentic. These were printed and are not real.

A letter of Lincoln during the war on “Executive Mansion” letterhead, just what we love to see

3) How is the name signed? Lincoln signed “Abraham Lincoln” on formal documents as President. He signed “A. Lincoln” on letters. As an attorney, he sometimes just signed his last name, “Lincoln.” If the document in question is not one of these, beware. And if it reads “Abe” or “Old Abe” or “Honest Abe,” you can save yourself the time. He did not use these.

4) Are the ink and paper correct?  His letters are not on animal skin, nor are they on paper used in the Revolutionary War.  Many formal documents, by contrast, are on animal skin and often have seals.

A letter of Lincoln during the war on “Executive Mansion” letterhead, just what we love to see

5) Could Lincoln have possibly written the document?  Since Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, documents signed in 1866 are not authentic.  If he was in Pennsylvania on a particular day, a document dated from Washington, DC is suspicious.  It does not take an expert to suspect that a letter written during the War from South Carolina might not be authentic. The Lincoln log will tell you where he was that day.

6) Is it a known document?  Most letters of Abraham Lincoln are known to exist, or at least their content has been published.  The Papers of Abraham Lincoln maintains a searchable database.

7) Does it “belong” somewhere else?  If you have a letter and search the Papers of Abraham Lincoln and its database shows it in the archives of some institution, like the Library of Congress, you will need to do the diligence to figure out what is going on.  In this case, it might be a copy (see number 8).

8) Is it a copy?  This last question deserves special attention. Many Lincoln letters have been copied and given out as souvenirs. Somewhere down the line, someone may have forgotten it is not real, and that is helped by the natural aging of paper that can make copies adopt that “old” feel.

Worse, there is a growing trend for forgers, who instead of writing out their works by hand, reproduce them instead.  The proliferation of high resolution printers and the easy accessibility of old paper allow anyone to re-create many types of letters, and they can look old.  So how do you know if this is an expertly created copy?  For starters, look at the ink.  The real McCoy will not look uniform as most copies do, and where one stroke of ink crosses over another, in an authentic piece, you will see that crossover as two distinct lines, one on top of the other.  Look for letterhead, and turn over the paper.  Is there ink that has bled through to the other side or indentations made that show pressure from the front?  These will be very hard to re-create in a copy.

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