The below piece was first published on Nathan Raab’s blog on Forbes at https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanraab/2017/05/31/8-steps-experts-take-to-tell-if-an-alexander-hamilton-autograph-is-authentic/#6f344e8b5174
Last month, a man walked into our office and handed us a book that he had inherited. The job of my company, The Raab Collection, is to seek and buy, then sell, important historical documents. So we meet all sorts of people, some of whom have real historical treasures, and others who have reproductions or even forgeries.
But inside this man’s book, to our astonishment, were 11 original documents of Alexander Hamilton, all dating from his time as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, a position he held during the Administration of George Washington. The letters were bound into this book, a common 19th and early-mid 20th century practice. Before the man left, we had written him a large check.
How did we know they were “good?” As with any high-skill profession, it takes a long time to learn the nuances of authentication. But here are some of the questions we ask ourselves in order to authenticate a document signed by Alexander Hamilton.
1) Is the handwriting correct? Hamilton arrived in the United States in 1772 and died in 1804. His handwriting did not change dramatically during that time. His personal correspondence and notes have a more casual and hurried look to them, his handwriting in general tends to slant slightly to the right, and the sentences often climb up to the right on paper. Sadly for the authenticator, Hamilton’s script is not as distinct as that of others, such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, and this can present a challenge. You should look at the letters, numbers, and slant of the script. There are some peculiarities there, such as the unique look of the number zero, the pronounced letter A, N, and M, and a couple others. But more than any particular trait, it is the overall feel that gives it away. It pays to compare known authentic examples side by side with yours, focusing on the unique letter or number traits.
2) Does this look like something Hamilton would have signed? His letters on the market stretch from the Revolutionary War through his death. He wrote notes and communiques for General and then-President Washington during the War and while he was in Washington’s cabinet. And he signed many letters to his Customs agents on the ground at the various ports of the new country in his capacity as Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton was a lawyer and so he also wrote out legal documents, briefs that were either filed or retained. Many of these were later given out by his family as mementos.
3) How is the name signed?Hamilton signed his name, alternatively, “A. Hamilton,” “AH,” “Alexander Hamilton,” and “Alex Hamilton.” He would often add his title underneath, either his military rank, or he would write “Sectary of the Treasury.” But each has its context. He is not going to sign his Treasury circulars “AH,” but you do see that in his personal communications or notes, for instance.
4) Are the ink and paper correct? Here, his short life span and late arrival in the United States limits the options. He wrote almost entirely on laid paper, which when held up to the light reveals a light grid underneath the text. A couple exceptions to this type of paper are a legal indenture or land transaction, which might appear on vellum or animal skin. Hamilton wrote using the period ink of the late 18th and very early 19th century.
5) Could Hamilton have possibly written the document?Hamilton arrived in the US in 1772, so a document dated from NYC in 1771 can’t be real. And since he died in 1804, anything after that date is not likely to be good. Checking history books and published correspondence to make sure Hamilton was in the location noted on the letter is helpful in making sure the historical context is accurate.
6) Is it a known document?Much (not all) of Hamilton’s correspondence was published by his descendants and now appears on the incredibly useful founders.archives.gov. You can track much of his incoming and outgoing correspondence. Sometimes you can find the exact letter published there, and other times you can track the event from earlier or later correspondence.
7) Does it “belong” somewhere else? The sources mentioned in item 6 can often tell you whether the document is known to have been in an archive. If your exact document, same date, same length, same recipient, appears elsewhere, this warrants further examination. It might have been sold since that previous publication, so it is not necessarily an issue. Or you might have a copy. In the worst case scenario, it might belong somewhere else, so it does warrant some research on your end. If you come to the conclusion it rightfully belongs elsewhere, you should contact that location.
8) Is it a photographic copy? This is less of an issue with letters of Hamilton, which appear on laid paper and browning ink, but it is an increasing issue in general in our field, where technology has given forgers additional tools to recreate high resolution reproductions of documents to fool less experienced authenticators. Check the back of the page. Does the ink seem to bleed through (a lot or slightly)? Is the “envelope” or address panel still there, showing it went through the mail? Is there depth to the ink? Is it too shiny (bad sign)? Is it on the proper paper? If it is a letter and not on laid paper, you might have a much later reproduction on fake vellum.
Hamilton’s autograph is increasingly in demand. Of those 11 pieces we acquired, 10 of them sold within 48 hours. And the value of his letters continues to climb. But with higher prices and increased demand often comes a flood of questionable pieces. So study up.