The below piece was first published on Nathan Raab’s column in Forbes at:
Last week, we unveiled and sold a letter of George Washington, a long, detailed letter showing his prowess as a farmer and his interest in the science of agriculture. But that’s not why its sale was covered worldwide, nor why we had many, many orders for the piece. What mattered most to people, and what made it a remarkable letter, was what he said at the end of the letter. Even after the Constitution had been ratified by enough states to ensure adoption, and its implementation was moving forward, there were those who continued to agitate against it, arguing for another Constitutional Convention, or to water it down or alter it. And at this moment, with our future first President contemplating a document he helped create, he turned to a higher power:
That Providence [the word he typically used to refer to what he thought of as God] which has hitherto smiled on the honest endeavors of the well meaning part of the People of this Country will not, I trust, withdraw its support from them at this crisis.
This letter was in a private collection and had been there for a long time. Then a month ago, we discovered it with a seller who was representing the estate of the owner. It was something remarkable: a letter of Washington mentioning the Constitution and referring to God. Scans were forthcoming and they looked fine, so we traveled to New York to see the original.
Authenticating such a document, making sure we were dealing with the original, requires many factors falling into place. Forging a signature alone is much easier than forging an entire document. So here is how we approached its authentication:
1) Figured out if the letter was known and whether its location was ever recorded. In this case, the letter was published in the Washington Papers, which you can see along with other correspondence at https://founders.archives.gov. This step also verified that Washington was in fact at Mount Vernon, the dateline of the letter, on this day.
2) Looked at the ink and paper: was the ink right and the paper contemporary to Washington’s time? They used laid paper, and Washington’s paper size is uniform, much taller per page than it is wide in comparison to today’s paper. If you hold this paper up to the light, a watermark is usually visible, and there are faint white lines where the paper, made from rags, was laid on a rack to dry.
3) Examined the handwriting and writing style. Washington’s writing is bold but not flowery and is straight, having the appearance of being on a line without the actual line. Where he has crossed out text, he does so in one particular way, with a curlicue line that covers most of the word in question. And he writes to the very end of the line, nearly flowing off the page.
4) Looked for the “envelope.” There were no actual envelopes back then – only panels on the backs of the paper that would have a form of address. Many times, they have been separated from the original, but this one still has it.
5) Examined the signature. It was a stereotypically bold and Washington-esque signature, something no forger has ever perfectly captured, although many have tried, with varying success.
Notice how the final step in this case is the signature? That is because the signature is often the final thing we examine. The harder things to forge or copy are not the signatures, and forgers know that the untrained eye will focus disproportionately on the autograph itself. These forgers can be skilled and many a collector and even archivist have been fooled by their handiwork.
Every document or letter presents a different set of factors to analyze. Not all will be like this. But this gives a sense of how authenticating pieces is not a one-step process and does not rely only on the signature itself.