Raab In Forbes: How You Can Learn To Detect A George Washington Autograph Forgery

The below piece was first published on Nathan Raab’s blog on Forbes at https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanraab/2017/10/04/how-you-can-learn-to-detect-a-george-washington-autograph-forgery/#8ea4bc813387

One of the most forged autographs in American history is that of George Washington. Many a forger has taken a pen to that majestic signature of America’s most famous founding father and first President.  The reason is simple: his autograph is worth a lot of money (tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars), and money happens to be the primary motivations of forgers.

Let’s start with one point I made in a past post about autographs of Abraham Lincoln: You won’t need white gloves, a magnifying glass, or, in all but the most extreme cases, the latest in forensic technology. Our tools are information, experience, and common sense.

So is it real?  Here are 8 basic questions we ask ourselves in order to authenticate a document signed by George Washington.  If any one of them arouses suspicion, it will likely not pass the test.

1) Is the handwriting correct?  Where John Adams had small and more sinewy handwriting, which changed over the years, Washington’s handwriting is unfailingly bold, unapologetic, and remained relatively consistent throughout his adult life.  On the right side, he often wrote to the very end of the paper and sometimes left space on the left hand margin.  His was a regal, more majestic feeling script.  A weak or shaky pen is a bad sign, and a compact or uneven signature equally so.  The great forgers never quite got the “G.”

Can you tell which is the forgery and which is authentic?

2) Does this look like something Washington would have signed?  Most of us, if we sign at all, sign our names to credit card receipts, legal documents, etc…  George Washington did the same thing, only the documents varied.  Before the Revolutionary War, he signed surveys, letters, and legal documents relating to land and house-hold purchases, and generally wrote out his own letters.  During the war, one sees mostly letters in the hands of an aide, with his signature; but sometimes there are fully handwritten letters. The same holds true as President. He corresponded on a variety of public-service topics, in some cases in letters entirely in his hand and others where an aide would draft more formal communications.  And in his retirement, he returned to his pre-war habit of house-hold related correspondence in his hand, with occasional commentary on contemporary political and social issues.

Washington’s letters can be more emotive in tone than the correspondence of Lincoln but not overly so.  He cut to the chase and wasn’t particularly chatty.  An overly familiar letter of Washington would be uncommon and worthy of extra attention.

With Washington, there are known forgers, and you can look up their work online. Michele Lee Silverman of the Society of the Cincinnati has done good work here and lent us a couple images for illustration.  Each forger has his own idiosyncratic methods and some even have their own value as forgeries.  We sold an autograph of Robert Spring, a known Washington forger, for $2,000 years ago.  He used a similar format for nearly all his forgeries.

A standard forgery by Robert Spring

3) How is the name signed? Washington was uniform in his approach to signing his name at the end of documents.  He wrote simply: G: Washington, with a small circle above the dots.  If he were signing in the third person not at the end, such as writing his name within a legal document, he would use his full name: George Washington.  But a letter or vellum document signed George Washington at the end would be highly suspicious.

Here Washington has signed his full name at the right side, going onto a new line, but done so not as a signature at the end but within the text

4) Is the paper correct?  His letters are not on animal skin, but rather on laid paper, which, when held up to the light, shows subtle grid lines (not printed) crossing the paper where the rags (which composed that paper) were laid to dry.  Formal appointments, such as documents, are on vellum, or animal skin.  A long letter on animal skin would be almost certainly a copy and not authentic.

5) Could Washington have possibly written the document?  Was he alive when it was signed?  Was he in the location of the dateline of the document on that exact date?  If he was at Valley Forge on a particular day, a document dated from Mount Vernon can’t be good. The Papers of George Washington, which you can search at founders.archives.gov, is a valuable resource for this and the next two questions.

6) Is it a known document?  See above site.  This will tell you if it is published and often give you the context of the letter.

This letter, in the hand of an aide but signed by Washington, is a famous and important war-date letter of the General

7) Does it “belong” somewhere else?  Founders.archives.gov can also tell you if the original belongs somewhere else in many cases.  This won’t tell you its a forgery but might tell you who owns the original.  It could indicate that you have a copy and not the original or that you have a draft and not the mailed copy.

8) Is it a copy?  This last question deserves special attention and presents many of the same issues as with all historical signers. Some Washington letters have been copied and given out as souvenirs. Somewhere down the line, someone may not have realized it is not authentic, and that is helped by the natural aging of paper that can make copies adopt that “old” feel.

So before you drop a couple hundred thousand on a letter of George Washington, take some time and do some research. It’s worth it.


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