Authenticating Historical Autographs
The Eternal Question: “How Do You Know It’s Real?”
Decades ago when a colleague first started out as an autograph dealer, he tells of sharing a booth at an antique market with a man who sold fine antique furniture. His prize piece at the time was a document signed by John Hancock, gorgeously framed and priced at $500. People admired his autographs, the Hancock in particular, but almost never failed to ask how he knew they were authentic. At the same time, people would buy chairs and bureaus from the other man for thousands of dollars and never once ask him how he knew they were really antiques. This experience has proven true for us as well: always, the first question about an autograph is, how do you know it is real?
This is a valid concern, and because of the Internet a greater one than ever. I practiced law for decades before determining to devote full time to the autograph business. As a lawyer, you learn to dig for facts, accept what the evidence shows (rather than what you hope to be true), be skeptical, and not just believe whatever you are told. I applied these lessons in the autograph field and investigated those baseball autographs. I determined that they were not authentic, pursued the seller until I got my money back, but did not become discouraged. I searched for and found dealers I could trust, learned the tell-tale signs of danger, and remained a collector.
10 useful steps of autograph authentication
Authenticating autographs is like many other skills in that you can learn a lot of the basics quickly and use these to tackle many of the situations you will face. Of course, for the more difficult or challenging projects, nothing works like experience. So although you cannot become an expert in authenticating autographs just from reading this, you’ll find that you do have the ability to determine for yourself whether many autographs are authentic. Here are the steps we take to authenticate an autograph:
Step No. 1: Apply the Burden of Proof
Many people start with the idea that an autograph is authentic and look further only if they are suspicious. This is backwards. You must begin with the premise that an autograph is not authentic and make it prove itself. In assessing this proof, we disregard representations of sellers and ignore sales pitches. Only an autograph that can prove itself outside seller claims can be said to meet this burden.
Step No. 2: Ascertain the Provenance
Provenance. Look at the first six letters; they spell “proven.” Provenance means just that – proving where the autograph came from. And as strange as it may seem, this is very often the most important factor in authenticating an autograph. Knowing that a letter came from a reliable collection or dealer, and that it has an identifiable history, can be crucial to establishing a level of comfort. When we are offered autographs and find they still have their old original invoices from Richards, Batchelder or Benjamin, we break out in smiles. Not only have the pieces been vetted by them but were of sufficient interest to attract these giants of yesteryear to acquire them in the first place. If a piece comes from a famous collection of the past, such as the Philip Sang, Malcomb Forbes or Jerome Kern collections, all the better. As an illustration of how this can matter, some time back I bought a very rare document in the hand of the Puritan apostle to the Indians, John Eliot. It was dated 1647 and was docketed as approved and signed on the front by John Winthrop. The paper and ink were right and the writing checked out, but the incredibly early date and unique combination of signatures caused someone to question the document. When research showed that it definitely came from the Sang collection, which was put together over half a century previous and carefully authenticated by the greatest experts of the time, everyone took that as sufficient evidence that it was authentic and the debate ended then and there.
But not every autograph can come from an important collection, so it is necessary to establish a more generally applicable rule for what provenance is sufficient. The existence of a letter or notation claiming to describe the circumstances under which an autograph was obtained is just a claim, not a provenance. Every forgery seems to come with a story, and forgers use the techniques of providing cooked up “provenance” letters and inventing collections to deceive the unwary.
Explanatory letters that come with autographs are unreliable, even when the writers are honest, as people can make innocent but very misleading errors. I once had a situation where a girl at a 1963 Beatles concert gave a program to their road manager to have autographed. She observed the Beatles enter their dressing room, saw him take it in and then return with it signed ten minutes later. Her long and honest letter about her attendance at the concert and getting the program signed left out what she never knew – that their road manager, Neil Aspinall, had expertly forged the Beatles’ signatures behind the closed dressing room door. One other example is Jean Harlow.
Provenance is less significant in items that have a lot of handwriting and/or would be difficult or very challenging to forge (such as an ALS of Andrew Jackson).
Step No. 3: Check Consistency with Authentic Examples
Compare the autograph with published authentic examples. These examples should be contained in universally recognized reference books or on respected websites. Nobody should be buying autographs who hasn’t done some research on autographs and how to collect them. The late Charles Hamilton wrote quite a number of books; some are still in print and the others are findable at used book stores in the “books about books” category. We have written five and other fine ones are on the market. Do not overlook non-autograph resources. We found the best sample of Eva Peron’s handwriting in a letter published in a biography. Without good examples at your fingertips, you can’t start judging autographs for yourself.
Step No. 4: Make Sure the Paper, Pen and Ink Are Right
The manufacture, physical makeup and sizes of paper have differed over the years. Letters of Washington, Franklin and others of their generation were almost never written on paper smaller than about 8 by 10 inches. Often the paper was larger, more like 9 by 12 or 14. And sometimes that was its size when folded so that there were four sides total, meaning the sheet unfolded was actually more like 18 by 12 inches. Starting about the time of Jefferson’s administration, the really large paper lost popularity and stationary was mainly sheets about 8 by 10 inches. Small notepaper size stationery made its appearance about 1840 and was the paper of choice from 1860 until about 1900 when stationery assumed its present size. Parchment was reserved for documents and religious manuscripts. Paper made from the 17th-18th century up to about 1800-1810 was “laid” paper, and held up to the light will show parallel lines throughout, like a grid or like ribbing, where it had been laid on a rack to dry. The nature of the rack marks varied by time and place, so it is often possible to closely date and locate the paper. Woven paper began replacing laid paper at the end of the 1700s, and by 1810 was the paper of choice. Much paper manufactured between about 1840 and 1890 had little embossed imprints of the manufacturer, or occasionally stationer, usually at the upper left corner. Watermarks unique to each manufacturer were widely used in paper made from the Middle Ages right up to the advent of the cheap, wood pulp-based product, which began in the 1840s and by the 1870s was commonplace. They persisted in high quality papers and still persist to the present day. A fair number of watermarks actually contain the date of manufacture; others have different but equally valuable information. As an example, some Revolutionary War letters of George Washington have a picture of Britannia as a watermark, establishing the era of their manufacture and providing a wonderful irony. There are books on watermarks, so they can also be used in many cases to date the paper. Not long ago, we dated a manuscript bearing the Washington family coat of arms to the mid-17th century by finding the watermark listed in a reference work.
Another point to remember is that envelopes didn’t come into general use until the late 1840’s. Prior to that, letters were folded up to a size approximating today’s small envelopes and were addressed on the back. The address panel consisted of a space about 4 by 5 inches. The folds were then sealed with wax, sometimes using a seal with the writer’s coat of arms or initials. A good rule of thumb would be to expect letters prior to 1840 to have folds consistent with this. Since envelopes came in, they have been smaller than the letters they contained, so post-1840 letters will also have been folded, but to fit their envelopes. Make sure there is a good explanation for an unfolded letter (for example, since the 1930’s, a cover letter enclosing a signed photograph might have been sent in a large mailer and not needed folding).
Introduced around 700 AD, the quill pen was the dominant writing instrument for over a thousand years. It was made from a bird feather, with the strongest quills being those taken from large birds in the spring from the five outer left wing feathers. The left wing was favored because the feathers curved outward and away when used by a right-handed writer. Goose feathers were most common; swan feathers were of a premium grade being scarcer and more expensive. For making fine lines, crow feathers were the best, and then came the feathers of the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey. These quills had a very positive property – a natural ink reserve found in their hollow channel. The negatives were that they lasted for only a week before they became worn and it was necessary to replace them, and they had a scratchy and uneven flow. By the 1840s, quills gave way to the metal tipped nib pen, which lasted much longer and allowed for the tips to be replaced. It did not have an ink reservoir, however, so it required constant dipping. The fountain pen, with its internal reservoir for ink, came into common use with the invention of the Waterman pen in 1884. These pens were a mainstay for over half a century. Ballpoints were introduced to the market with a great deal of fanfare in 1945 but they were imperfect and very expensive. By 1952, the quality had improved and the price dropped, and over the next half decade they came to dominate the pen market. The felt tip pen was invented in 1962 but did not come into common use for some years after that. Fine-line and permanent markers were first seen in the 1970’s, and superfine-points gained popularity in the 1990’s. Each of these pens lays down a very distinctive, instantly recognizable flow of ink. Beware of any autograph whose ink does not fit into this timeline (like a ballpoint signature of FDR). Ink color matters also. Before about 1850 inks were generally brownish, and as they were made with iron, show-through was common. Over the years some types have literally rusted (which causes them to eat into the paper to a greater or lesser extent). Blue ink was not used much before about 1850. Some forgers buy old books, remove the blank pages, and write their forgeries on them using brown ink. Thus, the paper is real and the ink looks about right. However, paper loses its “size” over the years, and the strands of cloth in older paper separate a bit, so modern ink applied to old paper will be absorbed slightly and will blur.
Pencils were present in America by the early 18th century but did not begin to become common until the first American wood pencils were manufactured in 1812. Between the early 1820s and 1850s, Boston became a hub of pencilmaking, with several small makers opening in the area. One of these was John Thoreau, whose son Henry David was not only a noted author, but inventor of a method of mixing clay with graphite that made a superior lead. This led to the realization that by varying the amount of clay, pencils of differing hardness/softness could be made. The popularity of pencils grew significantly with the Civil War. What does all this mean in practice? I do not recall seeing autographs in pencil from prior to the 1850’s and would be very cautious if offered one.
Step No. 5: Assess Dissimilarities and Idiosyncracies in the Writing
Not a month goes by that someone doesn’t contact us saying they have an autograph and “know” it is authentic because the writing looks similar to an example they have seen. But sorry to tell, you cannot authenticate autographs simply by finding similarities in the writing. Bear in mind that up until a few decades ago, children had to take a course in school called penmanship and they were taught from essentially the same books. Therefore if you look at handwritings of different 18th or 19th century Americans, you will find many similarities in the ways they make their individual letters. To properly authenticate, what you must look for are the differences in the handwriting, not the similarities. Understanding that handwritings of a particular era will often have a similar appearance, the consistent difference in even one or two specific letters between accepted examples and a letter you are authenticating can be a telling point. Fortunately, in comparisons, there will usually be at least several individual letters that are consistently different, so you need not rely on only one variation. The principal is the same when dealing with forgeries – rely on the dissimilarities, not the similarities.
Be aware that some people’s writing contains inconsistencies, but is consistent in doing so. FDR sometimes put the letter “e” in the midst of a word in small case and sometimes wrote it as if it were a miniature capital letter. So if you see the letter both ways in his writing, don’t assume that this is the kind of difference in handwriting that we were just cautioning against.
There’s another important aspect to this step. If you look carefully, almost every person has something very distinctive about his or her handwriting. These unique characteristics can manifest themselves in many ways, such as the formation of specific letters, the slant or rise and fall of the writing, the connections between words or the breaks within the words. For example, Lincoln wrote his last name on three planes, stepping upward, Babe Ruth’s “e” often has an unusual, almost jaunty sideways tilt, and Winston Churchill’s “W” has sharp, slanted bottom points. The handwriting of secretaries also has its distinctive points and this proves useful. FDR had a secretary prior to entering the White House who, when she signed for him, always pointed the “s” in Roosevelt down and left it right there. Fortunately, handwriting idiosyncracies are very difficult to forge well, so their identification is of great importance. We look for them right away.
Step No. 6: Do a Forgery-Avoidence Inspection
The next step in authenticating is simply, does it look right and natural? Sign your own name a few times and look at other things your friends or relatives have signed. The signatures might be illegible, but they will all have a flow to them. The letters will not be lumpy or odd shaped (in a way no one would naturally write them), nor look labored or as if they were drawn with care. Signatures that look drawn or just unnatural should be avoided.
Then check for inappropriate irregularities in the writing. Shakiness is one of the surest signs of a forgery. There is no reason for a person’s signature to be shaky unless he is suffering from Parkinson’s or another debilitating disease (like Stephen Hopkins and, late in life, John Hancock) or is greatly advanced in age (like John Quincy Adams in the 1840’s). If a signature looks even a bit shaky, beware. Next check for signature breaks and hesitations. Sign your name a number of times. Almost certainly, you signed smoothly each time (without stopping to take stock in the middle of writing any signature), left spaces or breaks between your letters and words in the same places every time, and stopped or trailed off in the same way. It’s no different with a famous person. So watch out for hesitations anywhere within the writing. As for breaks, they should generally be at the same places in multiple examples, and thus should be consistant with the authentic samples you are using for comparison. Most people break between their first and last names (though I do not), and some break within the individual words (Franklin Roosevelt’s autograph seems like nothing but a series of unlikely breaks between the letters). An experiment will show you how important breaks are to analysis. Sign your name a few more times. Then try breaking your signature in a few unusual places. Hard to do, and surely not something you would do sometimes and not others. Yet it is necessary to note that there are a few exceptions – people who are consistant in having certain predictable, inconsistent breaks as part of their signature pattern (FDR again affords a fine example as he sometimes joined the “s” to the “e” in Roosevelt and sometimes did not). Endings also provide useful information. Andrew Jackson always seemed to end his signature with a flourish, while Lyndon Johnson preferred a line stretching off quite a distance. Most people have some smooth final touch. The forger, needing to be careful, often stops rather abruptly or awkwardly at the end of the signature he is forging.
Step No. 7: Check for Autopens and Computer-Generated Signatures
The autopen is a machine that uses a real pen and real ink to draw an exact replica of an autograph. The owner makes templates with different examples of his or her signature. A secretary inserts one or the other of them into the machine, which signs the correspondence. Autopens have been in general use since the late 1940’s, by presidents, public officials, astronauts, and others who have just too much correspondence to personally sign. The autopen is a real problem because use of a template created by the signatory means that the autograph looks just like his actual signature. The only saving grace is that each template signs each signature the exact same way time after time, so a comparison is all that is needed. If two signatures of a person are the same size and identical or virtually so, they are presumptive autopen examples and should be avoided. There are several books with facsimiles of most known autopen patterns from 1947 until 1988, when the last general autopen book was published.
Dwight D. Eisenhower began resorting to autopens in the late 1940’s and took them with him to the White House; fortunately a book containing his autopen patterns has been published and covers the ground fairly well. John F. Kennedy started using autopens at the beginning of his presidential campaign in 1959 and continued until his death. Strangely, however, his patterns bear little resemblance to his typical, authentic signature as president, so separating the authentic from the autopen is not difficult. The easy solutions stop there. Presidents from Johnson forward have used autopens for routine letters, often even for important ones. Nixon had a number of patterns and used them extensively (it’s safe to assume that of every 100 letters, documents and photographs bearing Nixon’s name as president, just a few of them will prove genuine). Since, unfortunately, not all autopen patterns have been published (or are even known), and the reference books are out of date, with all presidential signatures from November 23, 1963 on, the rule is, assume that any but the most important letters and documents are autopens if they lack additional handwriting to validate them. I know we turn down some good letters that way, but believe in discretion being the better part of valor, and prefer that to buying ones that may prove in time to be autopens.
How can the average collector tell an autopen when he has no appropriate reference books? Look closely at the signature for any signs of shakiness, as the machine sometimes leaves autographs with a slightly tremulous look. Some autopens (particularly in the earlier years) left little deposits of extra ink at the beginning and end of names or at breaks, where the machine stopped in its track. Numerous autopen patterns are more legible than the person’s typical signature, so if you can read every letter of a signature usually found more as a scribble (Nixon and Lyndon Johnson are cases in point), that indicates an autopen. Although some newer autopens include a formulaic, impersonal greeting in addition to the signature, none prior to about 2007 inscribed an item to a specific individual or wrote any individualized content. Thus, extra writing beyond such a greeting precludes the finding of an autopen. In fact, Bill Clinton often signaled that he had payed personal attention to a letter by adding a few extra words in his hand, canceling out the possibility of an autopen. For this reason, we often favor inscriptions on photographs and other items signed after about 1960.
The idea behind the autopen is not new. No later than 1804, Thomas Jefferson started using a polygraph machine (a sort of early autopen) that copied out letters as he wrote them, and these copies he mainly retained for his records. So care needs to be exercised to determine whether a letter of his is the original or a polygraph copy. Skips, dockets in Jefferson’s own hand, and lack of folds can all be polygraph indicators.
Recently we were offered what appeared to be a personalized, handwritten presidential letter of George W. Bush with a 2007 date. A review of the generic content made it clear the letter could not have been authentically written. Clearly, computers in the White House, using some mail merge technology, are now generating not merely TLS’s but bogus ALS’s that can insert the recipient’s name in the salutation. We must be aware that computers are bound to have an ever-increasing impact in the creation of inauthentic autographs.
Step No. 8: Assess for Evidence of Secretaries or Stamps
Secretarial signatures have been around for hundreds of years. A lot of documents supposedly signed by kings of France up through at least Louis XVI were signed by their secretaries. American presidents after about November 1833 had clerks sign land grants, and some of them did a creditable job (those of Pierce, Buchanan and Arthur were masters at duplicating the president’s real signature). Aside from land grants, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover had at least one skilled secretary each who signed their names prior to their presidencies. FDR made use of a number of secretaries to sign for him until he reached the White House. Eisenhower had secretaries during World War II and as president and Kennedy had perhaps a dozen, but the challenges accelerate once Lyndon Johnson took office. The secretaries used by LBJ, Nixon and Carter as president were particularly adept, and the proliferation of secretarial signatures indicates that they preferred using secretaries to autopens. Ronald Reagan’s mother answered some of his correspondence and signed photographs for him in his Hollywood years, and although he preferred autopens as President, he also employed a secretary while in the White House, mainly to sign photographs. Fortunately, with secretarial signatures, as with autopens, once secretaries learn to sign, they sign in similar fashion every time. Consequently, if there is a dissimilarity between the secretarial and the genuine signature, the secretarial will generally show that same dissimilarity in each instance. For example, Nixon’s long-time secretary, Rose Mary Woods, made the “d” in Richard with an extraordinarily high, tell-tale ascender. And like autopens, secretarial signatures are invariably neater than the authentic ones would be. By the way, in a few cases, notables seem to have planted a “key” to distinguish authentic from secretarial examples: Lyndon B. Johnson often put a dot under the letter “B” when he himself signed and Jefferson Davis’s wife added a period after the name when she signed for her husband.
Stamps also have a long history. Henry VIII had a steel stamp made of his signature which he put on routine documents, and some Spanish monarchs did likewise. William Penn had a stamp. Andrew Johnson used one as president, Theodore Roosevelt had one while a politician in New York, Woodrow Wilson sometimes resorted to one as governor of New Jersey, and Franklin D. Roosevelt affixed a stamped signature to a form letter he wrote to clergymen in 1935 asking them to support his social security legislation. Albert Einstein had a stamp that he affixed to form fund-raising letters. Silent movie stars used them widely. Beware of movie star photographs from 1930 or before that have inscriptions like “best wishes” but do not have a personalization, such as “To Joe.” Rudolph Valentino in particular liked to use stamps and had several with long but not personalized inscriptions, two in Italian and one in English. Hattie McDaniel also wielded a stamp, even to the extent of stamping autograph albums in front of the owners. But, of course, there was never any kind of personalization on these.
How can you identify stamped signatures? Often they are in light blue or purple ink and have a flat and washed-out look. They may also have air bubbles throughout. Take a look at real handwriting: the ink flows smoothly, there are no air bubbles or breaks in the flow, and the ink generally looks a little shiny. If you have a decent magnifying glass, you should be able to see crossovers – those tracks of ink where, for instance, the crossbar crosses the “t”, or where any pen line crosses another. Also, you may see the actual pen strokes and where the nib made an impression in the paper. Do you have a stamp of any kind? If so, use it, and then look carefully. It has none of these characteristics.
Step No. 9: Assess for Evidence of Facsimile
This word often used to be written fac-simile. It comes from the Latin words “facere” (to make) and “similis” (like), and means an exact copy of something. We have all seen facsimiles of documents like the Declaration of Independence on fake parchment, the kind sold in souvenir shops. We are offered one of the Gettysburg Address at least once every month by someone who thinks he has found a nugget of gold instead of a worthless copy. Facsimiles were created to honor a person or event, as part of a business promotion, as vanity pieces to impress friends, or were originally bound in books but have been removed over the years, plus for many other reasons. They were generally produced without ever intending to fool anybody into thinking they were real. The problem is that many facsimiles have been around for long periods of time and consequently have that aged look about them that can fool any but an expert. And some facsimiles are of such high quality, and are so deceptive, that they pose more of a problem for us to authenticate than any other category, including forgeries. Here are the types.
a. Printed facsimiles. There are some famous printed facsimiles. A few examples are a letter of Lord Byron to his publisher denying that he ever wrote The Vampire (this facsimile was inserted as an illustration in a very early edition of Byron’s works, and over the past 150 years has taken on an aged appearance), a letter by Sir Walter Scott to the publisher Charles Tilt, referring to himself as the author of the Waverly Tales (it is dated 1830 but is on paper clearly watermarked 1834), a letter of BenFranklin sending seeds to a friend, often with the seeds included (this was a promotion done by a seed company a century ago), a letter of Thomas Jefferson to Craven Peyton on minor banking matters, often with the “original” envelope (and remember, earlier I said that envelopes weren’t used during Jefferson’s lifetime. This was a 1920’s advertising promotion for a Virginia bank), and Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby commiserating with her over the loss of her five sons. King George V sent a facsimile letter welcoming American troops to Europe in World War I (millions were given out). We are offered a number of these every year.
Not long ago a man in Virginia called and said he had a signed copy of Robert E. Lee’s Order No. 9, his farewell to his troops, which Lee had given to General Stephens. A couple of dozen genuine examples of Order No. 9 exist, signed by Lee for his officers and soldiers, so new ones could conceivably turn up. However, a high quality facsimile was published over 50 years ago by the Lakeside Press, using as the master an original given to Gen. Stephens. The Lakeside version is done on bluish-gray paper and actually bears the printed name of the press in very light white print at the lower right of the back side. In this man’s case the paper was blue and the recipient was Stephens, so the diagnosis of facsimile was easy. To cement the determination, this man noted that someone had clipped out the very bottom of his document, excising the press name. Another time, a facsimile of Washington’s letter to John Langdon indicating that he would accept the presidency was offered to us, this time partly burned in a supposedly accidental fire. The location of the famous original of this letter is known (it is in an institution), so there was no problem in recognizing this as a facsimile, although it came with a good story and the fake fire damage. We discover new facsimiles from time to time, so we are always vigilant. A few months ago, we had to return a letter to an auction company because we determined that it was a facsimile. Queen Victoria had written to philanthropist George Peabody and praised his work so highly that he had the letter reproduced to hand out to his friends. This was one of those copies. Even more recently, we found that a photograph apparently signed by Thomas Edison, in which he took credit for inventing the electric light, was a facsimile.
Perhaps the most notable facsimiles are the steel engraved portraits of famous people made during the 19th century and found in books of that period. These engravings have facsimile signatures of the people below their portraits. The autographs were patterned after authentic examples and have been fooling people ever since. They are invariably in uniform black ink, are almost always centered under the images, and often have the embossed (raised) lettering one finds in fine business cards today. But illustrated letters and portraits were not the only sites of facsimiles in books. Many of Mark Twain’s earlier works have facsimile statements by him in the front. The most infamous of inscribed books is U.S. Grant’s Memoirs. On the flyleaf appears a facsimile dedication inscription to the “Soldiers of the United States.” These are constantly mistaken for genuine inscriptions and signatures, and even telling the owners that the books weren’t published until after Grant’s death doesn’t deter some of them.
b. Photographically reproduced facsimiles. In this process, the original of an item (usually a photograph) is authentically signed, often in colored ink, and photographic copies are made of it and distributed. When this process is done well, these can be very hard to spot, and when placed under a magnifying glass exhibit many of the markings of an authentic signature. Gerald Ford sent out high quality facsimile signed photographs of the dedication of his Presidential Library in Grand Rapids. Another example is a photograph of Charles Lindbergh accepting the Orteig Prize for flying across the Atlantic. Recently we saw a letter that FDR had sent to his appointee overseeing the film industry during wartime and found that it was, alas, a facsimile. However, most facsimiles are not of this quality and appear to be what they are – photographs of something rather than the thing itself. The most common examples were 3 by 5 and 5 by 7 inch photographs sent out for stars by movie studios (mostly from about 1920 to 1950) which have white “signatures” as part of the photos. These are usually relatively simple to tell, as they appear flat, there’s no ink on the photograph and they are in a neat, secretarial handwriting. Another type of photographic facsimile used in Hollywood has printed or reverse-embossed signatures pressed in, leaving an indentation often filled in with blue ink.
c. Salutations. A salutation is a greeting at the start of a letter, such as “Dear Bill.” In his later years, Winston Churchill received literally thousands of good wishes on his birthdays, many more than he could personally answer. Desiring to be polite, he had facsimile letters prepared in response. He hand wrote one, then that letter was lithographed, often in blue ink, and the reproductions sent out all over the world. Harry Truman (at right) and Herbert Hoover did the same thing. The tipoff to most of these facsimile letters is the salutation or better yet the lack of one. Churchill’s facsimiles had no salutation. On his actual correspondence, he always included one and like many Englishmen, generally wrote the entire thing out by hand. A good rule of thumb here is, if you see a letter, either handwritten or typed, which begins impersonally, or has a generalized salutation like “Dear Friend,” be skeptical.
d. Form letters. Such letters, even those that have typed personalizations, were very frequently “signed” with facsimile signatures. The signatures can be in ink of a different color than the typing and can be very deceiving. There is a famous facsimile letter of Einstein about atomic energy which appears “typed” in black ink and “signed” in blue. We see at least one offered by some dealer or auction house every year or so, often with very high price tags. You can usually tell a form letter. It could have been sent to anyone, there is nothing specific in it that would indicate the writer knows the recipient personally, and it usually relates either to fund raising or a political campaign or cause. Quite often before 1960, the salutation will not be aligned at the left with the rest of the text. Some other form letters to watch out for are those of Helen Keller and Martin Luther King. Even if the signature on a form letter is real, as happens once in a blue moon, I believe that the letter is worth less than a non-form letter from the same person, even though the content of the form letter is “dynamite.” After all, they were sent out in mass mailings, lack uniqueness and may have been authored by a professional ad writer rather than the signer.
e. Letters or inscriptions to groups. When you see a photograph or letter of a famous person inscribed to a group or organization, be careful, as quite often facsimiles were made of the original to give to all the members. One example would be a photograph of Harry Truman inscribed “To Lodge 275 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.” Truman sent an authentic original and the organization had the copies made for its members. Yet there are also authentic pieces in this category. Items inscribed to small groups, such as “To Mrs. Newman’s history class,” are unlikely to have been reproduced in facsimile. Some notables, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, liked to write congratulatory letters to groups (such as the Boy Scouts) on their anniversaries. The originals are out there for sale, as are the facsimiles. If in doubt, pass it by.
f. Definitive determinations. As with stamped signatures, an excellent way to spot facsimiles is the lack of crossover indications and pen strokes. Also, since they are printed, there are often tiny air bubbles which appear as white flecks throughout the inked portions; these are not found in the ink flow of genuine writing.
Step 10: Consider Special Factors
a. Photographs. The first photographs of people to be mounted on paper (and thus be capable of being signed) were taken about 1845. They measured some 2 by 4 inches and were used in place of calling cards. When a person visited another’s home and found the homeowner out, he would leave the photograph there as evidence of the attempted visit. As a consequence, these photographs were called “cartes de visite”, or “visiting cards.” They remained popular until about 1865 when they were replaced by a larger type of photograph meant for keeping in albums which in turn were kept in cabinets. These were thus termed “cabinet” photographs. Generally about 4 by 6 inches, they could on occasion be much larger, with various names, such as imperial cabinet.
Both the cartes de visite and cabinet photographs had the actual photo mounted to a heavier board, usually with the photographer’s imprint either on the bottom front or the back. The cabinet photograph remained in vogue until about the turn of the 20th century, when it was replaced by photographs with sizes pretty much as we know them, ranging from snapshots and postcard size to 8 by 10 inches. The 11 by 14 inch photograph didn’t become popular until about 1920 and was mainly used by entertainers. The earliest 8 by 10 inch photographs were often sepia in tone (brownish), but sepia started to be phased out in the 1930’s and yielded to black and white. These in turn began to be replaced by color about 1960. Beware the signed photograph that is out of this dating context. For example, you are not likely to see a genuine signed cabinet photograph of anyone who died before 1865, nor a color photograph of someone who died before 1960.
Don’t be fooled by photographs that are merely identified in writing on the front by someone else, as was commonly done with carte de visites and cabinet photographs. Fortunately, people who wrote a name on a photograph as identification made no attempt to duplicate the notable’s genuine signature. As an example of this phenomenon, someone recently wrote me saying he had a signed photograph of Stonewall Jackson, which would be quite a find if genuine. When I saw a scan of it, it turned out to be a CDV of him that had been labeled on the bottom front by someone at the time, “General Jackson.” An even funnier example took place when we first started out. A man called and said he had a signed photograph of Pope John Paul II. When he came to my office and showed me the piece, I almost fell off my chair laughing. Someone had written under the photograph the words “The Pope.”
The first president to sign images was John Quincy Adams, who is known to have signed some small engraved pictures. In the era of photography, Martin Van Buren signed some CDV’s later in life. We have not otherwise seen any other president prior to Millard Fillmore in signed photograph form. Signed CDV’s of presidents prior to Andrew Johnson are scarce, with Abraham Lincoln’s being rare, often forged, and very expensive. An unambiguously satisfactory provenance is needed to buy a purported Lincoln signed CDV. Johnson is uncommon but not quite scarce, while starting with his successor, U.S. Grant, signed photographs become more easily obtainable. Grover Cleveland is the most common of the late 19th century presidents while Chester A. Arthur is the scarcest. Signed photographs of 20th century presidents are easy to find up to John F. Kennedy. He often had secretaries sign photographs for him and an authentic one is quite uncommon and desirable. Lyndon B. Johnson was a vain man who did not mind putting his name to his picture, while Richard Nixon just couldn’t be bothered and usually delegated the signing chore to Rose Mary Woods. With Ford, Carter and Reagan, it is a mixed story.
The possibility of encountering secretarial and facsimile signatures is greatest in signed photographs, and this is particularly true in the entertainment field. As far as vintage (pre-1950) movie star photographs go, there is a good rule of thumb. The photographs came in 4 sizes: postcard, 5 by 7, 8 by 10 and 11 by 14. Postcard photographs generally have an obviously printed or photographic signature on the front, if any at all. Signatures on 5 by 7’s are 80% secretarial, as these were sent out by the truckload by the studios. With just a few exceptions (notably Spencer Tracy), only actors and actresses who were really minor had the time or inclination to sign them on a regular basis. Those on 8 by 10’s are 50% genuine and those on 11 by 14’s are 90% genuine. There is a reason for this. Back in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, if you wrote a movie star for a signed photo, you generally got a postcard saying that they were available for a certain payment, 10 cents for a 5 by 7, 25 cents for an 8 by 10 and a dollar for an 11 by 14. Obviously in those days, if anyone was willing to spend a dollar, they deserved the real McCoy. 11 by 14 inch photos were also the size given by stars to other stars and to close friends and family, and were virtually always inscribed. After 1950 oversize and undersize photographs dropped away, and authentic and secretarially signed photos were both almost always 8 by 10 inches, and the percentage of authentic examples dropped well below 50%. Signatures on photographs after 1990 are suspect in general, due to the increasing unwillingness of celebrities to take the time to sign autographs. Please note that these percentages relate strictly to secretarial and facsimile signatures. The absolute tsunami of forgeries since about 1995 dwarfs all that as a problem, making signed photographs suspect as a category, and ultra-caution the by-word.
b. Writing styles of individuals and eras. Writing styles have unique and often interesting characteristics. You are not likely to see a letter of Lincoln’s with a closing much longer than “Truly yours,” as letters had short endings in his time, while you may never see one of Washington’s which concludes with anything much shorter than “I am very truly your most obedient servant,” as closings were long in his. A letter earlier than 1800 without a flowery closing, or after 1850 without a short closing, must be scrutinized. Both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt had particular ways of assuring people that they were held high in esteem, saying things like “It particularly pleases me to have earned the support of a man such as you.” On the other hand, Lincoln was very succinct in his letters, never using two words where one would do. Any letter with his name which has extra verbiage or is gossipy in tone could not have been written by him, no matter what the autograph on it looks like.
It is the same with JFK. Over a decade back it was discovered that a supposed cache of letters and documents to and from Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy were forged. It took the FBI quite a while to determine these were forgeries, though the material should have been suspect from the start. Vanity Fair published pictures of two of the items, one a letter to JFK from MM asking for a trust fund for her mother in order to buy her silence about the connection between her, JFK and mobster Sam Giancana, and another from JFK to his alleged lawyer sending him the note from MM. First of all, the writing just wasn’t either Marilyn’s or JFK’s, no two ways about it. But this story is about what the notes said, not how they looked. MM’s note was addressed “Dear Jack” and signed “M. Monroe” (a signature she almost surely never used), and was incredibly indiscreet. JFK’s note was a rambling one, utterly unlike the concise, even terse language he actually used in correspondence. Moreover, the savvy Kennedy would have been about the last person in the world to put anything in writing to anyone about such an explosive relationship, if indeed one existed. Knowing these simple facts would have saved a lot of people a lot of money.
c. Consider the price. Of course we are all looking for bargains, but as a collector consider a real bargain to be a savings of 20-30% off of what the actual value of the autograph should be. Be extremely careful if you see an autograph going for a smaller fraction of what you know to be its value, as for a dealer to offer such a bargain, or for an auction to list such an item with that small a reserve, is more than suspicious. A client of ours asked us to check out an on-line auction where a supposed franking signature of George Washington had a current bid, nearing the end of the sale, of $1,200. A genuine signature of the first president from a franked panel is worth about $8,000, so $1,200 would be a more than roaring bargain. In such a circumstance, ask yourself why something like this would be going so unbelievably cheap. Note that word “unbelievably”and don’t believe it. We looked at that signature, as I’m sure did a lot of other dealers and experienced collectors, and saw that the “signature” was an awful forgery. So don’t expect to get something for only a small fraction of what it is worth.
d. Historical anachronisms. Your signature may have changed over time, and that applies to notables also. The signatures of both John Adams and John Lennon went through five different, distinct phases, while John F. Kennedy’s and Judy Garland’s went through at least 3. I once saw a photograph purportedly signed by the Beatles which pictured them circa 1968, yet had a form of John’s signature that he used circa 1964 and had abandoned by 1966. The picture proclaimed itself a forgery.