Know the Identified Forgers
There are some very talented forgers operating right now, producing an absolutely astounding number of bad autographs, and no shortage of dealers and auctions willing to peddle their wares. They seem to operate with impunity, while the government shows little interest and doesn’t intervene. The buyer must protect himself, a daunting a task. Yet you can almost always avoid the snares of forgers if you follow these rules and keep the other lessons in this book in mind.
Avoid the Polluted Streams
Much of this information I have spent a collector’s lifetime gathering, observing and realizing. I learned lots of lessons the long and tough way so that you can stand on my shoulders and not have to learn them for yourself in the school of hard knocks. Suffice it to say – avoid dealing with people who carry or auction questionable material. Do not fish in polluted streams unless you want to catch tainted fish. It’s that simple.
Know Where the Greatest Dangers Lie
The problem of forged signed items is worst in the fields of sports and entertainment. There is substantial public interest in them, and because of the internet, the scale of this problem has grown. A huge percentage of autographs in these fields are phony, so the greatest possible caution must be exercised. However, other collectors must not be complaisant, as forgers are at work to some degree in all autograph fields. Bad Martin Luther King, Jr. signatures and Ronald Reagan signed quotes are everywhere, and I have seen forged Einsteins, Robert E. Lees and U. S. presidents from Washington to Bush.
Be Careful What You Buy
Some items are simply safer than others. Official signed documents, correspondence on printed letterhead and handwritten letters are hard to forge. They are much less likely to be bogus than easier to concoct things like signed photographs. “Cuts” don’t make the cut, as they are just two words on a piece of paper without any context. Simple to forge, rare signatures on pieces of paper should be viewed skeptically. It used to be that forgers generally kept away from inscriptions, handwritten letters, contracts and items on letterhead, nor did they lower themselves to forge autographs of minor people. In today’s brave new world, bogus contracts are typed out on plain paper and signed (so buy those on partly printed forms or letterhead), and short inscriptions are part of the forger’s stock in trade. Even letterhead is not completely safe: I have seen a pretty convincing Ty Cobb forgery on a reprinted copy of his real letterhead (the newness of the paper gave it away). The crowning indignity is that many worthless signatures are now being forged and placed in books and albums in proximity to the bogus rarer ones, so the valuable ones appear in a natural setting. All these strategies are designed to lull the unwary into thinking that these kinds of things just aren’t forged, that they are safe. The words “in person” are also intended to comfort people, but they make me nervous, as autographs labeled that way often look nothing like the real thing. I ignore claims that autographs are in person and review them the same as if they were not.
Avoid Things That Are Too Good to Be True
Beginners in the autograph field naturally want exciting things and may quickly gravitate toward the most spectacular-appearing pieces. They don’t realize that what they want either doesn’t exist in the real world or is so rare that its appearance would create quite a buzz of conversation. Some forgers specialize in group shots, such as those featuring an entire cast of a television program, or show five American presidents together. We rarely see one of these group pictures authentically signed. We have seen numerous purported signed duet photographs of John and Jacqueline Kennedy at auction, but never one that we felt was real. An enormous percentage of best case autographs are forgeries.
Beware of autographs noted in descriptions as being “hastily signed.” We’ve seen untold thousands of signatures, and while on occasion one might seem to have been signed hastily, even those retain 95% of their normal look.
More Handwriting Is Better
Some people erroneously think that inscriptions ruin a signed photograph, book or program. Actually, the more handwriting there is on any autographed item, the better. Remember that learning how to sign names is one thing and learning how to duplicate handwriting is quite another. Even the greatest forgers of all time did not learn more than a few different handwritings (and imperfectly at that), and usually limited themselves to such giants as Washington and Lincoln. Forgers prefer to place as little writing as possible on their wares, as too much handwriting would give them away, so the vast majority of the forgeries we have seen are merely signed or have very brief inscriptions.
Apply Your Common Sense
Did you ever write to a president about one of his policies and get a thank you letter back? Probably 50,000 Americans wrote a similar letter about the same policy and received the same response. Could the president take the time to sign all these authentically? Of course not. Could Mark Twain have written a letter from New Orleans while he was in England? Don’t laugh, I saw one; it was a decent job of forgery as far as the writing was concerned. Would Lincoln have written a letter referring to the Battle of First Bull Run as such before the second battle had been fought there? Think about the circumstances of an autograph. Forgers sometimes get the signatures and/or writing down fairly well, but lose sight of the larger picture.
A guarantee of authenticity is no panacea; it is only as good as the dealer or auction that stands behind it.