Spotting Fakes: Can You tell a Real Authenticated Autograph? Take our test

Would you like to know that the signatures you buy are authenticated autographs?

Fakes and forgeries are certainly a risk when you buy autographs.

Even experts can fall victim to them.

“Assume it’s a fake unless it can be proved otherwise,” is not an uncommon maxim among serious autograph collectors and traders.

But, this is a rewarding hobby.

And most sellers I believe are genuine. Often they’re collectors just like you. All legitimate dealers have an interest in keeping fakes out of the market to protect themselves.

A few simple tests can guarantee your buy authenticated autographs that you’ll treasure.

Let’s put a signature through our test and see what happens.

1 - Where did you get that autograph?

A good place to buy an authentic, say, Rolex wristwatch is from an official Rolex dealer, with a big, shiny shopfront in an exclusive mall.

And a good place to buy a fake is in the pub from a man called Scarface Rob.

So as you peruse an apparently genuine John Lennon signature ask yourself who is offering you this autograph?

And where did they get it?

Of course, people end up with coveted autographs for all sorts of reasons - they’re not quite like expensive wristwatches.

But, high-quality, high-reputation dealers are by far the safest place to buy them.

Or, directly from people you know have a good reason to have them. That might be an artist’s staff, relatives, or associates. It might be someone who you know (or can find out) is a fan.

If you’re using online marketplaces like eBay then make sure you only use sellers with good reputation ratings.

And wherever you buy, make sure you know what protections you have. That should include the seller, but also legal protections that you can enforce.

2 - Who says you got it there?

Provenance is probably the most important term in the autograph trade.

All of those things we mentioned in our first test - where does it come from - are forms of provenance.

But provenance, as the word itself suggests, can be proved.

Written down. Printed.

So you should repeat that first test, but this time don’t take anyone’s word for anything. Ask them to prove it.

This might extend to requesting a letter recounting the circumstances in which the autograph was collected.

An invitation to a New York speaking engagement by Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro's autograph

Fans very often grab a photograph when they meet their heroes. A snap of an autograph owner with the signer is a very big plus.

Sales should be evidenced with full catalogue entries.

Any third-party authentications should be seen and checked.

3 - What does it look like

Finally, we get to the actual signature.

Does it look the part?

Many buyers are already experts to some degree. But, if you’re not, the web has made research an easy prospect. Though, you can’t beat in-person advice from a subject specialist in our view.

Is your signature now the same as it was when you were 18?

Possibly, but some people change theirs. And that’s particularly true of people in the public eye when they realise their name has become a valuable piece of public property.

John Lennon, an accomplished graphic artist with an eye for a good pen line, changed his signature several times and experts recognise several “ages” of Lennon names.

JFK did the same.

A portrait of President John F Kennedy

So, check your signature against a contemporary example.

It should also look like a signature. For the vast majority of people that’s something that’s done in a single, flowing, almost instinctive movement - be wary of hesitation marks, stops and starts, and an end point.

Drawn or traced signatures won’t look natural. And, if you can examine them in person (which we do recommend), you may spot the indentations under the ink that comes from tracing.

4 - Was it really them?

There are several banes of the autograph authenticator.

Chief among our enemies are:

  1. Secretaries and other staff,
  2. Hand stamps, and
  3. Autopens.

Attention is one of the reasons why some people seek out fame.

But plenty of examples have shown us that for many people the novelty wears off fairly quickly.

Ringo Starr famously told autograph hunters to stop writing to him in 2008.

If you’ve seen a clip of him and his new wife, Maureen, patiently explaining to TV news crews that their presence has in fact ruined their honeymoon way back in 1965 you might understand why.

Very big stars have so many demands on their time that they may well delegate signing fan mail to staff.

In the case of the Beatles this is certainly true, and spotting variants from theri fanclub office is a speciality in its own right.

Anyone who receives a large volume of correspondence may use staff to sign it. American Presidents very often do. It’s done innocently enough, but an autograph buyer wants a signature from the hand of their hero.

So check against known secretarial signatures.

And check that a signature isn’t a handstamp.

These have been used for centuries, but really came into their own in the golden age of Hollywood.

They were especially common on handout glossy photographs.

There are telltale signs - the ink isn’t usually as evenly distributed as it is by a pen and ink.

An autopen signing US Treasury checks

Autopens are very hard to spot.

After all, this is a device specifically designed to produce large numbers of identical signatures.

The machine uses the star’s own autograph as its base.

Their perfection is sometimes their downfall.

Real signatures do have tiny variants in them. A signature with exactly even pressure along its whole length could be an autopen copy. And autopen autographs can sometimes be matched back to an “original” copy.

5 - What did they use to sign?

Most forgers will be clever enough not to offer you a US Declaration of Independence signed in felt-tipped pen.

If you’re serious about collecting autographs you need to become something of an expert in the history of writing implements.

Ball-point pens have been in common use since the 1930s.

Felt-tipped pens since the 1960s.

President Donald Trump with a signed US law

A Donald Trump Sharpie pen

And people are sometimes associated with a particular pen. Donald Trump never seemed to go anywhere without an angular-tipped Sharpie marker. That’s what you should expect most of his signatures to be in.

6 - What did they sign?

The paper - or photograph or baseball or whatever - that carries the signature is just as important as the signature itself.

You need to be sure that it’s credible.

Could the person in question have signed this particular piece of paper?

You’d be surprised.

Criminals of the master-genius type are rare. Most are opportunistically out for a quick score for the minimum effort.

So it’s worth checking dated items actually match the lifetime of your subject. Before is fine, but nobody yet has signed an item published (or in an edition made) after they died.

Paper analysis is an expert forensic science.

Most of us are going to be using relatively broad rules of thumb to assess whether a sheet is old enough. Find an expert if you can, but common sense here goes a long way.

Parchment is animal skin. It was used before mass production of paper became commonplace in the west from around the 1500s, but also for important documents well after that.

Before the middle of the 18th century paper was made “laid” on a grid of wires that left a strongly marked grid in the finished product.

Younger wood pulp papers from the 20th and 21st Century are more likely to turn brittle and brown than 19th century rag papers.

Check that letters or other documents are in keeping with the signature, if handwritten. Is the content of the right style and quality?

A letter signed by Albert Einstein

7 - Is the price right?

It’s everyone’s dream to walk out of a junk shop clutching a signed First Folio Shakespeare.

It could happen.

But it’s unlikely, and it’s becoming more and more unlikely.

Everyone has the means to make some sort of assessment of the value of items they want to sell.

So be wary of bargains.

We don’t want to put you off your dreams.

But, if a low price comes with a seller in a hurry or who may be hard to contact again or who insists on cash or Bitcoin only then your sensors should be sounding.

The autograph market is not scientific and it can be volatile. And sometimes people genuinely don’t realise the value of what they’ve got.

But a bargain that looks too good to be true is very often too good to be true.

Very few genuine sellers will mind you making checks or asking for other opinions on an item.

Enjoy yourself

Writing about the dangers of buying anything always seems rather negative.

We don’t mean to make you paranoid.

The vast majority of people are honest.

And it’s not difficult to enjoy the fascinating hobby of autograph collecting safely.

And even for very good prices.

That’s my firm belief.

And if you’d like to discuss buying or selling an autograph with me all you need to do is:

Email or phone +44 (0)1534 639 998 to discuss your plans.

You can browse our selection of autographs here. All of them with our own money-back lifetime authenticity guarantee.

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