How to spot a fake autograph

In 1978, Paul Fraser founded Fraser's Autographs. When he left, in 1989, it had become Europe's largest autographs dealer.

We know a thing or two about autographs. So, in this week's 'How to...', we're giving you some beginner's advice to help you spot whether or not a signature is genuine...

Beware stamped signatures

Fake autographs are often mechanically reproduced. Run your thumb over the signature, particularly its outline. If it's flat, then the "autograph" is likely to be a facsimile.

Alternatively, if you can feel the texture of the ink on top of the page, you know it has been added afterwards. But, be wary, even this could be a fraud (see 'Avoid Autopens', below).

Also, bear in mind that this technique won't work on fabric items like sports shirts, which absorb the ink without leaving a raised layer.

So another method is to pull out your magnifying glass and look for visual clues...

Look closely at the ink...

With stamped-on signatures, all the ink is applied at the same time and squeezed to the edges of the rubber.

How spot fake autograph

Ink can tell you a lot about an autograph (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Through a magnifying glass, you will be able to see more ink on the edges of the lines than in the middle.

Another thing to spot is that autographs printed by machines may have an unnaturally "smooth" effect.

Hold it up to the light

If the signature's ink seems too light, or has apparently had equal pressure applied throughout, then it is likely a fake.

Hold the autograph up to a light source. If it glows a shaded purple colour, then it has almost certainly been stamped.

Another trick is to get the celebrity to sign a negative of the photo, and then reproduce it. If the colour of the signature is silver on the photo, then this is likely to have happened.

Avoid autopens

If a name is signed with a pen, the nib will cut through wet ink to produce "tunnels" and "bridges" visible through a magnifying glass.

How spot fake autograph

An autopen (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

However, autographs can be duplicated with an autopen: a machine which uses a mechanical arm to drag a pen along a plastic or metal signature template - or "matrix".

In the wake of President Kennedy's death, Jackie Kennedy relied on autopens to sign her responses to the thousands of condolence letters she received...

Look for "robotic" tell-tale signs

When you write your own name, you sign it in one continuous movement. Also, the pen is moving before you start writing, as you move it towards the page...

The autopen, on the other hand, comes down with a dot and ends abruptly with another dot. This can be seen through a magnifying lense.

If the signature appears unnaturally "shaky", this can be due to vibrations in the autopen machine.

Also, look out for machine-like straight lines - especially if these lines are interrupted by accidental "robotic" wobbles, which can reveal where the autopen has slipped.

Did the secretary do it?

Walt Disney and JFK are among the elite who relied on their secretaries to sign for them.

How spot fake autograph

Some secretaries were pros at signing their boss's name (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Here, it is perhaps best to consult a trusted expert - many of whom can tell the difference between JFK's secretary one, secretary two and secretary three's attempts to imitate his signature, in order to spot a genuine one.

Turn it upside down

Another method to spot free-hand fakes is to compare it alongside a known genuine example.

The best way to compare a signature is to turn it upside. This way, your mind isn't reading it and can look objectively for tell-tale signs and slight differences between the two which can reveal it as fake.

Also, the more signatures there are on a piece, the more mistakes there are to spot. Put a sports shirts with 10 fake team signatures against a sports shirt with 10 real ones, and it is easy to spot the fake.

Often, the fakes will have been written by one person. They will be the same height, evenly spaced and sometimes the same way up.

Be there when it is signed...

When writing to a celebrity for their autograph, don't assume that they are going to sign it themselves.

In many cases, an assistant will do it for them.

The best way to avoid this phenomenon, alas, is to be there yourself to witness the person signing it. 

Think about the numbers

A forger can knock-out 30 or 40 fake David Beckham autographs in a couple of hours.

But Beckham himself would never sign that many himself. In fact, he will likely sign no more than one at a time, for fear that they will be sold on...

As a result, genuine dealers probably won't have more than one David Beckham signature a month in their stock.

Also remember that footballers and other figures will often dedicate an autograph to an individual, so that it is only of use to the named person.

Think about how, when and why it was signed...

If an autograph dated pre-1960s is signed in a felt pen, then it is fake. Felt pens didn't exist before the 1960s, and it should be signed in ink.

Also, check to see if the photograph is glossy. Glossy photographs have only been available in recent years.

Ask yourself: would the person really have signed this? For instance, if you were the President of the United States, why would you sign an index card?

Their are tens of thousands of appointment or discharge certificates for military service, examples of paper currency, postmaster appointments and land grants signed after the 1930s which purport to be genuine, but aren't.

Because - like JFK relying on his secretaries - no US president of official would have had to time sign them all.

Go to a reliable authentication source

Don't be discouraged: there are examples of the above documents which are genuine. But it is a good idea to seek professional advice - and to make sure that you do so from a trusted and reputable source.

How spot fake autograph

This Bert Lahr autograph is guaranteed genuine (Image: Paul Fraser Collectibles)

Authentication services have been reliable in the past, but some have come under fire in recent years. The PSA/DNA and UACC, for instance, have each been held-up for misidentifying fake signatures as genuine.

Also, don't automatically trust a seller if they cite Universal Autograph Collectors Club (UACC) membership or a Certificate of Authenticity (COA). UACC membership can be bought, and COA documentation can be faked by anyone with a computer.

How can you know who to trust?

A business you can trust should offer you a lifetime guarantee.

Beware of private auctions or any requests for privacy by the seller - this is often a ploy to hide the sale. Really, there is no legitimate reason for a seller to ask for privacy in their dealings with you.

A reputable seller will be able to guarantee the provenance of the signatures they sell, with supporting documentation. At Paul Fraser Collectibles, you can be assured of this with every autograph we have for sale.

And one last thing...

If an autograph looks like too much of a bargain to be real... then it probably isn't real.

Paul Fraser. 

PS. Sign up to my free weekly newsletter for tips and tricks, special offers and much more. 

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