Sure sign: how to make sure your autographs are the 'real deal'

The PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator) authentication service has announced that a good 50% of the celebrity autographs which they were asked to authenticate in 2010 are fake. With that in mind, we thought we'd pass on a few tips to help collectors look out for fakes on the market in the New Year.

Of course the first tip for anyone checking the validity of a signature themselves is that, unless you're a real expert, it's not worth the risk above a certain value. If you're investing any significant amount of money in an autograph you should always have it checked by an expert with a reputation to lose.

That said, it can hardly hurt to know something about what you're collecting, so here are some simple tips:

Know your age

You would be surprised to know how often forgers make basic mistakes when recreating signatures. In some cases an autograph can be ruled out with just a little nous and basic research.

To take a recent example: Heath Ledger's signature sharply increased in value following his untimely death. It sharply increased in frequency too. We noticed that some traders were trying to sell signed merchandise, notably posters, from his final film which hadn't been released whilst he was alive.

Peter Hook, bassist from the group New Order (formerly Joy Division) has admitted to forging his former bandmate Ian Curtis's signature - and being astonished that fans don't notice when Curtis's signature appears on items, such as albums, released after Curtis's suicide.

In fact, a number of dealers have stories of seeing supposed signatures of stars written on material actually associated with tributes to them after their death!

O-pen and shut case

Sometimes the mistakes are a little more subtle. For example, in the '20s and '30s fountain pens were universally used, so all signatures from this time will be in that distinctive style, and usually faded.

Ballpoint pens were not used by anyone until around the start of the '50s, and even then they had a slow-drying, low quality ink which made them unsuitable for use. They could be used reliably from 1954. Sharpies were not sold until 1963 and rarely used before 1970.

Sadly, any photos signed by Al Jolson in biro are unlikely to be what they seem. 

What's the rush?

A signature will of course look different if it was dashed off by a star in a hurry as compared to when they sat down and did it properly. But if you know what their signature should look like, don't be fooled by a dealer who tells you that a dubious signature was just one done when the star was in a hurry.

A surprising number of factors about a signature stay very similar even when the speed of signing may be three or four times greater, such as the gap between names, overall size and relative height and width.

Try signing at a few different speeds yourself - a rushed signature looks little like a bad forgery.

Stand on your head

Or just turn the turn the signature over. You might notice ways in which the signature differs from a known example that you - or a forger - wouldn't have noticed otherwise, as people tend to read by skimming the tops of letters in a word.

Genuine forgeries

Quite often, celebrities make their autograph out to a particular person. Whilst this can add value if that person is famous in their own right, or if the dedication adds some character, dealers may feel that they are off-putting to a potential buyer and might even try to remove them.

Whilst you obviously shouldn't trust anyone who does this, the traces of a dedication at least suggest that whoever removed it thought the signature itself was genuine - who would buy a fake autograph with more work to do on it, let alone create it like that themselves?

Compare and Despair

Many stars 'fake' their own signatures, or fail to sign at all. In the first case they may use autopens or have their secretaries sign for them. If you're comparing to a known example of their signature, that should help you spot the secretary's signature - but it has to have been one they were seen signing.

An autopen automatically creates a copy of a celebrity's signature. This is in some ways different from the real thing, notably that an autopen presses down with equal pressure all through a signature which no human does.

The best way to spot an autopen signature however, is that they are all exact copies, so if you have a known autopen signature it will perfectly match another.

Finally, there are some celebrities who never sign, or haven't signed after a certain date. Neil Armstrong is the most famous example of the latter, so if you find anything signed recently by him or Kirk Douglas, or anything signed for the sake of signing at all by Andrew Lloyd Webber or director Ron Howard, keep your money in your pocket.

Fortunately, there are some autographs you can have confidence in. Check out our stock for a range - including Neil Armstrong's.


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