There are plenty of historical figures whose signatures are lost to time. Julius Caesar. Cleopatra. Genghis Khan.
But which is the rarest? If we want to be definitive, we need to pick someone whose autographs actually exist.
Those signatures also need to be totally unobtainable. No amount of money would permit you to buy one. We’re talking totally priceless.
That why you can make a very good case that the world’s rarest autograph is that of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) – a man almost universally regarded as the greatest writer who ever lived.
How rare are we talking?
There are only six confirmed autographs from the pen of William Shakespeare.
All are to be found on four separate legal documents dating to between 1612 and 1616 – the last four years of his life.
This is the Chandos Portrait. Painted circa 1600-1610 it's believed to depict William Shakespeare (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
It’s one of the more devastating twists of history that all of Shakespeare’s written manuscripts were lost long ago. Should the text for Romeo and Juliet or As You Like It ever turn up, it’s value would be inestimable.
Still, each of the six known signatures would be worth several million dollars should they ever come to auction.
But they never will. Three of the documents are kept in the National Archives and the last in the permanent collection of the British Museum.
What does Shakespeare’s signature look like?
You might expect the greatest writer ever to have lived to have excellent handwriting.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Just take a look at these two examples, which appear on the deeds to a house in Blackfriars, London.
Shakespeare has signed this deed twice in a strangely shaky hand (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Shakespeare writes in a peculiarly wobbly hand and writes his name differently each time. Experts say he may have suffered from a tremor. The spelling spans the gamut from Shakp to Shakspeare (it was quite common to abbreviate your name in this way at the time).
Each autograph shows distinctive characteristics that were Shakespeare’s own. The “k” is always the same and he typically starts writing with an upstroke.
There are other claimants
The next best claim to authenticity is a faded autograph found on a copy of William Lambarde’s Archaionomia (1568), a rather dry-sounding compilation of Anglo Saxon laws.
The contested signature on Lambarde's Archaionomia (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Debate has been raging over this autograph since its discovery in the early 1940s and the jury is still out.
In 2012, the University of Mississippi scanned the signature with a specially designed camera – but the results were inconclusive.
Forgeries are rife. The best known of these is a signature on a copy of John Florio’s translation of the French philosopher Montaigne. It first emerged in the 1780s and later ended up in the British Museum.
Shakespeare might have been a pseudonym
Some on the fringe argue that the William Shakespeare who lived in Stratford-on-Avon, and who signs his name on these four documents, is not the real author of those famous plays.
They argue Shakespeare never left the UK, but has a detailed knowledge of Italy. Similarly, he wasn’t educated beyond grammar school. But the writer who produced these celebrated works had an unmatched knowledge of the classics.
Theories of his real identity abound. Could he have been the Earl of Oxford? Christopher Marlowe? Francis Bacon?
Others dismiss these claims as ludicrous.
As with everything surrounding Shakespeare's autograph, the debate rages on.
Thanks for reading,