Autograph Authentication….The Basics.

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Authentication, a very brief how to guide.

Firstly, what makes me an expert on the subject? Well, i have been dealing directly in autographs full time for over 20 years, and have worked with both Trading Standards and the Police on autograph fraud cases, with my evidence having been used in a number of cases. The most recent is the Andrew Sullivan case in Norwich, in which Sullivan got 21 months prison for selling fake signed images on ebay, and he was doing this for 6 years! A simple google search will find all you need to know about this seller. I have also worked with a number of TV programs, Fake Britain, The One Show, Inside Out, and soon to be seen Pawn Stars UK and Posh Pawn, as well as advising a number of other dealers and auction houses on signed stock. I also run a full day course on autographs which is aimed at giving the collector a good knowledge of what to look out for when buying signed photos etc. 

This should be considered as a very brief guide on the principles of authentication. It will not make you an expert, and does not cover all the principles involved, just the basics, so keep that in mind! But, it will give you a start on how to diferentiate between a real and a fake signature correctly, and with practice and a lot of experience it will allow you to become sufficiently skilled in being able to easily spot the good from the bad.

But firstly, never assume that just because a person has been selling or collecting autographs for years, that they are experts in their fields. I have met many ‘collectors’ who simply only do that, collect autographs, and who have never read any of the books available, or even researched or studied any of the signatures they have purchased, sometimes resulting in a collection full of fakes, autopens and secretarial signatures. Do your homework, learn the rules, and your collection can become something of real value in the future.

I have yet to meet a dealer who has not either bought or sold a fake signature either. This would always have been done unknowingly of course, as no matter how good you are, there is always someone out there who is smarter than you, and who will take very great pleasure in parting you with your hard earned money!

And lastly, never confuse an ‘opinion’ with an ‘authentication’ as they are two very different things. You may well ask a dealer for his opinion on an item you have purchased, and he may well say, “yes, it looks fine to me” but that opinion will very likely be based only on his idea of the signature at the time, and is based only on the signature examples he has stored in his own memory, or a few similar signatures he may well have in stock himself, and of course the quick glance he will have given your item free of charge. But how good is his memory, and indeed, how good is his stock? And if you are getting the 'opinion' free of charge, then how much should you really rely on it?

So lets be clear on this, an "opinion" is not an authentication. Authenticating an autograph means much more than just taking a brief look at it and then saying what you think. Authentication is studying the signature and making numerous comparisons with known authentic examples from the same period. Once done, you would be able to put down on paper a full explanation of why the example given is either real or fake in such a manner as to be able to convince others that what what you have said is correct. 

I have read many blogs and articles on forums that suggest that it is not possible for anyone to tell real from fake, and why many so called "experts" cannot be experts because they have never been to college or have any kind of formal training. But an expert in any field is deemed an expert if he or she has gained sufficient expertise and knowledge through their own experience, knowledge or occupation, and has been accepted as such by a judge.  

Authenticating an autograph is not quite as simple as making a few quick comparisons with others you might find on the internet. Any and all Comparisons should always be made on a like for like basis, i.e. same period (signatures from the same time, and not 20 years apart), same signature style (signature on a cheque compared with the same) etc, and it should always be done letter for letter, word for word, line for line etc, but most importantly, all comparisons must be made with known authentic examples, and finding those can often be the hardest part!

Rather than go into all the detail and cover all the bases, I have kept this guide as simple as possible, but this should be enough for you to grasp the basics of proving a signature to be real or fake.

People can often be heard to give opinions on autographs, but keep in mind that that is normally all they ever are, an opinion based on a first look, and quickly compared to one or two other examples, which are often only in their head! This is not the way to do it! and can sometimes produce and answers that is way off the mark, and could result in a bad buy or even worse! As someone once said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing! and i have seen many people with only a little knowledge make a statement that could lose you a stack of money.

The whole idea behind authentication is to prove, 'beyond reasonable doubt’  that a signature is authentic or not. Once done, you would have the proof to show others that it is in fact authentic and not a forgery (or the other way around). In a court of law, you would need to show this proof as evidence to a judge and jury, and they would then have to be able to both understand it, and see how it shows the signature to be either real of fake, before they decide themsleves ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that it is one or the other. Simply giving them an opinion based on your first thoughts, and comparisons made with those stored in your own memory banks would simply not suffice, would not be acceptable in court, and should not be acceptable within your collection either.

This article assumes that you have some knowledge of autographs, and also assumes that you have already done the required basic checks to ensure that the autograph is in ink on the correct paper etc, and has not been printed in some way or created by autopen or machine. I have written other articles to help you in this area and these will be added later.

But before we start, here is one very vital piece of information. Before buying any autograph, or making any start on authentication, always base your examination on the assumption that the autograph is a fake. That may sound a little odd to some, and is not easy to get your head around, but if you start from that viewpoint, and allow the autograph to prove to you that its real (if indeed it can) then you won’t go far wrong, and will certainly buy a lot less fake autographs! And remember, its the autograph that needs to prove its authenticity, not the story that may have come with it, or the person who is keen to sell it to you, as he has a good reason to sell it.....he wants your money!

Think of the autograph as a criminal that is guilty until proven innocent, rather than innocent until proven guilty! If the signature is authentic, then it will almost always become obvious after the correct checks. If it does not come through with flying colours, and you have any doubts, then simply do not buy it "if in doubt, then don't" should always be your mantra when buying. 

When checking the authenticity of a signature, there are many things a qualified expert will be looking at. Here I have listed only some, or what I call the six S’s and these are the things that you should be looking at very carefully before making any decision on authenticity.

These six things combined, can prove a signature to be real or fake, so it is these that you should concentrate on whenever trying to authenticate any autograph.

First of course you need to be sure that what you have is indeed a signature, and not something that has been printed, as these are far more common than you might think. Most printed signatures are easy to spot with the simple use of a magnifying glass. I have a number of different ones i use including a 3D microscope and an elecronic version connected to the computer which will show very high resolution images, but all the collector really needs is something about 8x magnification and of a sensible size.

First, using the magnifying glass, study various types of known printed signatures  etc under the glass. You will see that they will be made up of small dots, varying colours or ink droplets, very small particles of colour, or solid colour with no visible overlaps in the writing. All of this will become far more easily understood after you have studied some genuine writing that has been copied using scanners etc, and printed using inkjet, laser and litho printing etc.

When you compare what you see with your own handwriting using ball point, fountain pen, marker or pencil, you will then clearly see what you are looking for in a printed signature. But never let your confidence overtake you! Printers and in particular the forgers, will always try and improve on what they are doing, and i have seen many examples of printed signatures that are not as easy to spot under magnification as you may think. But just when you think you have mastered that art of spotting inkjet printed signatures, some smart ass forger will move the goalposts, improve on his 'technique' use a new printer and produce something that no longer resembles what you expect to see!

In addtion to sorting out the printed signatures, we need to look for the obvous signes of fakery, and i will be adding a seperate article on this in the near future, but always look out for the obvious! These obvious things are sometimes so obvious that people simply don't look for them. Two examples are the signed postcard with a good enough forgery on the front to fool many, but the copyright date on the reverse proving the postcard to be printed after the person who had supposedly signed it had died!

Another one that i spotted one day in someones collection was a signed Buddy Holly CD, and i will leave you to work that one out, but if you can't then i suggest you give up collecting autographs right now! 

1. Style.  This is the overall writing style that someone uses, and which generally remains the same throughout their life. Once you have learned to write your signature at an early age, it won’t change a great deal, it simply goes through subtle changes through your life. Of course you might lose an arm and have to learn again using your other arm, but that is another matter! And of course, as you get older you will write more slowly and perhaps even with a tremor, but all of that can be taken into consideration if you do your authentication correctly. Keep in mind too that when you sign your name, it is completely automatic and normally done with great speed. You will have no need to think about it, it just happens when you need it, try it with your eyes closed and you will see what I mean.

Everyone has a unique style to their signature, some large, some small, some boring, some very artistic. Some have a tendency to sign almost everything at an angle, in one corner, or perhaps with an added doodle or kiss, and all of these need to be looked at and considered. But always remember to the old saying Never say never! How many times have heard that so and so never signs that photo? or that they won't sign books? or that they always sign in a dark area? Well there are ways around anything, and their will always be exceptions to the rule, so never say never!

Each persons style of signature can vary, and there are cases where a celebrity will use different variations of their signature when they are signing say a cheque, to when they are out and about on the town signing for collectors. This is often down to speed and simplicity etc, but by careful analysis of these signatures you should normally be able to see the almost exact same features in each example.

There are of course some people who will deliberately sign in a way that perhaps prevents the collector from possibly selling it. They may use the wrong hand or sign with a flourish that is not there name at all, but a swear word or even someone else’s name! but this is rare, and if you come across this it you will probably be wasting your time trying to prove it one way or another!

2. Shape. Consider and compare the shapes of the letters. Some of us can draw a perfect circle, others cannot, and this is what you should be looking for within a siignature, the shapes of each individual letter, and comparing them with the same lettters in any suspect signature. If and when you try the comparisons via photoshop or print outs, that is when the differing shapes can really be seen.  

3. Size. The proportions of a person’s signature will not normally change very much, although people tend to sign larger if given a larger piece to sign, however, so although the size may change the proportions rarely do. So if you have two signatures from the same person, but one is much larger than the other, by scanning them both into Photoshop, and then making them the same size, they will look the same, and in some cases I have seen, it is  almost uncanny as to how close they both are!

Using Photoshop is also a very quick and easy way to check a signature for authenticity. It’s not foolproof but you will be amazed at just how similar two signatures can look (one real - one fake) until you put them one on top of the other. Within Photoshop it’s easy to do if you know how, if not simply make the signatures the same size and then print them out on to paper, put them one on top of the other and hold them up to the light. You will then see that although they may look the same on their own, once compared in this manner the differences will become very apparent.

The opposite applies if you compare two authentic signatures. You may well find they look a little different, perhaps signed at different times, but scan the two into photoshop, make them the same size, overlap them and hey presto, you might be amazed at what you see!

4. Speed.  (and we should be looking at pressure here too but that does not start with an S!) A signature is normally created in one quick and simple flourish, so the forger must try and recreate this, which he will find very hard to do, even with practice, as he will be copying the signature, and not doing it purely from memory as you would.

When we write our own signature, we do it completely subconsciously, it is just a simple message from the brain to the hand wrist and arm, and hey presto, a signature. The forger is trying to recreate this automatic movement, and it is simply impossible. If you carefully watch anyone sign their name, you will see that it’s not just a hand movement; the arm, wrist and fingers will also be moving in all directions. This causes the pen to move up and across the paper as well as varying the pressure down onto the paper as well.

The varying pressure used to press the pen onto the paper, is something that is impossible for the forger to recreate. It is hard enough as it is to recreate the strokes, let alone the varying pressure and speed as well. So if we look for all these varying characteristics, it becomes much easier to spot the fakes.

5. Slant. Again, each of us has a certain slant to our characters which will normally remain the same. Left handed writers for instance tend to have a slant to the left (but not always), and this is something that is very hard to reproduce if you are right handed (try it and you will see what I mean.) You will sometimes see a slant that increases as the signature or writing progresses across the page.

6. Spacing.  The spacing of each letter and each word or line does not vary each time someone writes, but again tends to remain consistent throughout the writing, but the forger will again find this very hard to recreate, and will almost always get it wrong.

Remember that all of these things will be consistent within the forger’s hand writing as well, so his own slant and spacing etc will always tend to creep into anything he tries to fake.

One thing I always make a point of telling anyone who asks is that it is often the very small things that can give a fake away. A forger may well make a good job of recreating a signature, but he will rarely get those small tell tale things right that are peculiar to some signatures or signers. The way the i is dotted or the t is crossed, perhaps the way a signer starts the signature, does he do it opposite of what you might expect? How are those lower case o’s and a’s joined together, at the top or the bottom? These are the areas that can often tell you straight away that a signature is fake. 

When comparing signatures, if you have several authentic signatures from the same person, and compare them to several signatures of the same name from a forger, you can normally instantly see the fakes straight away. But of course, when buying a signature, you don’t often have that opportunity.

Multi signed football shirts for instance can often be spotted simply by the fact that the signatures are all of a similar size, similar slant, similar letter spacing, and may look as though they were all done by the same person; possibly because they were! Try getting someone to write the signature 4 times, and then ask someone else to fake it 4 times and you will see what i mean.

There are other things we might look at too when doing an expert witness report, such as pen type. i.e. Was the pen or ink used available at that time? You may have read the report I did on a case, where the forger had signed an early photo of Laurel and Hardy in felt tip pen! 

If you can keep all of the above in mind when looking to buy any autograph, then you will probably buy a lot less fakes, and you will be learning in the process, but remember that no two signatures from the same person will ever be exactly the same! If they are then they are most probably an Autopen. See my Autopen guide for more on this.

There are many books available on autographs, some very poor, others invaluable. Ones which I recommend you locate and buy include the following. All the best ones with the exception of the ‘Sanders Price Guides’ are out of print, so you will need to search used bookshops or ebay etc.

Any book by Ray Rawlins. Ray was a keen collector and his books were sold under various names in the UK and USA. I sometimes have his main book is stock for purchase.

The Sanders Price Guides. The bible for any autograph dealer, and available from Amazon etc. Even the old ones are worth having as they have many autograph exemplars within them.

Movie Star Autographs of the Golden Era. By Susan and Steven Raab. Again out of print for years, but worth searching out.

Christensen’s Celebrity Autographs. Another out of print book, but contains thousands of signatures from many different genres.

A Study of Elvis Presley's Autograph. by Al Wittnebert. An essential guide for any Elvis collector. This can be purchased directly from Uncle Al himself by doing a Google search for Uncle Al's Time Capsule. (If ebay allowed links here, there would be one!)

Neil Armstrong, The Quest for his Autograph. By Anthony Pizzitola. The best guide you will find for Neil Armstrong signatures. Published by the UACC and available from Amazon or the UACC website.

Operation Bullpen.  By Kevin Nelson. A must read for any dealer or collector as it outlines the truth about fakes and the network of forgers in the USA that were bought down by the FBI some years ago. There are still many large forgery operations openly operating in the USA, although it must be only a matter of time before they are closed down, but in the meantime they continue to take  a stack of money. The book is available from Amazon or directly from Kevin on his website. 

There are also a number specifically written on authentication. You will not find these in your local bookshop and are not an easy read, but then they are aimed at those who are taking authentication very seriously. 

Many thanks for taking the time to read this article. I have spent many an hour putting these together to make sure that they are both useful and accurate, so i would be obliged if you could spare a few seconds to simply click the thumbs up at the top or bottom of the page which helps to put this information in front of other collectors.

 
My sincere thanks.
This article copyright Autografica Ltd and Garry King 2013
 
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