Is Your Signature Genuine?

by Craig Stark

#10, 19 January 2004

First, because we're being conservative about this, let's look at the possibilities that what you have isn't real. Your signature could be:

Printed. Printed signatures are usually, readily identified with a naked eye inspection, but a magnifying glass will almost always confirm them. Usually there will be no sheen or reflective quality nor any indentations (or debossing), but be careful to compare what you're looking at to other printing examples in the book. Some presses do produce indenting and/or deposit ink in quantities which mimic the reflective quality of a signature. Also, some signatures are necessarily light - that is, indentations aren't always visible - and some inks have little sheen. NOTE: if the signature is done in ink and appears on a glossy surface, it will usually have a purplish tint when viewed in light which is angled acutely at the surface.

Stamped. Stamped signatures are also, for the most part, readily identified. Since it's very difficult to apply ink uniformly to rubber stamps, the resulting signatures will often display uneven ink distribution in the form of pooling, bleeding or ghosting (areas where ink is deposited incompletely or not at all). Smudging may also occur if the stamp is dragged. Brush stroking, which is usually visible on genuine signatures, will not be present.

Autopen signed. Discussed in detail in previous article.

Secretary signed. Sometimes called a secretarial. Here's where things get dicey. Historically, many secretaries signed in lieu of the boss. Some practiced for years, became highly skilled. Distinguishing a secretarial from the real thing might be impossible. Publications cited in the previous article may be helpful in providing side-by-side examples, also in identifying celebrities known to have used this system. Still, a few useful observations may be made. If the secretary was a female and the celebrity a male, it may be possible to detect a feminine quality in a secretarial - for example, the signature may be more rounded or "loopy." It may also appear to have been accomplished carefully, with less flourish. Finally, if both a signature and an inscription are present, the two may display differences. For example, a secretary who is adept at replicating a signature might be significantly less so at replicating other words. Also, anticipate this situation: a signature may be stamped, then inscribed by the secretary. In most cases, differences should be apparent.

Forged. Things are equally dicey here. Some forgers are damn good. Good enough to fool experts. The only thing you can do is accept the possibility. If the forger isn't especially good, however, there may be telltale signs that even rank amateurs can spot. Compare your signature to those known to be genuine. Type in your celebrity's name at Google, and chances are numerous samples will come up. Previously cited publications may also be useful. Compare carefully. If you have more than one genuine sample at hand, look for patterns among them. For example, if one letter is of a consistent size and appearance throughout all samples and yours isn't, be suspicious. Signatures that appear to have been executed with deliberation, perhaps pausing at some point (in the process of tracing?), are also suspect. So-called anachronisms may be revealing. Think here in terms of celebrities whose deaths preceded the invention of, say, the Sharpie. Abraham Lincoln, were he alive, would affirm that he never used one.

An interesting aside. Speaking of Lincoln, one of the most renowned forgers who ever put pen to parchment was Joseph Cosey. During the early part of the 20th century Cosey forged untold numbers of historical documents, some "signed" by the founding fathers, some by our 16th president. A genius at replicating handwriting styles, Cosey also used vintage paper, writing instruments, and a specific brand of brown ink that was in common use during the 18th century. It was a combination that couldn't be beat. Consequently, many of his forgeries are believed to still be in circulation, undetected. The figure below shows a comparison of one of his less successful forged signatures (top) with the real thing (bottom).

Note how letters in the forged signature follow a straight line; whereas the genuine signature bumpity-bumps upward from start to finish. Oddly enough - or should I say ironically? - documents which have been "authenticated" as Cosey forgeries are collectible in their own right and highly valued.

Flat signed. Obviously, books which have been flat signed (signed only, that is, and not inscribed) may or may not be authentic, but I've included this here because the opportunities for accomplishing good forgeries are necessarily higher in flat signed books, given that less deception needs to be gotten away with. The larger the sample of handwriting, the more likely it is that mistakes will occur.

Bookplate signed. The same concerns noted above for flat signed books apply here but are further compounded by the likely possibility that the book itself never passed through the author's hands.

Now that I've covered the negative junk, let's look at some positive - namely, provenance. The life history of a book. Its pedigree. If you've got it in spades, can document it, you're essentially home free.

Whatever evidence is available to establish that a signed book is authentic should be supplied. Auction records. Bookseller's catalogs. Receipts. Library markings (or press-marks). Bookplates. In a previous article on book signing BookThink writer Timothy Doyle offered some valuable suggestions for establishing provenance at book signings, among them taking a picture of the author as the book is being signed, keeping flyers or promotional items relating to the event, and so on. Obviously, it's not always possible to provide these things, but the more you have, the better you and your seller are going to feel about the transaction.

Even anecdotal evidence helps. If you've purchased a signed book at an estate sale and can dig up information about the previous owner, do so. Get the owner's name at the very least. If possible, inquire about his or her past. If he was a former NASA employee, for example, this would help authenticate a copy of We Seven signed by Alan Shepard. Certainly anybody can make this stuff up, but the effort you put into accumulating any kind of evidence will in most cases not be put forth by a forger and will, in turn, argue persuasively for your credibility.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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