Guideline to detecting forgeries, autopens and printed autographs

Unless you have obtained a signature yourself from the person concerned you can’t be a 100% sure that a signature is genuine or not.  Note that these are only a guide, and not hard and fast rules.  It takes a combination of a good eye, background knowledge and years of experience to be able to tell real from fake.  This guide is not meant to be a way of becoming an instant expert.  If there is any doubt, please consult someone who knows and is at least a registered dealer or authenticator from UACC, IADA-CC or any of the other established autograph bodies.

What I hope to do is give some guidance on how to reassure yourself that the signature you are buying is the real thing.

EBay can give you some bargains but there is some risk involved.  For example if you see a very accurately described signed JFK picture and it is listed at a starting price of 99 cents, look twice, as a dealer would have a more accurate starting price of around $4,000.00.  Remember if it seems too good to be true – It’s probably isn’t’.  Joining a collectors club is also a useful way of staying on top of current forgeries and dodgy dealers.  The two clubs I use as a collector are;

Universal Autograph Collectors Club contains a list of dealers, authenticators and updates of unscrupulous dealers.

International Autograph Dealer Alliance and Collector Club ( has a member’s area that contains exemplars.

  • 1. Research on the person

When were they born and died is important as it will determine if the writing implement and medium signed was correct.  For example if you are looking at a signed edition of Islands in the Stream, it has Ernest Hemingway’s signature on the inside front page.  The book is published in 1970, Ernest Hemingway died in 1961.  The book is correct as it was published posthumously but the signature is not.  There are exceptions when limited additions are published and the books have a slip page inserted with the signature on it.  Usually they have more than the required slip pages signed just in case of binding problems, theses can then be inserted into other limited editions.  These editions are always described in the correct way.

Did the person sign numerous items?  Movie and TV personalities tend to sign pictures in bulk lots; it is common for the studio to use pre-printed or autopen machines to sign items (detection of these is covered in point 4).

  • 2. Research on the signature

When you have a proven signature, scan or photocopy it for future reference and comparison.  Spotting forgeries is the difficult part but is the most important part on every serious autograph collection.  Remember to look at the date of the signature as they may have changed over the years.

All signatures have a character to them; forward or backward leaning or other style unique to the individual concerned.  People’s signatures also tend to be of similar size each time, depending on what they are signing.  Signatures can differ for the same person and can be better if obtained in a relaxed atmosphere rather than on a more hectic environment like walking down pit lane or just after a football game.

One way to compare a signature is to turn it upside down.  Turning it upside down helps your brain to identify the tell-tale signs and slight differences between the reference signature and the one you want to compare it with.

A signature in pen & ink applied many years ago has had plenty of time to dry.  If an autograph applied in fountain pen, supposedly long ago, now smudges with the lightest encouragement of a damp cotton bud, then it probably isn’t genuine.  Signatures in pen and ink will also show some fading.  Depending on the age of the signature the quality of the pigments are not as clear.  Handy tools to use include a good magnifying glass and a portable digital microscope.

  1. What writing implement was used?

When looking at an autograph you will need to know what type of pen was used. This will help with ensuring a accurate dating of the signature.  For example if you are looking at a signature of Guglielmo Marconi born 1874 to 1937; it is signed with a ballpoint pen.  The problem is the ball point pen wasn’t commonly used until the late 1940’s after his death.

Here is a potted history of writing implements.

600-1800 AD:  The Europeans found that writing on parchment with a quill pen altered the style of their writing. At first they used capital letters, but later they developed faster styles with small letters. Quill Pens (firstly appeared in Seville, Spain) were the writing instrument from 600 to 1800 AD.

1560’s:  Some time prior to about 1560, graphite was discovered near Borrowdale, England.  The usefulness of graphite as a marking substance was quickly realised.  Though the exact date is not known for certain, the year 1565 marks the first record of a pencil consisting of a piece of graphite inserted into a wood shaft, making the first ancestor of today’s pencil.  The pencil has been used by a lot of signer’s modern day and earlier.  Erwin Rommel nearly always signed documents with a wax (grease) pencil.

1800-1850:  A metal pen point has been patented in 1803 but patent was not commercially exploited. Steel nibs came into common use in the 1830s.  By the 19th century metal nibs had replaced quill pens.  By 1850 quill pen usage was fading and the quality of the steel nibs had been improved by tipping them with hard alloys of Iridium, Rhodium and Osmium.

1884:  Lewis Edson Waterman, insurance broker invented the first proper fountain pen.

1888-1916:  The principle of the ball point pen actually dates from the late 19th Century when patents were taken out by John Loud in 1888 for a product to mark leather and in 1916 by Van Vechten Riesberg.  However neither of these Patents was exploited commercially.

1940’s:  The modern version of ball point pen was invented by Josef Lazlo and Georg Biro.  In 1943 the first commercial models were made.  The rights to Lazlo’s patent were bought by the British Government.  The ball point pen is more rugged than the fountain pen which may be why sales rocketed during World War II when the Military needed robust writing implements to survive the battlefield environment.  The ball point pen was introduced to the U.S. market in 1945.

1953:  First inexpensive ball point pens were available when the French Baron, Bich, developed the industrial process for manufacturing ball point pens that lowered the unit cost dramatically (BIC, Co.)

1960’s:  The felt-tipped pen was invented.  Following their initial success with felt-tips, manufacturers branched out with a variety of fibre-tipped instruments, including newly popular highlighters.

1980’s 1990’s:  Improvement of the ball point pen.  The introduction of the roller ball pen has been made in the early 1980’s. Unlike the thick ink used in a conventional ball point, roller ball pens employ a mobile ball and liquid ink to produce a smoother line.  Technological advances achieved during the late 1980s and early 1990s have greatly improved the roller ball’s overall performance.

Wikipedia has good information on the history of writing implements.

  • 4. Stamped and Autopen signatures

Stamps and autopens are used when personalities have high volume requests from fans.  Others that use stamps and autopens are Presidents and other dignitaries.  The Autopen is a machine which signs an autograph in the celebrity’s handwriting.  It was developed in the early part of this century but only became popular in the late 1940’s.

Ways to detect a stamp;

ü  Gently run you finger of the signature you should feel a difference between the media and the ink.

ü Take out you magnifying glass and look at the ink.  A nib will leave highs and lows as well as shallows in the centre.  Ballpoint pen runs over the surface leaving an even cover which does not fill in the natural lows of the media.  A stamp leaves an even coverage that fills the lows.

Ways to detect an autopen

ü  Hold the item up to the light and look if the signature has perfectly even ink flow throughout

ü  Look if the signature had an even ink flow at the beginning and end of the signature (i.e. no lift-off effect with pen)

ü  Look for odd squiggly lines that are un-natural

ü  Try to match with other autopen signatures of same person

ü  A shaky signature, which indicates movement while the machine is in operation

ü  A light signature, especially one that does not have variation in pressure as seen by an indentation in the paper when viewed in the proper light

ü  Abrupt pen stops heavy ink deposit at the start and end of the signature

ü  A ‘drawn’ look to the signature

Printed signatures are similar to stamped signatures, they have an even ink distribution and fill the highs and lows of the medium.  Holding the item to the light you should see a difference in the effect between the printed material and the signature, if it is uniform then it is printed.  You can use you magnifying glass to see if the lines are continues.  If the lines look broken or are made up from dots then it’s most likely a print.

  • 5. Forged or secretarial signatures

It has been common practice for sectaries to sign documents.  Some presidents, Generals and personalities allow their secretary’s to sign unimportant documents such as pictures or letters of reply.  There are also those out there who try to deceive by copying the signatures and selling them onto the unsuspecting buyer.  All signatures have a character to them; forward or backward leaning or other style unique to the individual concerned.  People’s signatures also tend to be of similar size each time, depending on what they are signing.  Look for the little nuances each person has, look for how letters are crossed e.g. T and F or the way letters are dotted.

When a person copies a signature they lack the quick style of the person they are copying.  The beginning of the signature will have a heavy deposit of ink as they prepare to copy the signature.  Loops of letters will be heavy and sometimes shaky.

  1. 6.What is it written on?

We have already mentioned about the medium on which an autograph is written on.  This can have a bearing on its authenticity.  Using the example previously of a signature of Guglielmo Marconi born 1874 to 1937; it is signed with a ballpoint pen and the signature is on a gloss colour picture it would also send up a warning flag.

History of photography

The first photographs of people were taken about 1845.  They measured about 2×4 inch and were used in place ‘calling cards’.  They remained popular until about 1965 when they replaced by a larger type of photograph meant for keeping in albums which in turn were kept cabinets.

They were then called ‘cabinet photographs’.  Generally about 4×6 inches, they could on occasion be much larger, with various names such as Imperial Cabinet.  Both the calling cards and cabinet photographs had the actual photo mounted on a heavier board, usually with the photographer’s imprint either on the bottom front or the back.  The cabinet photograph remained in vogue until about the turn of the 20th century when it was replaced by photographs with sizes pretty much as we know them now, ranging from postcard size to 8×10 inches, occasionally larger.

The 11×14 inch photo didn’t become popular until about 1920, and seldom seems to have been used except by movie stars. The earlier 8×10 photographs tended to be sepia in tone (brownish) or black/white, about 50/50.  Sepia started to be phased out the 1920’s and was eventually virtually replaced by the black/white altogether, which of course, was supplemented by colour about 1950.  Beware the signed photograph that is out of this dating context.  For example, you are not likely to see a genuine signed cabinet photograph of anyone who died before 1965.

History of postcards

Cards with messages had been sporadically created and posted by individuals since the creation of postal services. The earliest known picture postcard was a hand-painted design on card, posted in London to the writer Theodore Hook in 1840 bearing a penny black stamp.  He probably created and posted the card to himself as a practical joke on the postal service, since the image is a caricature of workers in the post office.

In the United States, a picture or blank card stock that held a message and sent through the mail at letter rate first began when a card postmarked in December of 1848 contained printed advertising on it.  The first commercially produced card was created in 1861 by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, who patented a postal card, selling the rights to Hymen Lipman, whose postcards, complete with a decorated border, were labeled ‘Lipman’s postal card’. These cards had no images.

In Britain postcards without images were issued by Post Office, and were printed with a stamp as part of the design, which was included in the price of purchase.  The first known printed picture postcard, with an image on one side, was created in France in 1870 at Camp Conlie by Léon Besnardeau (1829–1914).  Conlie was a training camp for soldiers in the Franco-Prussian war. They had a lithographed design printed on them containing emblematic images of piles of armaments on either side of a scroll topped by the arms of the Duchy of Brittany and the inscription ‘War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany’.  While these are certainly the first known picture postcards, there was no space for stamps and no evidence that they were ever posted without envelopes. (