How to Know When an Autograph is Authentic March 26 2021
The most frequently asked question when authenticating historical
autographs is how to tell if an autograph is real? Established and respected autograph dealers are usually taken at their word that their items for sale are genuine, and not without reason. They use their experience and expertise to follow a series of steps to authenticate historical documents accurately, to reassure both themselves and their customers that the autograph is a genuine one. Their reputation is on the line, and their business and making a living out of it also is.
Authenticity is a valid worry for autograph collectors, however, and with the rise of online dealers and auction houses on the internet, it is more of a concern than ever. Learning how to look for facts and enough evidence to prove authenticity is a useful skill, especially if you can temper this with a healthy dose of skepticism about what you are looking at, and what you are told about if. If you can learn some crucial tell-tale signs that an autograph is not all that it seems, you will have a successful and enjoyable hobby - or even business - as a collector.
Experts like us use a combination of fundamental points to authenticate autographs, and even a new collector can apply this set of rules to help themselves make sure they are not being sold an expensive fake. Finding trusted dealers is a must, but these are useful skills to have when visiting markets or online sites where you might not have a trusted source of authentication.
A brief history of autographs
The oldest autograph is no doubt the first time someone put the symbol that was the name they were known by to others down as some kind of permanent mark. The oldest accepted autograph, however, is that of a Sumerian scribe, Gar Ama, who signed a clay tablet a little over 5000 years ago. For a major, well-known historical figure, the first in existence is one belonging to El Cid, dating from the late 11th century.
Displaying signed texts is nothing new, either. The Athenians proudly displayed original manuscripts of various documents in their temples. You could even consider Aristotle to be the first autograph collector, since he collected manuscripts and maps, and made a library out of them. They were even considered to have a value, as they were mentioned in his will, and left to Theophrastus, his follower and successor. Another early famous autograph collector was Pliny the Elder, famed historian of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79. His collection was left to his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who wrote up the account, noting that the last books Pliny the Elder was looking at before he died were his treasured manuscript albums.
In terms of autograph albums proper, the earliest known example dates from 1466, with the first "album amicorum", or book of friends, dating from the early 16th century. Although more of a social-climber's delight to show off about who you knew than an autograph album proper, it increasingly became popular to have noted figures of the day put down a few words for posterity. Some of these contain the only known autographs of major scholars and artists.
Collecting for collecting's sake - and not just for autographs - really took off in the 18th century, particularly in England. Being the Age of Enlightenment, the focus was firmly on preserving documents written by great minds and notables for future generations to see. There was also a growing appreciation of the potential financial value of these pieces, leading to the publication of the first book on autographs in 1789 - John Thane's "British Autography". This was a collection of facsimiles, and even then, useful for determining whether an autograph was genuine!
The oldest royal autograph known to exist in England was also donated to the British Museum at this time - a cross, rather than a signature, made by King William Rufus in the late 11th century, giving land to the church of Rochester, Kent.
Autograph Authentication: 11 Fundamental Rules on How to Spot Fake Autographs
Like most skills, the basics can be acquired very quickly and then worked on to improve your knowledge and accuracy in a variety of autograph-checking situations. Some projects will always be more of a challenge than others, the more you research, the more you get the skills needed to avoid being fooled. You may feel that you need the help of experts, and if one is not available, you need to know to walk away altogether rather than make an expensive mistake. Although reading this article won't make you an expert, it will give you a run-down of the fundamental tips that experts take to authenticate genuine autographs, and help you decide whether to take further actions towards having memorabilia authenticated when you are interested in buying an historical document.
1 - Prove It
This is your step 1: A lot of collectors will start from a viewpoint that the autograph they are looking at is the genuine article, and only do any further research or investigation if they have any reason to be suspicious that it is not. However, this is the wrong way around. Starting from the position that the autograph must be a fake, and that you must prove otherwise is the right starting point. This will help you to ignore pushy sales pitches and determined sellers, all of whom will have an interest in making you part with your money. Proving that the autograph in question is genuine rather than the other way around will help you tune out the noise and make your own decisions.
2 - Where did it come from?
Proving where your autograph came from is the next step, and
probably the most important factor in deciding whether your autograph is authentic or not. The best provenance is always an in-person signing, which means, you obtained the autograph yourself and saw it being signed. This obviously does not work for historical autographs and documents. But great, valid documentation proving the line of ownership from the original source all the way to you is a heavy factor in authentication.
If you are working with a reliable and trusted dealer with a good authentication service, they will often have a history of ownership which traces directly back to the origins of the document. This will make you feel more comfortable about the authenticity of the autograph. There may even be receipts or sales invoices from previous transactions, which can be almost as fascinating as the memorabilia itself! Previous ownership by famous collections or collectors is also a reassuring indication that an autograph is the genuine article. This suggests an established history of provenance, with perhaps several generations of experts looking at the history anew and remaining satisfied as to its veracity.
Problem is that, more often than not, dealers cannot reveal too much on provenance of collectibles due to current situation regarding privacy protection of the original seller and, even worse, the fear that potential buyers of an autograph piece will contact the previous owner and try to get more items or more information, the original cost paid, and other things. Revealing sources many times ends the connection between that source and the dealer and provides a direct bridge between someone who simply asked about provenance and did not even buy anything. This is why your provenance is a dealer and if the dealer is honest and very good, you have great provenance, no need to dig deeper into the past.
Unfortunately, you won't always have the reassurance of a trusted dealer or collector when undertaking autograph authentication. Even forgeries often arrive complete with an official-looking letter claiming authenticity, citing fake collections and ownership. This is when you need to have additional rules and checks in place to make sure the autograph is genuine. Those letters can often be well-meaning, and considered to be quite genuine by the seller, but bear in mind that many big stars would leave their management team and personal assistants to do a lot of photograph signing on their behalf, and just because a photograph comes with a letter or compliment slip supposedly verifying authenticity, it is essential to make comparisons with existing verified versions held in prominent collections.
Sometimes, the material in question can be more than a signature; the sheer quantity of text in a handwritten letter or a more personalized message in a book or program makes it far more likely to be a genuine example of someone's hand.
Please remember that the seller of an autograph is always going to tell you it is authentic and valuable, the point is whether you are good enough to have your own say or you need to trust the seller. Also important to note is that autograph collecting - like with all other hobbies - is just not for everyone. We had customers not asking but demanding so much proof of authenticity (such as contact information of the original source or previous owners of the autograph, and contact information of the signer, a study of the signature with comparisons, pictures or video of the moment when the autograph was created, just to name a few things), people who will most probably end not buying even if more proof is provided. If you need tons of reassurances to buy or sleep in peace while you own something, then you probably need to move to another hobby.
3 - Check against verified examples
For most autographs you might be interested in buying, there will be published copies of the genuine signature. These will either be on high authority websites - such as those belonging to major auction houses or to museums - or in published print material such as biographies and periodicals, which may contain photographs of personal signed material.
Some of the most useful reference sources available to you when verifying authenticity might not be autograph resources at all. A bit of creative thinking will find you a wealth of genuine autographs to help you make valid comparisons.
Passports of people, official documents, and other examples could be a great reference source. The more text you have, the easier it gets to spot a fake, finding longer letters that are more difficult to fake due to the larger amount of content could be a good alternative.
Comparing handwritten text in collectibles is a complex task that is beyond the scope of this article, but basically you need to train and develop your eye to see unique ways to write each character, what is unique and different and is always there, and what isn´t, the slant or inclination, especial markings of signs, speed, if there was a firm and secure hand or there is any shakiness, and more. See more about this in point 5.
4 - What is it written on, and what is it written with?
How paper is manufactured - and, more importantly, what with - has changed a great deal over the years, and that's before we even get into various sizes of paper. For example, if you are looking at autographs or documents that claim to be around 250 years old or thereabouts, the paper is unlikely to be smaller than around 8 x 10 inches, and more commonly 9 x 12 inches, or even 9 x 14 inches. Commonly, that was also the size of the folded document, meaning the sheet itself was actually double that size. By the beginning of the 19th century, the fashion for very large paper was fading, and notepaper sized sheets closer to those we might recognise today gained popularity by the middle of the century. By 1900, stationery was available in the most common sizes that are used today.
In terms of paper types and quality, parchment was always reserved for official documents and religious manuscripts. It is relatively straightforward to date paper reasonably accurately as follows:
Papers made from the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century were what is known as 'laid'. This means that they were laid on a rack to dry, and if you hold them up to the light you can see the parallel grid lines from the drying rack. Rack marks vary in their own right, so it is possible to date paper quite accurately, and even identify it by location.
By the end of the 18th century, woven paper began to replace laid paper, and this became the paper of choice by the end of the first decade of the 19th century.
Embossed manufacturer identification marks became a feature from around 1840, and these persist to the end of the century. These are usually at the upper left hand corner of a sheet of paper, and can also identify stationers as well as paper manufacturers.
Watermarks are a feature from paper from the Middle Ages to the present day, on better qualities of paper, but most commonly in very high-quality products. A lot of watermarks are particularly useful in accurately dating a signature, as they contain the date of manufacture, or other identifying features which are of their time and therefore just as useful in putting a date on the item. Reference works on watermarks are a useful starting point if you are using the age of the paper as a means of authenticating an autograph.
Envelopes are also a very handy dating tool. Prior to the 1840s or so, paper would be folded up and sealed with wax - often with an identifiable coat of arms or the sender's initials - and addressed on the back. Letters you believe to be older than 'envelope age' should have a folding pattern which is consistent with this, and have an address on the back. If a letter is unfolded, make sure there is a plausible explanation for this, such as having been sent in a large mailer with other documents.
Pens are also interesting and useful when it comes to dating and authenticating a signature.
Quill pens are probably the most ancient writing implement and can first be found in around the 8th century. They were so effective that they remained the dominant pen choice for around a thousand years. Quills were taken from the outer left wing feathers of large birds - the curvature of these suited the more numerous dominant right-handed writers, although presumably left-handed writers sought after feathers from a bird's right wing, just as left-handed people seek out other items tailored to their dominant hand today. Feathers were most commonly taken from geese, although swan feathers were the most sought after, and the most expensive.
Different feathers were suitable for different tasks. If a writer wanted to make a particularly fine line, crow feathers would be their tool of choice. Some feathers had a particularly special property, however; owl, hawk, turkey and eagle feathers all possess a natural ink reserve in their hollow channel, but like all quill feathers, need replacing frequently - usually about once a week - as they wear out very quickly.
Metal nibs finally took over from feathers in the 1840s, and these lasted longer. Although the nibs would still need replacing from time to time, they gave a far smoother writing result than a feather. They still didn't have an ink reserve, so constant dipping in was still necessary. The fountain pen - with a reservoir - was invented just over forty years later, in the 1880s, by Waterman in France, remaining popular for over half a century.
Ballpoint pens are also a very useful dating tool when it comes to writing implements. If the quality isn't great, it's likely to be from early in their development, and from around 1945 when the pens were first introduced. Better quality penmanship with a ballpoint is apparent from 1952, not to mention much lower prices and wider availability.
As far as other pens are concerned, felt tip pens - very popular for signing photographs - are found from the early 1960s, with fine-liners and permanent markers found from a decade later. As each pen has such a distinctive line and flow of ink, it's worth your while memorizing a pen timeline to help you determine authenticity based on what has been used to write the autograph.
Ink colors are also helpful. Before the mid 19th century, inks were made with iron and have a brownish color. Some inks on early signatures and handwritten documents have quite literally rusted and have even eaten into the paper they are written on a little. Blue inks start to make an appearance after around 1850, so blue ink on a document before this time is likely to indicate a forgery.
But what of the popular forger's technique of using old paper and new 'old' brown ink? You will still have plenty of clues to aid you in your autograph authentication. Paper has a tendency to shrink or lose its size as it ages, so the cloth strands in older paper will separate causing modern inks to absorb into the paper and blur. If your document has tell-tale blurring, you are most likely looking at a fake.
Of course, you will come across the odd signature or document written in pencil. Although available from the early 1700s onwards, they were not found widely until the early 19th century. Boston, in America, became the hub of pencil manufacture by the middle of the century, with many small pencil making factories operating in the area, making pencils of varying grades.
5 - Are the author's handwriting quirks present?
Good forgers are excellent at their job. After all, there is potentially a lot of money to be made. However, they tend to work on similarities rather than odd quirks, so it is still possible to compare known authentic instances of a signature with newly found examples to help you determine authenticity.
Until relatively recently, children were taught penmanship at school, so many people of a similar age will form their letters in a similar way, especially if they were all learning from the same tuition books. However, individual touches will creep in - the particular slant of an individual letter, how a letter is dotted or crossed, separate strokes/how strikes are separated or breaks in the flow of the ink where letters might usually be joined. These differences might be very small, but they might be the difference between determining whether a signature is genuine or a forgery. These quirks are also consistently present, so you will develop an eye for them from examples in print, or on the websites of trusted sources of authentic autographs.
Rarely, someone can be inconsistent in their consistencies! Again, there will be existing examples which demonstrate this, and will still help you to determine whether your autograph is genuine or not.
Look for clues, such as whether someone's signature slants, or breaks off mid-word to start another letter where it might not usually do so. You will also develop an eye for recognizing the handwriting of various secretaries or personal assistants (the most common 'fake' signatories) so that you can discard their often otherwise excellent efforts.
Another very good way to look for consistency/inconsistency is to turn the autograph upside down. This is a useful trick to make you look at a signature as a pattern rather than you reading it. It can show up two seemingly identical signatures as having notable differences very quickly.
It is almost impossible to fake an inconsistency effectively - there will be something halting in the penmanship, or the angle of the letters might be wrong or otherwise off. Again, don't look for what is the same - look for what is different.
6 - Does it look right?
Sometimes, your instincts are worth listening to. Take a look at your autograph; does it look 'right' to you? Is it natural, and does it flow as you might expect the signature of someone who has signed their name many hundreds of times to do? and very importantly, was it done fast and without thinking?.
Sign your own name a few times and observe the natural flow of your own handwriting. Signatures might be illegible, but they will all have the same characteristics, time after time, and not look carefully formed or otherwise unnatural. Signatures that look as though they have been pondered over and 'drawn' slowly are unlikely to be genuine.
If a signature looks at all shaky, this is also a good indication that it might not be genuine. If reliable provenance would dictate otherwise, check that the person in question didn't have an illness that would suddenly cause their signature to change and be less flowing than other available examples, or whether there is some other reason for them to have given a less than perfect example of their handwriting. Age can also have an effect on the appearance and evolution of a signature, as arthritis can make it difficult to grip a pen firmly.
Looking authentic is not all, it has to look right: we particularly dislike
to purchase, let alone offer online, shaky signatures, even if we know they are authentic but they are shaky due to old age, disease or else. We recommend to stay away from shaky stuff, a shaky signature will force the future owner of the autograph to explain why it is shaky. And for that reason alone, it is always better to stay away from them.
Hints of hesitancy and any breaks in the signature are your next thing to check. Again, sign your own name several times, and observe if and where you have any breaks in your own signature, such as between your first and last names, or even odd quirks of breaks between letters. You will, no doubt, do this in exactly the same place every time, and achieve a level of consistency. Even those that do occasionally introduce inconsistencies into their signature will make these in a consistent way - such as, the angle of their signature will still be the same, and the signature will still have the same kind of flow. Finally, look for flourishes or characteristic penmanship at the end of someone's signature. A forgery will often appear to come to a complete and abrupt stop.
Forgers do it for financial gain, and tend to produce what brings more profits: perfect looking, beautiful and perfectly readable signatures - that is the most valuable and attractive autograph to the eye of a buyer. Uglier, imperfect signatures have higher chances of being authentic. If there is no financial gain or it is very small because the authentic autograph is cheap, then there are also lower chances of finding fakes. People usually fake expensive items.
There are also some eminent forgers, working from the 19th century onwards, and usually specializing in US Presidents. However, although they might be adept at forging the President in question's signature, they are usually less skilled with those of any counter-signatory - in other words, if in doubt here, look at authenticated instances of the autograph of the less famous person.
Perhaps the most notorious 20th century forger is Arthur Sutton. Active during the 1970s, his work is so good and so varied that it can be very difficult to tell his work from the real thing. Ironically, the instances of work by famous forgers that have slipped through the net are rare, and therefore now quite valuable in their own right!
7 - Autopen or Computer?
Autopens were incredibly popular with people who frequently had to put their signature to multiple items. The autopen is a machine using a real pen and ink, which makes an exact replica of an autograph. This is created by a person making a variety of templates with multiple examples of their signature, and their secretary selecting the appropriate template to enter into the machine to sign the letter.
The autopen has been in common use by celebrities and those in authority since the late 1940s, where they would otherwise be spending the entire day signing everything they needed to. Autopens can cause a real problem for authenticating autographs, as the template means that it really is an exact copy of the person's genuine signature. The only thing you can do to be certain is to compare sizes - if they are the same size and virtually identical, you can make a pretty good assumption that these are examples from an autopen. There are books available which give examples of the most commonly found autopen signatures, which you might find useful to look at.
US Presidents are a good example of people who have used autopens to the extent that most documents apart from the most important and personal letters and photographs can be assumed to be made by an autopen.
Autopens can occasionally have other tell-tale indicators. Sometimes, they can be slightly shaky, and can occasionally leave blotches of ink at the beginning and end of signatures where the machine might stop. Autopen examples are also notoriously legible - if examples exist of a scrawled signature, and other similar but more readable versions exist, then they are likely to be the work of an autopen. If you suspect an autopen, look for other indicators, such as extra text in addition to the signature, which would indicate it is a personal signature.
The idea of the autopen isn't limited to the 20th century. In the early 19th century, early autopens would copy out letters as they were written, usually for someone's own personal records. Again, use the indicators you might expect from a machine, and other clues, such as lack of folds or grooves in the paper.
Computers can be even more difficult to identify - mail merge and ink technologies are going to make it increasingly difficult to identify whether a computer has created a signature or whether it is genuine.
8 - Has a secretary signed or stamped it?
Secretary signatures are probably as old as writing itself. Whether they are signing for Kings, Presidents or Prime Ministers, secretaries have long since been the skilled signatories of legal documents, land grants and personal letters, some times so skillfully that it takes a lot of hard work to determine that it's not the real article.
Secretary signatures are as common as autopens, and as with autopens, once a secretary is confident with a signature it will be similar on each occasion they reproduce it. This is useful if you're looking for a particular handwriting quirk, as the secretary will miss this (or introduce one of their own) every time. Secretarial signatures are also neater than the real thing, as they tend to be less hurried.
Stamps have also been around for hundreds of years, with many European monarchs using steel stamps of their own signatures from at least the early 16th century. Kings, and later heads of state would use them to dispense with legal documents quickly, and film stars were particularly fond of them for 'signing' photographs in the early days of the age of cinema.
It's worth noting that such stamps used by film stars are worth looking at carefully. Many had inscriptions added, such as "best wishes", so it's worth looking to see if they have some other personalization, such as referring to someone by name. Some stamps can have quite long inscriptions, so it's worth checking for the personal touch if you're in doubt.
In terms of being able to recognize a stamped signature, there are a few tell-tale signs that you can look out for when assembling clues. Stamped signatures are often in pale inks - blues and purples are popular - and they have none of the 'presence' of a signature made with a pen. They tend to be flat-looking, and somewhat faded. A stamped signature can also contain a lot of air bubbles, as the ink has been set down in a block. Genuine handwriting has life and flow, with no air bubbles and no breaks (unless they're a quirk of someone's particular signature). Handwritten signatures will also appear to be shiny. If you are still unsure (a particularly good stamp can be tricky to identify), then get a magnifying glass and take a good, close look at the signature. There will be instances where ink crosses - such as the letter 't' - where the pen lines intersect. There may also be a slight impression in the paper where the signature has been made. Fake autographs made with a stamp are one of the easiest to identify for yourself with the right tools.
One final clue as to whether a signature is stamped can be seen with a magnifying glass. The clue you are looking for is the distribution of ink. When a signature is stamped, the ink is all applied to the paper at the same time, and therefore gets squeezed to the edges of the raised rubber. A magnifying glass will clearly show you that there is more ink at the edges of the lines than in the middle.
Tamino Autographs has a small but growing collection of ink-stamped signatures of famous personalities, as well as many autopen examples, and other material - these are not collectibles but material we keep away from the website for the purpose of training in a future course on autograph authentication.
9 - Is it just a good copy?
It's not unusual to see copies of famous historical documents for sale in souvenir shops - they're popular and fun decorations for a home study without troubling anyone trying to verify whether they are genuine examples of their kind or not.
Copies of these documents again are nothing new; they were created to commemorate the event or the person in question, and were never intended to persuade anyone that they were the real thing. The problems start when the copies are almost contemporary with the event or person itself, and therefore have a natural age to them. This can fool even a reasonably astute hobby expert, so it's wise to take them to an authentication service if you are in any doubt at all.
Running your thumb over a signature can also give you a good clue as to whether it is an integral part of the image, or whether it has been added later. You should be able to feel the texture of the ink. This, of course, only works for paper items, as fabrics will absorb ink and make it more difficult to tell as there is no raised layer.
Copies fall into many categories, some of which are of very high quality and can be problematic. Some types you are likely to find include:
Printed copies - some famous examples exist, not least ones that are almost the same date as the original. For example, a letter included as an illustration in an old book - and cut out - would have an aged look about it, and probably require at least some of the steps above to eliminate it from your enquiries as an original document. Look for other clues, such as watermarks and dates on the 'letter' not matching up, or accompanying envelopes where the document pre-dates their use. Steel engraved portraits of famous people also exist from this period, usually found in books, and often with signatures below the portrait. However, they are usually unnaturally neat in their positioning, and in black printing ink rather than handwritten. Often, they are embossed, in the manner of a business card, so easily identifiable as not being the genuine article. Copies of inscriptions and greetings from the author occasionally appear in old books too, but again, these are easily identifiable as not being genuine. As with other documents, look for personalized greetings rather than generic inscriptions. Confusing a preprint with a real, live ink autograph is a common mistake.
Photograph copies - this is the process whereby an original (usually a photograph, in this instance) is given a genuine signature, and photographic copies are then made of it. The trouble with the very best quality examples of these is that it's very difficult to tell the difference. Even the magnifying glass test will indicate many of the tell-tale marks of penmanship you might associate with a genuine signature. Thankfully, most are significantly poorer quality than this, and can be relatively easily distinguished from the real thing. Common examples include movie star publicity photos, frequently sent out by film studios from the 1920s to the 1950s. The signatures are usually in white 'ink', but appear flat and neat, so almost certainly written by a secretary. Another common photographic example common to Hollywood shots employs a kind of reverse-embossing. This leaves an indentation of the signature, which is then filled in with blue ink. Again, this is clearly not genuine, and relatively easy to identify. A small amount of alcohol at the end of a cotton swab over the end of the tail will tell you whether this is part of the photograph or not.
Salutations - greetings at the start of letters are an interesting point of discussion. Many famous people who might receive a lot of letters that could be dealt with by a single reply use copies to save a lot of time - and ink. Sometimes, these are even handwritten and copied in their entirety. However, the clue will be a simple "Dear Sir/Madam" or "Dear Friend" at the start, indicating that they are maybe just a little less personal than they appear. Something more individually addressed, or typed with a handwritten addition, is more likely to be genuine.
Form letters - form letters usually have a typed personalization, but the signature appears at first glance to be genuine. These are usually a different color ink to the typewritten body of the message, and require close examination to know whether the autograph is authentic or not. Clues are usually that the letter isn't personalized; it could have been sent to anyone, and there is nothing to indicate that the sender knows the recipient personally. If it's some kind of fundraiser or other campaign letter (particularly if sent by a politician!), the odds of it being a genuine signature fall even further. On the incredibly rare occasion that the signature for these letters is real, they are often worth less than other genuine signatures by the same person. The reason for this is that they are usually impersonal letters, sent to many recipients, and although signed by the famous person are usually written by a professional copywriter or the like.
Sent to more than one person - if the inscription or salutation is to a group rather than to an individual, this is a good sign that it is a copy, as it's more likely that individual copies of the original would have been given to everyone in that group. However, this doesn't mean that there are no genuine examples - quite often, a group's work or contribution will have grabbed the attention of the celebrity sufficiently that they will sign their autograph individually on each copy. As with other dubious examples, if you are in doubt, give it a pass.
Pen marks and the like - as with other copied signatures, look for the air bubbles and lack of crossover pen marks that you will get with stamped signatures. Those air bubbles can appear as flecks in the ink on the printed signature - something that doesn't happen in genuine handwriting.
10 - Special Factors
There are some special factors when it comes to authenticating
autographs that you might find useful in proving something is genuine. These largely have to do with various tastes in different time periods, and can be the final piece of the puzzle in your detective work. These are:
Types and styles of photograph by era
A brief history of photography might be useful as background knowledge here. Although the basic concept of photography has been around since the camera obscura was developed in the 11th century, with images being projected upside down onto another surface, photography as we would recognize it started in the late 1830s in France.
A camera obscura created the first image which didn't fade quickly, exposing a bitumen-coated pewter plate to light. Daguerreotypes and emulsion plates followed, with dry plates appearing in the 1870s, giving photographers the freedom to store photographic plates for use as needed rather than having to prepare them in advance. This also allowed for smaller, hand-held cameras. Indeed, the first Eastman-Kodak self-contained box camera, holding 100 film exposures, made photography available to all from the 1880s.
The first photographs mounted on paper containing people - and therefore capable of also carrying an authentic, handwritten signature - were taken around 1845. As these were quite small - usually measuring around 2 inches by 4 inches - they were used in place of calling cards. If someone visited someone else's house and found them out, they would leave their photograph behind to let them know they had visited. Hence, these small photographs became known as "visiting cards". These were hugely popular for around twenty years, before being replaced with larger album photographs, usually measuring 4.25 inches by 6.5 inches. As photo albums tended to be kept in cabinets, these acquired the name "cabinet photographs".
Both these types of photographs - visiting cards and cabinet photographs - were mounted onto a heavier cardboard, meaning that the photographer's imprint could be present on either the back of the photograph, or underneath the photograph at the front, or both. Cabinet photographs stayed popular until the early 1900s, when they were replaced with photographs in the common sizes we expect today - snapshots, postcard sizes, and 8 by 10 inches. Larger photographs, measuring 11 by 14 inches, were popular with entertainment stars, and became widely used from the 1920s.
Very early 8 by 10 inch photographs are usually sepia in tone, but this began to give way to standard black and white photographs from the 1930s onwards, and these in turn yielded to color in the 1960s.
This can also help you with dating context; if someone died before 1865, the likelihood that your signed cabinet photograph is genuine is highly improbable - similarly for a color photograph of someone who died prior to 1960.
In terms of authentic autographs available, there are examples of visiting cards signed by 19th century US Presidents which become available to the market from time to time. However, it is worth checking whether they were in the habit of signing their own visiting card photographs, or whether their signature was something they preferred to delegate to their secretarial staff.
Writing styles change over the ages. The fine copperplate of the early 19th century is a world away from the bog-standard cursive of the mid-20th. In addition, turns of phrase and salutations also fade in and out fashion, making them useful extra authentication tools when examining autographs. Prior to the beginning of the 19th century, for example, letters tended to have long, elaborate close. By the middle of the century, however, closes were short, often only one or two words. If something claims to be from a certain date and the letter closing indicates otherwise, further investigation will be required - for example, to establish whether the writer had a particularly flowery or curt turn of phrase.
Some people will have particular turns of phrase which you may see repeated in their writing again and again. Also look to see whether content ties in with biographical information about the writer - if they were known to be discreet and sober, and a letter is full of gossip and light-hearted conversational language, then it is unlikely to have been written by them.
However tempting it might be to go after a bargain, if a price indicates that something is too good to be true, then it usually is. For a serious collector, warning bells should be ringing for you if someone is trying to sell you an autograph at a price that would constitute more than a 20-30% reduction on the normal market rate for an item signed by that individual. If a dealer is offering something below this price, be very wary. On occasion, it's true that a dealer may have good reasons for trying to turn genuine items with good provenance into quick money, but a knockdown price should mean extra research at the very least.
Online auctions are one space to be particularly wary of if you do not know if the vendor is a trusted seller. As you are judging from photographs, it can be difficult to determine whether a signature is a forgery through some of the usual steps. This is where a suspiciously low price can do your work for you. Experienced collectors and dealers will have made a judgement on the item and found it wanting.
Although you should by all means keep an eye out for bargains, always be prepared to pay the market price, especially for rarities with good provenance. Requests for privacy by the seller do not necessarily mean a suspicious attitude, trying to hide something. Most sellers of autographs don't want their names to be revealed to a dealer´s future customers, and dealers don't want to take the risk of having his potential or real customers go and contact his source of provenance asking for more autographs, more information about the item´s history, or else.
It's in a seller's interest - particularly if they are trying to sell more than one autograph - to be as open and transparent as possible.
If a dealer has 40 autographs to sell belonging to a particular
celebrity, ask questions. It could be that they have acquired a collection connected to a particular artist or notable to sell, in which case a large quantity is perfectly legitimate. However, if this is not the case, then it is likely that they have come from a forger. Autographs are rarely signed in large quantities by a celebrity for fear that they will be sold!. This is not always true, since for example Met Opera stars many times went to the Met Opera and signed numerous copies of the same photograph trying to leave an autograph inventory for the opera company, to sell in the future.
Also, it can be useful to remember that many autographs will have a dedication to an individual as well as a signature.
If you have examples of your signature from decades ago, you may notice that it's not the same as it is today. Quirks and oddities might be there, but the shape and slant of the writing may be different. The same goes for celebrities.
Signatures can go through several phases throughout a person's life, with some notable examples going through three, four or even five distinct and yet quite genuine phases. This in itself can be quite a useful provenance tool - for example, if you have a signature supposedly from one particular year when you know the person was already signing their name very differently, you can determine more easily whether it is genuine or not.
Like most things, memberships of clubs, authentication certifications and similar documents can be purchased on the internet, often with an authoritative letter from a 'reputable institution'. It is relatively easy to fake a certificate of authenticity (or COA) on a computer with a good printer, and although we're not quite at the stage where you need a certificate of authenticity for a certificate of authenticity, it is still worth running through your complete checklist to put your own mind at rest.
There is a large and growing market of autograph authentication companies and even individuals that call themselves professional authenticators, specially in sports memorabilia (professional sports authenticator), in our opinion only a few are well-recognized and reliable, PSA / DNA are well-known company of authenticators, they deal mostly with sports memorabilia, but there are other good authenticators out there with expertise in other areas - See at the bottom a link to our article on this subject.
Again, major auction houses and respected dealers have a reputation to uphold, and will have done independent research into particularly high ticket items. If you are after a rare purchase, it's worth waiting for what you are looking for to come up with an institution with a skilled and respected appraiser.
Always remember that any extra cost invested - not spent - in buying from a reputable dealer is always a very good investment, never an expense or a waste of your precious money.
11 - Other Considerations
If the autograph has been well-taken care of, has been professionally framed, carefully matted, well preserved in an album, that means the previous owner cared about it and thought it was authentic, which is not a guarantee of anything except that someone else before you thought it was authentic, and might have even be the first owner of the piece, could have been obtained in person directly from the authors.
Avoid any autographed photo with a scribble, bad signature, especially if it is a very short and simple one, that anyone can do, even if you know they are authentic. It is also preferable to avoid signatures with ink smudges, and most especially those that were written over dark areas, without much contrast. It will be harder to sell them later, so try to avoid them even if you knew they were authentic. An autographed photo with a very bad signature rarely is a good investment.
The word "really?" can be a useful final check. Would the person whose autograph you supposedly have right in front of you really have signed that? Is the material improbable? The supposed scenario? The date? If something is off, trust your instincts.
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