Two weeks ago we talked about Geronimo, the first paid autograph signer, and Babe Ruth, the legendary baseball player who signed loads of them and, likely, never made a dime for his efforts. We also talked about how a late '90s FBI investigation suggested that as many as 75 percent of the sports and celebrity autographs in the marketplace are forgeries. That notion translates in to theft at the highest level.
Most people have a prized autograph or two, maybe more. Many have gotten them as gifts, some have bought them in stores. They usually come nicely framed in with some sort of certificate of authenticity attached. Sadly many of them — both the the signatures and the certificates — are bogus.
In the last 15 years I have examined and authenticated and/or rejected well over 40,000 signed pieces of memorabilia. In my private business, I see the items that are being sold in auctions and on the internet — and sometimes at well-meaning fund raising events. It saddens me that so many are, well, bad.
The original idea of a celebrity autograph was that you’d meet a celebrity and ask him or her to sign a photo, program or even a plain piece of paper. That confirmed that you met this person. In the old days personalized signatures were the best because they indicated that you not only met the celebrity but they took the time to learn your name. As kids we all had autograph books and most of the signatures contained were from our friends and the occasional “important” person we met.
Today things have changed, autograph books are out of fashion, and “personalization” costs money at paid signing events. There are sports and celebrity venues frequently held where a star (you decide how big a star they are) will sign something for you for a fee. If you want them to sign “To Ted” or something like that it’ll probably cost an extra $15. Most celebrities get anywhere from $25-to-$500 a signature. Hall of Famers, like Willie Mays, actually earn more money signing their name at hobby shows than they did during their playing career. As an aside, Mays resents doing it and is not all that cordial when you meet him. He’s not alone in that, many celebrities take your $100 and then act as if they are doing you a favor to scribble their name on something for you.
Back in the 1800s, autograph collectors did exist. Mostly they sought the signatures of historical figures and would find historic documents (often in places thought to be secure) and clip the key names from it. Legitimate signatures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, U. S. Grant and others exist at the expense of the destruction of historic documents, personal letters, land grants and official orders. Clip the signature, toss the source, lose the historical relevance of the signed piece. If you find the aforementioned signatures on pieces of parchment or older paper with no surrounding lettering, print, etc., you can be pretty certain that a forger got in to the act, clipped white space off an ancient document and then signed a historic name to it. No allied information, no pieces of content, suggest a forgery. Another way to tell is if the signature shows “puddles” of ink or if the ink of the signature is a different color than what else is on the paper. That means the fresh ink bled in to the older paper as the signer paused to complete their copying.
The best forgers are artists and my one-time partner and I (Jeff Stevens) cracked a forgery ring in the early 2000s. It was based in Glassboro, N.J., the key signer was an art student at the college and her mother was the agent. Mom would go to antiques stores and buy any old paper, old books, blank penny postcards, greeting cards and old writing implements she could find and then have her daughter affix a signature. At first glance her work appeared to be perfect. But common sense told us that there were just too many historic signatures coming from this one source. Closer examination was called for and we used a documents restoration agent at a Philadelphia museum to verify some of them. The cut signatures usually showed the aforementioned puddles of ink and slowly and careful drawn signatures that showed the artist being careful with the copy.
Mom was also getting greedy and she was using people in other states to send these signatures to auction houses. It soon dawned on us that even though the historic signatures looked good and were coming from as far away as New Mexico they were originating in Glassboro. You could even fit the cut pieces of parchment together.
The most forged historic autographs — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy
Greed is the key word here and in part three of this series I’ll point out some of the red flags that you, the would-be, autograph buyer can look for and how you can best protect yourself from the bad guys.