Knowing How Fakes Are Made
Autographs can be faked in numerous ways, which means that whenever you buy an autograph, you need to be especially sure that it's legitimate. In the following sections, I cover some key ways that autographs are faked, so you can know what to watch out for.
Autograph collectors should stop by www.autographworld.com, a UACC-registered dealer that runs autograph auctions, sells unsigned photographs, and has an amazingly comprehensive authentication guide. Just type in a famous person's name on its search engine, and you're more than likely to see what his or her signature looks like.
With the continuous and dramatic advances in technology over the past decades, it shouldn't come as any shock to you that a machine has been invented that can mechanically duplicate your exact signature. It's called the Autopen. The Autopen is an automated device that is programmed to simulate a precise signature. Anybody's John Hancock will do—any style; any length. A caveman's very unique “X” could be duplicated with cybernetic simplicity.
The Autopen, when called into action, can have any printing device inserted into its mechanical arm. From a ballpoint pen to a Sharpie marker, the Autopen works with the same tools that all of us use when writing letters and signing our names. An Autopenned photograph, or other piece of paper, looks as real as real can be. The best Autopens perform a job strikingly similar to the human hand.
The Autopen immediately positions a few hurdles for autograph collectors to leap over. Fortunately, though, there are often telltale signs of the fruit of an Autopen's labor. An Autopen has the propensity to appear shaky, much more so than the generally steady signature of flesh-and-blood men and women. The armature on the device vibrates when making a signature, and this creates subtle differences that usually can be detected.
If you are purchasing a celebrity's signature from a dealer, or have received one in the mail directly from the celebrity's address, check out some authentic autographs from the same person and compare yours with these. Autopens are consistent across the board. That's the thing about machines. A hundred Autopen autographs will all be alike. Sign your own name 100 times and see what happens. Not one of them will be exactly the same.
Other things to look for with Autopens are lines of identical thickness. Look again at those 100 signatures that you made. Actually, one will do. You'll notice that the lines in your signature vary. There aren't even the slightest variations from most Autopens.
Finally, look for signatures that begin and end with a dot of ink, where the mechanized arm lowers and raises—a sure sign of an Autopen. We the people are notorious for leaving “lift” marks when we come to the end of our signatures. The last letter, in fact, sometimes trails off into the sunset.
You can also check out magazines—such as the Autograph Collector—that keep collectors apprised of Autopen patterns. These magazines often print comparisons of real celebrity signatures alongside their evil twins.
Politicians' autographs are easily attainable, even though many are the work of Autopens. Write to your senator in care of the U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510; your congressman in care of the U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515; and the president in care of the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500.
Secretaries and Assistants
Some of the rich and famous walking among the common folks employ their trusty secretaries to sign their names on autograph picture requests. In fact, some secretaries are so devoted and loyal to their bosses that they seem, almost by osmosis, to be able to precisely replicate their signatures.
Perry Mason wouldn't have asked Della Street to sign his name, because he'd no doubt have seen the ethical problem there. Fooling an admirer just wasn't his style. Not everyone is of Mason's moral character, however. Secretary signatures are commonplace, with no machine marks as a giveaway. Sometimes called ghost signatures, these autographs have been known, on occasion, to be really good forgeries—so good that they've fooled even foremost autograph experts.
Most of these imitations, though, can be detected as not being the genuine article. For even when someone masters another's signature, he or she tends to be more deliberate when putting the pen to paper. If you've ever forged a signature in your time, you know how it feels. You're concentrating so much on getting the pattern right that you move with great deliberation. The end result is often a noticeable tick in the final product caused by the slower-than-normal motion. Once again, it's important to have real comparative signatures to look over.
Which celebrities have their secretaries sign their autographs for them?
If you send away for autographs from celebrities such as Kevin Costner, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, and John Travolta, among others, you're likely to get one written by their assistants instead. Consider yourself warned.
Before the invention of the Autopen, a common imitation autograph technique was accomplished with the venerable and reliable rubber stamp. Banks permit businesspersons to use signature rubber stamps when endorsing checks, and celebrities have been known to stamp photographs and postcards with them—or actually celebrities' hired hands have been known to do it.
Rubber-stamped signatures are the most easily detectable. There's a great deal of uneven ink distribution throughout them. If you've ever used a rubber stamp, for any reason at all, you've seen this. It can be quite messy—smudging all over the place. No directional strokes are seen in rubber-stamped signatures. When writing, the normal method of the human hand is to move from left to right. A rubber stamp descends from the air and meets its intended target in one fell swoop. You shouldn't have any problems identifying these signatures as rubber-stamped imitations.
The Official Autograph Collector Price Guide by Kevin Martin shows a whole host of autographs along with their current market values. Also by Martin is The Autograph Collector Celebrity Autograph Authentication Guide, a book that offers many samples for you to compare your collected autographs with to verify their authenticity.
Yet another machination that sometimes confuses autograph hunters is called the preprint. A preprint is simply a reproduction of an original signed photograph or letter. The signature on a preprint is flat. If there's any doubt in your mind as to whether or not a preprint is the real thing, hold the article in question up to a light. A genuine autograph will have been placed atop the photograph or letter. A preprinted autograph will be part of it. This will clearly show—one way or another—in reflected light.
Example of a “preprint” autograph—collectible, but not an actual autograph