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How to authenticate an autograph or signature in a book. Avoiding forgeries.

There are a huge number of signed books on the second hand market. Some collectors choose to specialise, focussing solely on books signed by authors or illustrators, people associated with a book's production or others featuring in the content. With millions of books published every year, and writers frequently holding signing promotions, how can the collector be sure the signed book he/she is looking at bears an authentic signature?

Authentication can be something of a quagmire and the truthful answer to the question is you can never be 100% certain unless you were there when your book was signed. Clearly, you were not if the book in question is a hundred years old.

There are many commercial authenticators but whether you do the research yourself or leave it to others, you need to keep the following in mind: Apart from having personally witnessed a book being signed, any other form of authentication is merely a reflection of one person or organisation's honest opinion, or a reflection of one person or organisation's deception.

There are examples whereby commercial authenticators have rejected signature's in books, the signing of which has been witnessed by the owner. In contrast other books may appear to be authenticated by a label on the front jacket stating "Signed Copy" or a certificate or supporting document when, in reality, the book was signed by the bloke up the road!

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Hints and Tips: How You Can Authenticate the Signatures in Your Books:

Try to do what you can to verify the signatures in your prized books and retain any research which might help to enhance the value of them in the future (though this is not guaranteed). There are things to look out for which will help confirm authenticity and others which will confirm forgeries. Your approach needs to be systematic, organised and thorough: If you take shortcuts or cheat your opinion won't be valued for long.

You need to ask yourself if the signature in your book is an original, a facsimile (printed), or a forgery (handwritten by another hand)? Does it appear to have been signed with ink typical of the period in which it was published and that the signed page is the original? A basic understanding of printing processes, papers used and hand applied inks through the ages is helpful. Below you'll find some tips and things to look out for:

  • A strong magnifying glass is an essential tool
  • If you have collected a signature in person, for example at a book signing, then you will be certain of its authenticity - but others may not if you later come to sell your book. Keep any documentation or promotional materials
  • Always check if the signature in a book is that of a person who either wrote, illustrated or was otherwise involved in the publication - not just the signature of a previous owner
  • Signatures which appear on a page with an extensive inscription by the same hand, or those which are dedicated, are less likely to be forgeries. It is harder to forge whole blocks of text
  • There are many online and retail sellers offering 'Certificates of Authenticity' (COAs) or letters of provenance:
    • Frankly, COAs have become almost worthless as anybody with a half decent printer can reproduce them
    • Letters of provenance are helpful if they are from trusted sources
    • COAs are not as common on the book market as they are on the autograph market, but fraudsters do try to imitate valuable signatures in all markets
    • I wouldn't advise it, but if you really want to exclusively trust a book COA or letter of providence then do some research on the individual or company offering it: Any memberships of professional associations, any specific individual qualifications, any authentication money back guarantee offered or any existing customer revues
  • Beware of seller's blurbs - they just represent the opinion of the person who wants your money
  • If you buy a book from a reputable seller or a respected collector who's opinion you value, there will be some level of security: But even the best of us can be deceived. If the seller is willing to offer a full money back guarantee if the signature is not authentic, this will add to your security
  • Some signatures in books may fade with age or appear messy. This does not mean they are forgeries - but it will likely make them harder to re-sell
  • Modern papers used in book publishing tend to be more brittle than earlier counterparts. Consider if the signature you are looking at is on a page consistant with the age of the book
  • Many old books show foxing (brown spots). If a signature appears to be on top of the foxing, it was likely added at a much later date
  • If you can obtain a verified signature, or a copy of a verified signature, of the one you are trying to appraise, you can compare them alongside each other:
    • Be aware that the copy you are comparing to might itself be a forgery. You can gain some protection by comparing multiple copies or seeking out highly reputable sources for your copies
    • When comparing, don't be blinded by the similarities: Look for the differences
    • Look for inconsistancies but keep in mind that some people write with consistant inconsistancies
    • Check for the slant of letters and their overall formation and quirks such as underlining or joining certain letters but not others
    • Peculiarities in a person's handwriting, and hence their signature, are difficult to forge
    • Check for signs of shakiness in the signature - there are some ailments which can cause this but it is often a trait of a forged signature
  • Facsimile signatures are frequently printed or applied by stamp. You can often feel light ridges on a hand written signature
    • Many 19th century books have engravings which feature signatures below them. These signatures are usually facsimiles, printed from originals
    • The ink colour was usually black, quite bold and sometimes embossed to give the impression of an actual signature. Using an eyeglass, comparison to ink signatures of the period will help identify these
    • There might also be white flecks on the printed signature and, despite the overall embossed impression, the lettering will appear flat and continuous, lacking the impression of ridges and layers
  • Stamped signatures frequently show a higher concentration of ink at their edges
    • They often have a purple or light blue hue when viewed with a strong eyeglass and the ink may be shiny on the surface
    • A stamped signature may contain air bubbles
    • Lettering will appear flat and continuous, lacking the impression of ridges and layers
  • Pens and Inks: Each different type of pen leaves it's own ink trail. A pen used to sign a book should be in keeping with the age of the book
    • From 700AD quill pens were used for about a thousand years
    • Dip pens with metal nibs became popular in the 1840s
    • Fountain pens, which have their own ink reservoir, became popular in the latter years of the nineteenth century
    • Ballpoint pens entered the retail market after the Second World War and became popular from the 1950s onwards
    • Felt tip pens were unheard of before 1962 and did not become a popular choice until the 1970s
    • Fine-line pens also became popular in the 1970s and super-fine pens in the 1990s
    • Older inks often contained acids which, over a period of time, created the impression that the signature surface was etched. This effect will not be created in a nineteenth century book signed with a modern pen
  • Blue ink was not used until the 1850s. Prior to this most inks were brown because they contained iron. Some forgers of very old books use modern brown inks. These can often be spotted as they absorb more into the original paper and frequently appear blurred under an eyeglass
  • Autopens have been around since the 1940s. Thankfully they are not frequently used to sign books
    • An autopen applies ink from a signature template: Because they are mechanical they often start and finish with a dot which can be seen using an eyeglass, or they sometimes appear to have been written by a shaky hand
    • Prior to 2007 autopens were not able to apply a message with a signature, hence an older book with an inscription and signature is unlikely to have been applied by autopen
  • A few other things to keep in mind:
    • Sometimes authors use secretaries, agents or assistants to sign books. This may be the case when buying from a website or other forms of distance buying
    • If you are buying a signed book online and the seller seeks 'privacy', you need to ask yourself why
    • Beware of high volumes of signed books by the same author. Even if they are genuine, they are unlikely to be of great value
    • When you're buying a signed book, consider the price. If you know signed copies of the said book sell for an average of £1,000 and you're offered a copy for £50 (condition notwithstanding), you need to consider why

If you choose to use professional authenticators there will be associated fees. You will need to consider if these fees are cost effective relative to the likely value of your book.

And finally....... Technology is changing all the time. Computers and modern printers will likely make signature authentication even harder in the future, but learning the basics will allow you to retain a level of confidence in your judgement.