Autograph Forgeries, Forensics, and Autograph Experts

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Anyone with an email account knows about the online scams and rip-offs that proliferate on the internet. And as most colletors know, there is no shortage of fake autographs and memorabilia being offered online, on Ebay and elsewhere.

As earlier posts about my lawsuit against Peter McKenzie (re: Bob Dylan memorabilia he sold me) illustrate, issues of authentication can be very difficult, costly and time consuming to resolve.

Sellers often claim their items have been authenticated by autograph experts or forensic examiners, and assure you that their item comes with a certificate of authenticity. However, online anyone can call him or herself an expert—and if someone is dishonest enough to sell you a forged item, they’ll have no reservations about giving you a worthless certificate of authenticity too.

So for those buying collectibles, I offer some very basic information that should be helpful.

First rule—if it seems too good to be true, it virtually always is. If a dealer or retail store has what seems like an endless supply of signed Beatles albums, Jimi Hendrix signed guitars, Bob Dylan inscribed items and other “holy grail” collectibles, be VERY suspicious.

These things just aren’t around—and when you do see them, they
command high prices commensurate with their rarity. There are no bargains with the truly great stuff—it sells itself. I’ve been collecting records and memorabilia since 1971, worked in the record industry for 20 years, and have bought numerous collections from record executives– and I can tell you first hand, the truly rare, unique stuff just doesn’t show up.

If the signed American Beatles albums some dealers are offering for $15,000. were genuine, people like myself would be beating down the doors to buy them. An authentic signed U.S. Beatles album is worth at least $75,000; at present only 11 are known to exist. By the time the Beatles came to American, security was so tight nobody got near them. (There are a greater number of UK signed albums, but they’re still very rare and very expensive.)

Next, let’s talk about autographs and autograph authenticators. Common sense dictates that no one can be an expert at everything. I’m pretty good with a few artists, but I know what I don’t know.
When I need an expert, I gravitate towards people who are experts in authenticating specific artists.

Frank Caiazzo has been studying the autographs and handwriting of The Beatles exclusively for 22 years, and is universally regarded as the world foremost authority on the subject. He can tell you if a set of Beatles signatures is authentic, the year it was signed, and that John, Paul and George signed their names, but Ringo’s signature was signed by Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall.

There are other qualified Beatles experts too–Perry Cox and the folks at Tracks in England certainly know their autographs and rare Beatles records too. Roger Epperson is an expert at many musical artists. These people have spent many years learning their craft, and while their expertise doesn’t come cheaply, it’s worth it.

On the other hand, there is presently an “organization” selling their services on Ebay who, for a fee of $6.00, will authenticate any signature being offered on Ebay. I don’t know anything about them—but it seems pretty absurd to me that anyone could actually do this. And for $6.00 ?

Then there is the field of forensic document examination. Again, there are many people out there claiming to be forensic examiners—some whom are writing hundreds of certificates of authenticity every year for people selling fake items. A “Forensic COA” is always a warning sign for me.

An actual court-certified forensic document examiner charges a hefty hourly fee to compare “questioned” handwriting to “known” examples of that person’s handwriting, to determine whether the questioned writing is authentic. They often use highly sophisticated scientific equipment in their analysis. This is an expensive proposition—I spent $15,000. on forensics in the Peter McKenzie/Bob Dylan case (I wish I knew about the $6.00 Ebay guys back then !)

Among other things, a real certified forensic document examiner serves a 2 year apprenticeship, often works for the government before going out on their own, and in my experience has no interest in authenticating autographs for a living (in fact I couldn’t get the examiner I eventually hired on the phone until I explained this was for a lawsuit, and not just to authenticate Dylan autographs.)

A forensics expert isn’t an autograph expert, they are experts at comparing handwriting. And that’s a very important point. Their opinion is only as good as the authentic examples they are given. In the McKenzie case, the examiner, Jim Blanco had over 100 pages of absolutely authentic Dylan writing and signatures, from a variety of absolutely unimpeachable sources.

If someone tells you something was authenticated by a forensic examiner, ask them how many known authentic examples they compared the examined item to, where the exemplars came from, and how they can be sure the exemplars were authentic. Perhaps—let’s give them the benefit of a doubt—some of these folks who call themselves forensic examiners are just doing quickie examinations, comparing the forgeries to other forgeries they’ve been supplied with. As they say, garbage in, garbage out.

When looking at a signature or handwriting, an expert concentrates on three basic areas in determining its authenticity—the writing’s line quality, letter forms, and letter proportions.

Line quality considers the motion, speed and flow of the writing, which also is reflected in the pen pressure. Is the writing assured and fast, or shaky and slow ? Is the pen pressure consistent ?

Letter forms considers the way in which a letter was made and it’s resulting visual appearance–the path the pen took to create a letter, and the habitual nature of everyone’s handwriting.

Letter proportions considers the letters relationships to one another—are they close together or spaced farther apart? A person will habitually place certain letters closer to each other, with others having more space between them. Height relationships of letters, connecting strokes, punctuation, the crossing of “t’s” and dotting of “i’s” are also habitual.

Even the best forgers won’t be able to exactly reproduce the line quality, letter forms, and letter proportions of the original writer. They may be able to exactly reproduce the letter forms and spacing, but not the speed and pen pressure. Or perhaps someone can approximate a signature’s flow and speed, but their letter forms and relationship of the letters won’t be exact.

Pretty complicated, eh ? So where does that leave the ordinary collector. First and foremost, don’t be discouraged. There are many authentic and extraordinary items out there. I have many things in my own collection that continue to amaze and intrigue me decades after I acquired them. And it doesn’t hurt that they’ve been great investments too. There is great stuff out there. But finding it requires some work and due diligence on the collector’s part. Here’s are some rules of thumb that should be useful for any collector.

First, know who you’re buying from. Is the dealer someone with a reputation and a track record ? Are they experts in the field ? Are they well known and respected ?

Second, always get a written lifetime guarantee of authenticity. Any honest dealer should be willing to provide this to you, with no hesitation. And of course, make sure they’ll be there to back it up, should there ever be a problem.

And third, do your homework. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. An honest dealer will have no problem answering any questions, and to the best of their ability, to explain the history of the item. It’s a cliché, but it’s true—information is power.

I hope this has been helpful—please feel free to leave any comments or questions below. And thanks to Jim Blanco, certified forensics examiner, who’s essay “Handwriting Identification: Formula for Authenticity” I borrowed from liberally.

Jeff Gold
January 7, 2009

Comments

I came across your blog “Autograph Forgeries, Forensics, and Autograph Experts” on the internet. Thank you for sharing, I really enjoyed it! I respect an educated collector who really knows what they’re talking about.

I am actually studying here at RRAuction, under my father, as an autograph authenticator. Very few collectors truly understand what that actually means. There is no course to take or test to pass to be an “authenticator”. Authenticating autographs comes from years and years of experience, handling countless authentic items and earning respect for your honesty and integrity.

I currently have three published signature studies in Autograph Magazine and another one in the works. My area of expertise is vintage Hollywood. I recognize your interest lies in music autographs. However, if you would like a copy of one of them (Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, and Elizabeth Taylor) I would be happy to send you one. Thanks again and I look forward to hearing from you!

Best,
Tricia Eaton

Thanks Jeff,

I was going to buy one of those mint Hapsash posters the other day off Ebay, the seller claiming it to be totally original. I did a bit of a search first and reading this I now know that it ain’ so.

regards,

Rupert

How is it that there are so many bg-105 complete,unused tickets for sale?This was for the fillmore west shows of Hendrix in 1968!It seems that nobody went to the shows but instead kept their unused tickets to sell on this thing called ebay after this thing called the world wide web was created.Talk about foresight!
Ditto for fillmore posters being offered in near mint condition.Werent these supposed to be pinned up to walls and phone poles etc by unkempt youth?
-D66

As for the Fillmore Posters, Bill Graham did reprint these often up to 3 times; but the ones that command the most money are the first printings (of course it’s very difficult to distinguish which is which.) The bible for telling what’s what is Eric King’s self-published “The Collector’s Guide To Psychedelic Rock Concert Posters, Postcards and Handbills: 1965-1973.” Not sold in stores, as they say, but worth tracking down a copy on Google.

Further to my previous post I’ve decided my money would be better spent on an official Hapshash reprint. Apparently these are an edition of 250 and signed by both Nigel Weymouth and Michael English – they can be found in several poster stores in the UK and the US for between US$150-250.

Now as I prefer to pay artists direct rather than a middleman I thought I’d email Nigel and Michael to see if they had any of these for sale. Nigel never replied to my emails, but Micheal did, here’s what he had to say

“You are in luck!
I do have one, only one, of these rare but potentially very collectable re-strikes signed by both of us. The print quality is stunning, way better than the originals! The price is GBP 300.00 including postage and packing if you are in the UK.

The story is this. Although Nigel Waymouth signed all those printed as it was not too far for him to go to the printers in San Francisco from LA it was too far for me from London. So much to the publisher’s chagrin I refused to go unless they paid for the flight etc. They would not. There are very, very few of these posters signed by both of us. To the best of my knowledge Nigel only has examples signed by himself.

Kind regards

Michael English”

So it seems to me even these official re-prints have had the hand of a forger upon them, as all those I’ve seen for sale claim to be signed by both artists.

Rupert

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