Autograph Forgeries, Forensics, and Autograph Experts

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