Somebody asked me about autographs the other day. Signatures in books cause two basic questions: “What is it worth?” and “How can I find out if it’s real?” The people who ask the second question have their heads pointed in the right direction. You need to answer that before you go after valuer.
The fad sact, as one of my friends calls it, is that there are plenty of fakes out there. Someone recently wrote an article to prove that the first use of a rubber (actually wooden) stamp by a President of the United States who didn’t want to sign everything came in 1841. Printing presses have been able to produce printed signatures on books for at least that long. Great Names have used secretaries for millennia. And those are all legitimately phony signatures; we haven’t even started on the forgers.
There are some questions to look into before you rent a safe deposit box and put the down payment on that eight-bedroom condo:
1. Was the book printed after the person who supposedly signed it was dead? We’ve had a paperback Scarlet Letter inscribed by Nathaniel Hawthorne to a man who wasn’t born until 1947. I sold that for fifty cents. I won’t name names, but there’s an online auction site where I haven seen copies of Brian’s Song signed by Brian Piccolo and a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank signed by Anne Frank. (That’s a pretty good clue: if the person dies IN the book that’s signed, that signature is in all probability a phony.)
2. Is the book signed exactly the same on four pages of the book? That’s printed on, friend; it’s a common sort of decoration. Anyway, no human being can sign a name exactly the same way twice.
3. Does the person have a famous middle initial? Dwight D. Eisenhower very seldom left out that D. (He did once in a while, but your odds are worse without it. Dorothy L. Sayers was similarly fussy. Richard M. Nixon USUALLY used the M, though not always.) The rule can also be applied to short forms of a name. If your book by John F. Kennedy is signed “Jack”, there’s a chance, but I wouldn’t give you much hope is it’s signed “Johnnie”.
4. Is it signed by a president after 1952? See, not only do Presidents of the United States have secretaries (I had what I thought was an authentic Ronald Reagan, but the folks at the Reagan Library were not only able to prove it was signed by a secretary—they could even tell which secretary it was.), they also have autopens. An autopen is a machine which traces from a signature and reproduced it exactly on another document: often used to sign award certificates and fund-raising letters and so forth. An expert can tell about these things, because, as noted, no one signs her name the same way twice, and an autopen always does an exact facsimile of the original. This does not mean that no President of the United States ever really signed anything personally; it just means you need to take a really close look.
If you get past these questions and still think you have a goodie, there are plenty of websites out there for autograph collectors which will show you what their idrea of a genuine signature for that celebrity looks like. It is up to you to compare yours with theirs (it helps to check a lot of different examples over a period of years; people sign differently at twenty than they do at eighty). In the end, you must either rely on your own opinion or hire an expert to look the autograph over. This is why some dealers offer a signed certificate stating that they were actually standing at the table when the celebrity in question signed the book. So when you buy from them, you have the signed statement of an eyewitness.
If you trust THAT signature.