Signed by Shakespeare in Ballpoint | Newberry

Signed by Shakespeare in Ballpoint

I’ve been asked some questions about autographed books (and one piece of autographed sheet music) and thought it might be time to run over that popular question, “Is my wonderful signed book really a wonderful signed book?” Or, as someone asked me eons ago, “Did Abraham Lincoln write this or did my nutty Uncle Albatross write this?” (In the interest of transparency, I should admit I DID change his uncle’s name to protect innocent members of the Segal family.)

There are several quick and easy things you can check which will give you a hint. They are, in no order of importance:

Was the person still alive when the book was signed? We had a nice book about Marlene Dietrich once which really, really looked as if Marlene had autographed it. As it happens, the author of the book had a name which could be mistaken for hers, what with his handwriting and all. The real clue was on the endflap, where it said, “Since Dietrich’s death in 1992, her fame has only grown.”

Note that it IS possible to have a book with an autograph in it even if the book was published after the celebrity’s death. Nineteenth century authors would frequently write their name over and over on sheets of paper so their author could paste these in special limited editions, and these pages can even today be cut up and the signatures pasted in books the person never touched. Nowadays, some authors sell packs of bookplates they have signed, so you can take these home and apply them to a book. And some people like to paste a letter or even just a check signed by the celebrity into a book. Technically, you do not have a “signed book” in these cases. What you have is a book with a signed bookplate pasted in (the professional term is “tipped in”).

Is the signature on the title page in place of the title? Barbara Bush’s autobiography is an example. Instead of printing “Barbara Bush” as the title on the title page, the publisher printed in a facsimile of her autograph. This is in every single copy of the book which was distributed to the public, is not a real autograph, and stop asking me about it, okay?

Is the autograph exactly the same color as everything else on the page? If the title page is printed all in black, for example, but Miley Cyrus’s name is in red, this is a good sign that the signature was not printed in. On the other hand, if parts of the page are printed in black and parts are printed in red, and the signature is red, keep looking for clues.

Has the autograph dented the paper? The printing press of modern construction does not leave an impression (old-fashioned ones, and the ones used for letterpress printing today, do, but if you have something like that, maybe you don’t care if it’s signed.) A ballpoint pen WILL dent the page. Hold the page horizontal and glance along it and see if you find that telltale imprint. A felt marker will not make the dent, but if you’re lucky, the ink from that soaked through the page, giving you the proof you need that the autograph wasn’t printed in. (You may even, if you felt marker was especially fresh with lots of ink, wind up with two autographed pages.)

Is the autograph entirely within the border of an illustration? A lot of books about celebrities will open with a photograph of a signed photograph. A photographed autograph is nowhere near as valuable as an autographed photograph. Look for the dents, as mentioned above, or for a long, florid signature that goes outside the edges.

Is it in pencil? There are actually people who will autograph books only in pencil “in case you just want to erase it some day”. These people are actually the bane of autograph collectors (pencil marks can smudge and lose definition over time, with bad storage) but they’re obviously interesting. Not everyone knows naturally how to be a celebrity.

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