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Collecting Autographs – Genuine or Fake

Collecting signatures, whether those of military or historical personalities, stars of stage and screen, or sportsmen and women who have achieved great things can be fraught with danger. Like almost anything that is collected, the counterfeiting of signatures is an irresistible attraction to the forger.

Signatures have been forged for gain for over 200 years. During the boom years of the 1990’s forgeries became abundant and it is thought there are almost as many counterfeit signatures in circulation today as there are genuine ones. To the uninitiated collector this presents a veritable minefield.

My specialist field is World War I and II military personalities and this area of collecting is by no means immune from the dishonest operator: Some years ago I received a phone call from the great Luftwaffe fighter leader, General Adolf Galland, asking if I could help him track down somebody in California who was forging his signature on portrait photographs of him.

As it happened an aviation art print collector I knew was fairly senior in the Los Angeles Police Department, so I passed the information on to him. To cut the story short, this character was caught red-handed by the LAPD actually forging the signature of Erich Hartmann onto fine art prints that the world’s leading fighter ace had never seen. The counterfeiter was arrested, prosecuted, and for forgery and other visit –  misdemeanours that came to light, packed off to jail.

This was little consolation to those who had bought counterfeit WWII veteran’s signatures from this particular forger, most of whose handy-work is undoubtedly still widely in circulation.

So what steps can the collector of signatures take to be sure the signatures they buy are genuine?

The surest way is to obtain the signature yourself however, in my area of specialisation, this is now impossible since the majority are now deceased. Next, always to buy from someone you know, or a source that is known to be reputable. If you are aware the source could have had direct access to the signatory themselves, all the better. Always deal only with established and reliable people or organisations. Be especially careful buying on the internet.

Try where possible to obtain provenance, and a Certificate of Authenticity -though these are just as easy to forge if the source is disreputable. Watch out for cheap prices, sources that seem to have an endless supply (unless you know the reason why), and avoid private auctions where the seller can’t be identified.

Ensure signatures on photographs are genuine and not printed. Many are, and can be difficult to detect from an original. Take special care when buying prints and photos that have been reproduced via a digital process as even under a magnifying glass, forged signatures can look real. Finally, if in doubt, don’t buy!


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