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The Ink Blog
by Rick Schnake
May 8, 2018
Two fake autographs that have recently been offered for sale, certified as genuine by well-known third-party authenticators, underscore why collectors must be careful, if not wary, when they buy from someone other than a recognized professional dealer.
Many auction houses and wannabe dealers who offer material on online auction platforms rely, even exclusively anymore, on certificates of authenticity issued by companies that provide supposedly expert authentication services. But these “authenticators” continue to certify even obviously fake autographs as genuine.
Granted, human beings are human, and authentication is almost always a matter of opinion. But real authentication is not mere guesswork. It is an educated opinion that results from years of study and sometimes considerable research. Is a letter written on correct paper, with correct ink? Are its contents consistent with the known history? Why would the signer sign this particular piece?
Knowledgeable dealers and authenticators know their stuff. I have collected and dealt in historical autographs for more than 30 years, and I have seen almost everything. My colleagues in PADA, the Professional Autograph Dealers Association, have similar qualifications. One cannot help but be impressed with the knowledge and experience that appear in the many books by dealers such as Thomas F. Madigan, Mary A. Benjamin, Charles Hamilton—sadly, all gone now—and my colleague Kenneth Rendell. No reference library is complete without their works. We are currently offering a scarce two-volume set of Hamilton’s American Autographs, which contain multiple examples of the each of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Presidents of the United States through Ronald Reagan, the sitting President when the books were published.
Those who tout their authentication services often work with auction houses to provide certificates of authenticity, for a fee, when the auction houses themselves either do not guarantee authenticity at all or offer only a limited guarantee. Such a service is valuable if the authenticator is capable.
Unfortunately, we continue to see third-party authenticators make elementary mistakes. Many collectors are aware of the “authentication” of the signature of Karl Dönitz, the Nazi Grand Admiral who succeeded Adolf Hitler as German Führer, as that of Chester W. Nimitz, the American Fleet Admiral in the Pacific in World War II. The authenticator got the right war, but the wrong Navy and the wrong ocean. Although both signatures end in “itz,” the similarity stops there, and both signatures are legible so that one can easily tell the difference. Worse was the “authentication” of the signature of James Earl Ray, the confessed assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., as that of the award-winning actor James Earl Jones. The Ray signature was so clearly legible that surely the authenticator stopped reading at “James Earl” and ignored the name “Ray” completely. The mistake was simultaneously humorous and sad.
The two very recent goofs were by two different authentication companies.
One is this clipped signature of United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first appointee to the Court. It is slabbed by the authentication company and is being offered for sale as a genuine signature of Gorsuch:
Except for the missing end of the final pen stroke, this signature matches this known Autopen exemplar that is highlighted in Trent McCotter’s outstanding study of Supreme Court Autopen signatures in a recent edition of The Manuscript Society journal Manuscripts:
The study is Trent McCotter, Supreme Court Autopens, 69 Manuscripts 193 (2017). It is already a standard reference for Supreme Court collectors and dealers. A professional authenticator not only should have known of it, but, given the recent appointment of Justice Gorsuch, certainly should have consulted it.
The other mistake that we saw recently is this preprinted facsimile letter by Harry S. Truman, a letter that he sent to the thousands of people who wrote to him shortly after he left office, which was offered as genuine, supported by an authenticator’s certificate of authenticity, in a recent auction:
This facsimile is well done, to be sure. But among autograph professionals, it is also well known. I have a hard copy of this letter in my exemplar file and scans of five other copies of it in my digital exemplar file. Apart from the notoriety of this letter, the flatness of the ink, the fact that the stationery is not engraved, and the fact that the letter has no salutation are red flags. Truman’s office inevitably mailed these letters in typed envelopes, too, and it should have been another red flag that this letter came with the original typed mailing envelope. This would not have fooled a capable authenticator who examined it in hand, even if the authenticator did not already know that it is a facsimile. I notified the auction house and provided it with some of my exemplar scans, and it removed the piece from the auction. Fortunately, no buyer was hurt.
It is troubling enough that mistakes such as these occur if those who authenticate the items lack the knowledge and experience that they need to tell a real autograph from a fake one. More troubling is the thought that authenticators may be examining items too quickly, or making assumptions that no authenticator should make, or—far, far worse yet—rendering opinions on the basis of scans of items without examining the originals in hand. Perfection, not profit, should be the motive for any authenticator.
Even if the owners of an authentication service may be capable enough themselves, it is obvious that at least some members of their staffs are not sufficiently educated and experienced in the areas in which they work and that their work is not being double checked by someone who is. An authenticator who may have expertise with modern sports or entertainment material from collecting in-person signed photos may not know, for example, that Robert Spring and Joseph Cosey created deceiving forgeries of even fully handwritten letters by the likes of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Mark Twain, or that Henry Woodhouse forged many prominent signatures on postal covers, or that Eugene Field II created handwritten pieces that he sold as those of his father, or that Ronald Reagan’s mother Nelle, whose handwriting was deceivingly close to his, wrote sometimes long letters purporting to be his to answer fan mail that he received as a Hollywood actor.
Authenticators must resist the temptation to go outside the limits of their knowledge. Collectors should do a double take before relying blindly on their opinions.
Old dealer markings.
November 5, 2017
We just sold another letter that has old dealer pencil markings in the corner.
Old dealer marks sometimes indicate the dealer’s price for the item. More often, they are a code that told the dealer what he or she paid for the item. In my opinion, there is a better way than writing on an original letter or document to keep track of that information, but that was how dealers did it back in the day.
If you find markings like that, though, considered judgment today is that you should not erase them. The markings are important as an indication of authenticity. The fact that a letter or document has been sold by a respected dealer in the past is provenance that one should not overlook and certainly should not remove.
One person’s treasure, another’s junk.
October 3, 2016
I am a big baseball fan, but I know very little about baseball cards.
When I was a kid, we bought baseball cards in the hope that we would find one of our beloved St. Louis Cardinals—players from the storied franchise that won the World Series in 1964 and 1967 and nearly won it again in 1968. The Cardinals were the ones that we took to school, bound with a rubber band, sometimes dog eared, bent, or dinged, to show off and to trade. I had some of the biggest names to wear the St. Louis uniform in the late 1960s, including Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, and Orlando Cepeda.
That is largely what I still know. I have learned a little, but not much, since. One cannot be an expert in everything, and my law practice aside, my field is historical autographs.
Saturday I found out that I know way less about baseball cards than even I thought. The results of Goldin Auctions’ vintage baseball card auction that closed October 1 leave me shaking my head.
The auction included, among other things, a 1909 T206 White Border Honus Wagner tobacco card. That piece was so spectacular, so rare, so magnificent that Goldin required that one be classified as a “Premium Bidder” in order to be able to bid on it. I could not find what qualifies a bidder to be a Premium Bidder on the auction house’s website, but undoubtedly a Premium Bidder needs either a strong financial statement or a friendly banker. That Wagner card brought $3,185,000, including the buyer’s premium.
But I shake my head not because of Wagner, but because of Yankees great Mickey Mantle.
There were two virtually identical 1951 Bowman # 253 Mantle rookie cards in the auction. Lot 22, a perfectly centered card with nary a blemish on it, was graded by PSA as Near Mint to Mint 8. The other one, Lot 23, appeared to be not quite perfectly centered, and it had a couple of vertical marks on the front and what appeared to be small stains on the back. But it also bore a beautiful blue ballpoint signature by The Mick himself that PSA had graded Mint 9.
Here are the pieces together for comparison:
Lot 22 – PSA NM-MT 8
Lot 23 – PSA MINT 9
Remember that I am an autograph guy. I revel in reading other people’s old mail. Handwriting means a lot. Several years ago, when Mantle was here in Springfield, Missouri, where I live, I stood in a long, long line for him to sign a baseball for me. The Mick, a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest baseball names of my generation, even nodded when I thanked him for signing. So, I thought, who would not prefer Lot 23, the card that Mantle signed? To me, that was only common sense.
But apparently it is not common sense to baseball card purists. To be sure, Lot 23 brought a lot of money—$22,050. But it paled in comparison to Lot 22. The unsigned card, the one that we autograph hounds would have eschewed in favor of the signed one, sold for a whopping $208,250. Both prices included the buyer’s premium.
Why the stark difference in value? The defects in the signed card, such as they were, surely did not account for that wide a spread. After all, the card is still a Mickey Mantle rookie card. So I am left with the firm impression that the existence of the Mantle signature itself depressed the value by about 90%, at least in this auction.
I shake my head because the autograph, the thing I love, seemingly defaced the card.
The old adage says that one person’s junk is another’s treasure. In this case, one person’s treasure appears to be another’s (albeit pricey) junk.
The ego of LBJ.
October 25, 2014
Lyndon Baines Johnson had an ego that words cannot capture.
A large man at 6’ 4”, Johnson often towered over others. He enjoyed giving them the “Johnson treatment” by leaning into them, sometimes over them, and so invading their personal space that he made himself superior by their discomfort. Photographs of Johnson giving the treatment to Senators Theodore F. Green and Richard Russell, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, and others come easily to mind. He intimidated aides: He demanded that they answer his calls at all hours—he even ordered a phone installed in aide Joseph Califano’s private restroom—and confer with him as he lay in bed, often with Lady Bird discretely under the covers beside him, and in the bathroom as, buck naked, he showered, shaved, and used the toilet. He glorified in referring to himself as “your President,” and he craved and demanded and reveled in the attention due the presidency.
A pair of White House letters that Swann Auction Galleries is currently offering together underscore Johnson’s own self-importance.
A Virginia collector sought the autograph of President John F. Kennedy and, after him, President Johnson. In one of the letters up for auction, dated April 29, 1961, Kennedy responded with a genuine signature. “I am delighted,” he wrote, “to send you this note to add to your collection of presidential letters dating back to George Washington. I appreciate your words of approval concerning my efforts thus far and want to thank you.”
Of course, Kennedy spent little time signing anything, especially in response to requests through the mail. He often delegated the tasks of signing even his own letters to others. Studies by Charles Hamilton, Paul Carr, and lately Andreas Wiemer are replete with examples of the many secretarial attempts to copy Kennedy’s signature throughout his public life. Yet this time Kennedy was willing to add to what he likely saw as a piece of history, a collection of presidential letters that would not be complete without his. Kennedy, who collected historical letters himself, likely saw himself as a link in the historical chain that began with Washington and would continue long into the future.
That meant nothing to Johnson when he got his turn, as the other letter in this lot shows.
That one is a White House letter dated March 13, 1964. Apparently Johnson’s secretary had honored his first request for LBJ’s autograph by sending him a The White House card bearing a secretarial or Autopen signature. As we now know, there likely are no genuinely signed Johnson The White House cards. The collector, probably disappointed, but certainly not fooled, tried again. Johnson’s seemingly cordial reply seethes with irritation:
I am sorry you would not accept the card my secretary sent to you, but at the time your previous letter arrived it was impossible for me to dictate a personal letter.
As you can well understand, if I took time to answer personally more than the very important mail that arrives among the thirty-five thousand pieces we have been receiving each week in the White House I would have little time to attend to the affairs of state.
My best regards.
Then Johnson added a glaring finishing touch: The signature on the letter is secretarial, as Swann notes. It is by Bruce Thomas, Johnson’s secretary who signed scores of souvenir and other items for him.
Lyndon Baines Johnson would never be only a link in anyone’s chain.
Important enough for an original signature?
July 20, 2014
Those of us in the autograph world know that what you see is not always what you think you are getting. Fakes and forgeries abound, even in arguably the most significant historical event of my lifetime. Today’s anniversary of the first manned lunar landing, Apollo 11, which occurred 45 years ago, brought this home to me yet again.
Apollo 11 was a scientific and technological feat without parallel. Think about it. In May 1961, the United States launched its first astronaut into space—yet not even into orbit around the Earth. In just a little more than eight short years, unfortunately with one disastrous failure along the way, NASA methodically inched its way to the moon: First, Project Mercury put astronauts into space. Second, Project Gemini took astronauts outside the spacecraft to work in the vacuum of space, mastered two-spacecraft rendezvous techniques, and docked two spacecraft together. Finally, Apollo 7 tested the command / service module in Earth orbit; Apollo 8 orbited the moon; Apollo 9 tested the lunar module and docking techniques in Earth orbit; Apollo 10’s dress rehearsal in lunar orbit did everything but land; and on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and Neil Armstrong became the first human being to walk on another celestial body.
That is heady stuff—the stuff of which dreams are made.
NASA thought of just about everything. To leave an indelible mark on the location of the first lunar landing, it prepared a 9” x 7⅝” stainless steel engraved plaque attached to the front leg of the lunar module, between rungs of the descent ladder. The plaque was suggested and designed by Jack Kinzler, “Mr. Fix It,” NASA’s Chief of the Technical Service Center at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The plaque bore representations of the east and west hemispheres of the Earth and this inscription:
here men from the planet earth
first set foot upon the moon
july 1969, a.d.
we came in peace for all mankind
Beneath the inscription were facsimile signatures of the three astronauts, Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., who later formally changed his name to “Buzz,’ and President Richard M. Nixon.
Today I watched a replay of David Brinkley’s NBC news broadcast from July 21, 1969, covering Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface, his and Aldrin’s work around the lunar module, and Nixon’s famous long-distance phone call from the Oval Office to the astronauts on the moon. As Armstrong unveiled the plaque on the lunar module, he described it for the television audience on Earth, read the inscription, and said that it “has the—the crew members’ signatures and the signature of the President of the United States.”
No one would have expected that the astronauts and the President would have signed the plaque itself. The temperature and the unfiltered sun on the lunar surface would have destroyed the signatures, if indeed one can write on stainless steel. So naturally the signatures were engraved, as was the rest of the plaque.
Here, though, is the catch: For as mammoth an event in the history of mankind as the Apollo 11 landing was, neither the astronauts nor President Nixon signed the original design from which the plaque was engraved. Instead—astoundingly—all four signatures on the plaque are Autopen patterns.
Here is the plaque:
Notice the signatures. They are these known Autopen patterns:
Granted, the astronauts were busy in the weeks leading up to the launch of Apollo 11. But it is known that they signed other things during that time, as did Nixon. One must wonder, then, about the mindset of the government bureaucracy that spawned even the thought of using machine signature patterns to make the Apollo 11 plaque—much less actually doing it.
The authorized biography of Armstrong, First Man, relates that although “the crew played no role in developing the plaque or its inscription, they were happy to endorse the message and to put their signatures on it,” and that Aldrin “felt that the plaque was one place that required his formal assignation, ‘Edwin E.’” Scott Hansen, First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong 503 (2005). Obviously, though, the astronauts did not “put their signatures on” the plaque, as NASA would have had the public believe. As a collector at heart, I am disappointed that the most significant historical event of the 20th Century was not important enough for NASA to obtain original signatures from the astronauts and Nixon.
President Ford . . .
April 1, 2014
Despite the date on which I am writing this, it is no April Fool’s joke.
Usually, our only relationship to Presidents of the United States is through the sale of their autograph material. Somehow, though, the people who sell and use mailing lists have inferred a closer association: They believe that Gerald Ford is at History In Ink. Never mind that he was the 38th President of the United States and that he died a little more than seven years ago.
A while back we started receiving mail addressed to Ford. It came from banks and credit card companies offering us unsolicited loans and enough credit to buy a big car or a small house. I chuckled the first time it happened. Computer programs that crawl the web to find addresses for those who create mailing lists do funny things.
A few solicitations later, no less eminent an organization than Dun & Bradstreet wrote to Ford at History In Ink to ask him to apply—and, of course, pay—for its services. I called Dun & Bradstreet about the invitation to explain that although we sell President Ford’s autograph material, he was not and is not associated with History In Ink.
The man who answered the phone had not been born when Gerald Ford was President and seemed never to have heard of him. I had to explain that he had been the President of the United States. It did not strike him as strange that Ford would be associated with us, even if he were still living. What was more important, I guess, was that History In Ink qualify to buy Dun & Bradstreet’s services.
“Who” he asked, rather condescendingly, “is History In Ink?”
I responded in kind.
“Who is Dun & Bradstreet?” I asked.
He seemed both tweaked and flustered that I would not already know that. When he insisted that Dun & Bradstreet is a well-respected company, I told him that History In Ink and Gerald Ford are also well respected but that the former President of the United States has, and had, nothing to do with my business.
“Are you saying that there is no one else named Gerald Ford in the world?” he demanded.
No, I said, I was suggesting just the opposite—and that I did not want Dun & Bradstreet unwittingly to associate History In Ink with someone who might coincidentally share the President’s name but have far less than his standing and his reputation for honesty and integrity.
He demurred. He said that I could go onto some website in order to submit an online request online that some unknown person, whom I would never see and with whom I could not speak directly, delete President Ford’s name from the History In Ink file.
It never got fixed.
Now the junk mail barons are at it again. We just received another credit invitation, this one from Capital One:
I wonder whether the person who mailed this was alive when Gerald Ford was President. I wonder, too, whether Capital One would require that Ford sign the credit card application. I do not plan to ask. I might be stuck with the card if some third-party authenticator were to declare the signature genuine.
More simple math.
July 10, 2013
Generally, opinions about authenticity are just that—opinions, albeit educated ones if the authenticator is qualified—unless the authenticator observes the signer sign in person. But there are times when authentication moves from the realm of opinion into the realm of fact. I wrote about this nearly four years ago (see “Simple math,” from October 29, 2009, below), but here is another example of how purportedly genuine autographs can absolutely prove themselves to be forgeries.
This week a collector asked me to authenticate a signed photograph of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, who died June 10, 1946. Johnson’s autograph is scarce, and it commands premium prices. His signed photographs have brought in the range of $3,000 to $4,000 at auction in recent years. The collector who sent me this one said that he had paid a healthy price for it.
The photo was signed Jack Johnson in dark black pen on an 8” x 10” glossy black-and-white photograph of Johnson in a bare-fisted boxing pose. The photo itself was a print of a photograph in the George Grantham Bain collection in the Library of Congress.
The signature was suspicious in the scan of the photo that the collector first sent me, and when I examined it in hand I knew that it was bad, for several reasons. The signature also appeared to be signed with a black rollerball pen, which did not exist during Johnson’s lifetime. But none of that particularly mattered.
The clincher, which branded this a forgery with absolute certainty—fact, not opinion—was the photographic paper on which the photo was printed. It bore the faint epson watermark in several places on the back. According to the corporate history timeline that appears on Epson Corporation’s website, the epson brand was not established until June 1975. The Japanese Epson Corporation is the successor of Shinshu Seiki Co., Ltd., which was established in 1961; the name was changed to Epson Corporation in 1982. Seiko Epson Corporation, which resulted from a merger of Suwa Seikosha Co., Ltd., and Epson Corporation, dates from 1985. Epson America, Inc., the company’s first American subsidiary, was formed in 1975. Thus, the epson brand first appeared some 29 years after Johnson died in 1946.
Opinion aside, simple math again told the facts: It was physically impossible for Johnson ever to have signed a photograph printed on epson brand paper.
Missouri’s heritage online.
February 24, 2013
I am delighted that my home state, Missouri, has digitized and made available online a vast array of historical documents and photographs dating back to the early days of the state.
The Missouri Digital Heritage Initiative is a collaborative effort among the Missouri State Archives, the Missouri State Library, and the State Historical Society of Missouri to assist institutions across Missouri to digitize their records and put them online for easy access. Click here to visit the Missouri Digital Heritage Initiative website.
Among the documents available online are more than 500,000 digitized Civil War records. The State Historical Society collection “The American Civil War in Missouri” includes letters and diaries that illustrate how the military and civilian population of Missouri, a border state that remained in the Union but nevertheless had considerable Southern sympathy, experienced the war.
The collection also includes the largest body of freedom suit case files available to researchers in the United States. The records comprise 301 petitions filed by African-Americans in the St. Louis courts between 1814 and 1860. They include the records from the seminal case ultimately known as Dred Scott v. Sanford, litigation begun in 1846 by slaves Dred and Harriett Scott to secure their freedom. Eleven years after the Scotts filed suit, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Scotts were not free, but remained in slavery, and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional—a decision that led directly to the Civil War. The collection comprises 111 documents, with over 400 pages of text, including the only extant records from the case as it was originally heard in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis. The online documents are all now full text and searchable.
The Bushwackers Collection includes court documents relating to two of Missouri’s most famous—and infamous—citizens, Jesse and Frank James. The records include indictments issued against one or both of them for crimes that ranged from grand theft to murder; arrest warrants; witness subpoenas; pleas for bail; and other documents.
As a Missouri lawyer, some of my favorite records are those of the Missouri Supreme Court. In cooperation with the Court, civil and criminal case files are being indexed by interns employed by the State Archives utilizing funding from the Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society, of which I am a Trustee. Last September, the Archives completed a 2½-year project, funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, to scan the original Supreme Court case files from 1821 to 1865 and link the digital images to existing database entries. According to the Archives, the case files “demonstrate the rich variety in Missouri history as cases evolve from French fur trappers to steamboat cases of the Mark Twain era to the rise of modern railroads. Court dockets feature the names of prominent Missourians, such as Thomas Hart Benton, William Clark, Sterling Price, and Frank Blair, alongside the infamous and notorious. Although litigants came from the entire range of Missouri society, the vast majority of cases involve relatively unknown citizens. These cases provide great insight into the lives of many common Missourians . . . . The records also offer observations about historical development in the politics, economics, and social issues of 19th century Missouri. A wide range of topics is available for historical and legal research, including slavery and freedom suits, business and industry, local and state elections, dueling, agriculture and mining, morality issues, the role of women in society, and judicial precedent.”
The State Archives, a division of the office of the Missouri Secretary of State, is the repository for state records of permanent historical value. Its holdings date from 1770 and include executive, legislative, and judicial records; records of Missouri state departments and agencies; land records; military records; photographic collections; state publications; manuscript and reference collections; and microfilmed county and municipal records. It holds more than 336,000,000 pages of paper; 400,000 photographs; 9,000 maps; 61,000 reels of microfilm; and 1,000 audio and video items.
July 10, 2012
Until now, I have resisted watermarking scans of items that we list for sale online. The collector in me deplores the appearance of historical autographs with dealer watermarks scrawled across them.
At this point, though, I am giving in for the good of the autograph hobby. Recently one of my clients told me that an eBay seller has reproduced a letter that the client bought from us a few years ago and is selling matted and framed copies of the reproduction. As far as we can tell, the seller copied the scan from our Sold Archive. I know of no other source from which the item could have come. It appears to match perfectly the scan of the letter that we have online.
In this case, the fakes are clearly advertised as such, so there appears to be no intent by that seller to deceive potential buyers. But not all sellers who market reproductions are that scrupulous. There are those who engage in outright fraud not only by offering to sell reproductions that they do not identify as such, but also by using others’ scans in order to offer to sell items that they do not actually have and never had in the first place. We have heard of sellers using this scam to offer for sale items that the dealers from whom they stole the scans still had in their inventories.
Unfortunately, such dishonesty affects not only those who fall for it, but also honest bystanders, both collectors and dealers. A collector who buys a historical autograph item should not have to be concerned whether its value may be diluted by someone who manufactures and sells reproductions of it. For the same reason, dealers resist selling items for which copies have flooded the market. Furthermore, in today’s all-too-dishonest world, dealers who simply want to provide quality scans for their clients to review online can unwittingly facilitate fraud if an unscrupulous third party does mischief with the scans.
Since it now appears that others are willing to copy scans from our website without notice and without any request for permission, I see no option but to watermark our scans. Consequently, you will notice that our scans on new items now bear the following faint watermark, and we will update scans on existing items as time permits:
I do not like it, but out of respect for our clients, and out of a desire to protect collectors and others from fraud, I accede to it.
The worth of a “manufactured” piece?
January 5, 2012
What is the worth of an autograph item if the signature is genuine but the signer really did not sign the item itself?
I refer to what are actually manufactured pieces. They are not what they appear to be. While they appear to be signed photographs, signed quotations, or even full letters, they have instead been manufactured by someone who has added text or a photograph to a preexisting genuine signature to create an item that the signer never actually signed or even intended to sign.
Examples of these appear for sale on eBay, in recognized autograph auctions, and in some dealer inventories. They include souvenir copies of President Richard Nixon’s resignation letter and President Gerald R. Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon and pieces bearing a photo of President Ronald Reagan before the Berlin Wall with a printed quotation of his famous demand to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Two types of manufactured pieces recently stirred this debate again in my own mind.
The first is a book entitled President Richard M. Nixon: The Watergate Tapes, published by FlatSigned Press. It has a beautiful gilt-embossed leather cover imprinted with statements that it is a “Signed Limited Edition of 94 Copies” that is “Autographed By President Nixon.”
FlatSigned’s website says that it “is a limited edition book that chronicles the events of the Watergate Scandal, and is personally hand-signed by President Richard M. Nixon himself.” It explains:
“President Nixon, like all authors who are having a Signed Limited Edition published, signed extra sheets to make sure there were sufficient signed sheets after any loss of the pages due to damage occurring during the printing and publishing process. FlatSigned Press has indirectly acquired the remainder of these sheets and bound them into this legendary quality leather book. This is only the third book in literary history to be published in a Signed Limited Edition posthumously. The previous authors who had Signed Limited Editions published after their deaths were Mark Twain with Works of Mark Twain, and Rudyard Kipling with Works of Rudyard Kipling.”
Amid the suggestions that Nixon signed this “limited edition” itself is the disclosure that FlatSigned “indirectly” acquired signature pages that Nixon had previously signed and bound them into the copies of this book. The word “indirectly” indicates that FlatSigned did not get the pages directly from Nixon. What remains unsaid is that Nixon signed those pages for one or more limited editions of his own books, not for this one. Given its subject, Nixon likely would never have signed this book, even if he had been alive when it was published.
As to this book, then, it seems clear that Nixon was not an author who was, in FlatSigned’s words, “having a Signed Limited Edition published.” This really is not a book “published in a Signed Limited Edition posthumously.” Instead, this is a manufactured item. FlatSigned offers this book, packaged in a handmade, felt-lined cherry box with “four audio cassettes of the infamous Watergate tapes,” for $699.
The second, similar to this but used differently, are copies of the quintessential photograph of the Truman presidency—that of President Harry S. Truman gleefully displaying the Chicago Daily Tribune with its infamous headline prematurely proclaiming dewey defeats truman—skillfully added beneath genuine Truman signatures on unused pages that Truman signed for binding into limited edition copies of his book Mr. Citizen.
Truman had signed the pages, which were numbered after the word NUMBER printed beneath his signature and then bound into the books. The unused ones later found their way to the autograph market. The word NUMBER appears almost imperceptibly in the dark area of the later-added photograph, a clear link to the Mr. Citizen pages. Truman could not, of course, have known that this would happen when he signed this piece.
I recently found an unframed copy of one of these manufactured pieces, described only as a “printed reproduction of the famous photograph,” being offered by another dealer for $8,999. We sold one of these several years ago, fully described for what it was, for less than a tenth of that. That one, which we custom framed, is here.
Granted that this is a wonderful image from the greatest upset in American political history. Actual signed prints of that photograph are rare and very desirable. A similar image signed by Truman, part of the Forbes collection, sold for $16,450, including the buyer’s premium, at Christie’s in New York in 2002. But Truman did not sign these manufactured pieces as photographs, but instead as pages to be bound into Mr. Citizen.
What, then, is a manufactured piece worth? The value naturally depends on what the piece is and whose signature is involved. Generally speaking, though, since manufactured pieces seem to be popular with some collectors, the market accords them more than signature value alone. The question is how much more is appropriate. In my mind, a manufactured piece is not worth what it would be were it the real thing—the genuineness of the signature notwithstanding. How much it is worth beyond mere signature value depends on whether it is clearly and properly described, so that the fact that it is a manufactured item is fully disclosed and, thus, the buyer is fully informed. True value does not lie in what an uninformed buyer may be convinced to pay.
Do your homework.
October 9, 2010
Forgeries may contain obvious errors. Misspelling the signer’s name, signing an item that shows on its face that it was created after the signer died, and similar mistakes are easy to discern if you simply pay attention.
But forgeries sometimes have less obvious errors that instantly give them away to the trained eye but nevertheless may fool those with less training. So collectors—particularly those who have not collected long or who have little or no experience with d particular name—have to do their homework.
Consider the first day cover illustrated below that we recently saw for sale online. The cover commemorates the 150th anniversary of Missouri’s statehood. It is postmarked at Independence, Missouri, on May 8, 1971, which was Harry S. Truman’s 87th birthday.
The signature on the cover purports to be that of Truman. The dealer offering it apparently thinks that it is his. Without doubt, however, Truman did not sign it. There are plenty of things that are wrong with this signature, but the most obvious—if you have studied enough to catch it—is that it does not reflect the form of Truman’s signature by that stage of his life.
The signature on this cover is patterned after Truman’s signature from the early 1950s to the early- to mid-1960s:
At age 87, though, Truman was an old man whose hands no longer worked as well as they did when he was younger. So his signature, like that of most people, underwent a transformation. Truman’s extremely old-age signatures took on an almost printed quality, with a printed middle initial “S” and a printed “T” on Truman.
Here is a genuinely signed Missouri sesquicentennial first day cover, also postmarked at Independence, Missouri, on May 8, 1971:
Here, too, is a genuine example of Truman’s signature from a letter dated May 14, 1971, just eight days after the first day cover:
The differences are manifest. Determining which one is real is easy if you know enough about Truman’s autograph to know his signature at different points in his life.
So check the websites of various dealers and auction houses to see how the person’s signature appeared at various stages in life. We maintain our Sold Archive as a collector resource for things like this. Look at more than a few pieces. Eventually you will see the formations and trends that disclose the time frame in which a signature was signed. That, in turn, can help to distinguish the good signatures from the fakes.
Even those whom the autograph community generally regards as experts can misfire because of their own lack of knowledge. This old-age form of Truman’s signature is one that renowned, respected dealer Charles Hamilton, in his book Big Name Hunting, declared to be an “inept imitation” of “Truman’s own signature.” Yet I can say—as one who has seen dozens of these while focusing on Truman material in my personal collection for more than two decades—that the old-age signature shown above is the real McCoy.
So consult more than one source, and make sure that those sources routinely handle the type of material for which you look to them for guidance.
There are many signers whose signatures varied over the years. Sometimes the differences are stark, and sometimes they are subtle. Names that come readily to mind include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, and Adolf Hitler. One can tell Gerald R. Ford’s presidential signature from his post-presidential one by the form.
The form of a signature is not, of course, the only factor to consider when determining authenticity. But for this Truman first day cover, and for other pieces, it is determinative. So before you buy an item, do your homework.
Humanity in high places.
September 19, 2010
We often tend to put the people of history on pedestals, as though they belong in a museum, and view their lives through the lens of history rather than the lens of humanity. We forget that they—like us—are human beings who love, laugh, cry, worry, celebrate, and mourn.
The humanity of President Franklin D. Roosevelt emerges in a wonderful story that one of our clients recently told us about the time his father confronted him.
As a child in the 1930s, the man lived in Keene, New Hampshire. His parents dressed him in a Buster Brown outfit, which was typical for children in that era, to see Roosevelt when he appeared in Keene for a speech.
The little boy, dressed in his Sunday best, stood directly in front of the podium from which the President was to speak. Roosevelt saw him in the crowd and called him up on the stage. He then picked up the boy and sat him on his lap.
“What a cute little girl you are!” the President exclaimed.
“I’m not a little girl!” the child retorted. “I’m a boy! How would you like a punch in the nose?”
Roosevelt, with his great charm and wit, immediately began to laugh. The Secret Service, of course, then whisked the child away for fear that he would make good on his promise.
Stories like that illustrate just how very human those in high places can be.
Stepping into history.
July 15, 2010
I was surfing the web while on vacation in Florida a few days ago when I came across the website for the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami&mdfash;and there, in all its glory, was Harry S. Truman’s railroad car, a Pullman car named the Ferdinand Magellan.
I was elated to learn that the car still existed. There was far too much history in it for a Truman buff like me to miss it.
It was around the Ferdinand Magellan’s dining table, for example, that Truman and his staff played poker with former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on their way to Fulton, Missouri, where Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech on March 6, 1946. Churchill bragged so much about his poker prowess that Truman was concerned about American honor. After Churchill continually lost for over an hour, though, Truman told his staff during a break that they should let up on him. Truman’s military aide and court jester Harry Vaughan protested. “But Boss,” he argued, “this guy’s a pigeon. If you want us to play our best poker for the nation’s honor, we’ll have this guy’s pants before the evening is over.”
The Ferdinand Magellan was the site of much greater political lore two years later as Truman scored the biggest upset in American political history. He logged several thousand miles on board as he barnstormed the country, giving ’em hell, as some said, in speeches from the car’s rear platform during the fabled Whistle Stop presidential campaign of 1948.
It was an election that really no one, except Truman himself, thought he would win. Late in the campaign, Newsweek reported that the nation’s top 50 political pundits unanimously predicted that Republican Thomas Dewey would win. After one campaign stop, Truman aide Clark Clifford tried to sneak aboard the train without Truman noticing that he had a copy of the magazine. Truman saw him and told him to disregard the poll. “I know every one of those fifty fellows,” he said, “and not one of them has enough sense to pound sand into a rathole.”
The Ferdinand Magellan was also the site of the most memorable photograph of Truman. On November 4, 1948, two days after his election, Truman stopped at Union Station in St. Louis on his way back to Washington from his home in Independence, Missouri. Someone handed him a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune, a newspaper that he detested. A beaming Truman displayed the Tribune with its banner headline screaming “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”
Experiencing this railroad car was like stepping into history. In the dining room, my fingertips felt the smooth mahogany table at which Truman and Churchill sat. I stood in the rear observation lounge where Truman calmly reassured Clifford. On the rear platform, emblazoned with the presidential seal in brass, I could almost hear Truman pouring it on the Do-Nothing 80th Congress and see him gleefully gig the Tribune.
I have the museum staff to thank for the opportunity. The car is no longer open for the public to wander through it. Guided tours are available, but the volunteers who usually lead them were gone the day my family and I were there. The museum’s executive director happened to be there, though, and kindly gave us the tour, even though he, too, was on vacation.
The Ferdinand Magellan shows its age. The original carpet and the original furniture and curtain fabrics are dingy and worn. Even so, the Ferdinand Magellan is still majestic—railroad car U.S. No. 1, the only car ever built especially for the President of the United States. It is a magnificent relic from yesteryear and a priceless piece of presidential history.
Having found it, I would not have missed it.
Oh, for a genuine signature!
May 27, 2010
People who do not know the difference routinely offer us material that is not genuinely signed. Presidential land grants dated after Andrew Jackson’s first term and more modern items bearing preprinted, secretarial, or Autopen signatures are typical.
Occasionally, though, we are offered a piece that makes me really bemoan the fact that it is not genuine.
It happened again the other day, this time with a secretarially signed form letter that Franklin D. Roosevelt sent out just before the 1928 election to promote the candidacy of the Democratic nominee, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, against Republican Herbert Hoover. We had another copy of that letter in our files, but seeing this letter again brought back that same sense of regret—form letter or not.
Roosevelt, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson, and who in 1928 was himself running for Governor of New York, solicited a potential Democratic supporter in the strongest terms:
I have not heard what decision you have made as between the two Presidential candidates, but remembering your firm belief in the policies and ideals of Woodrow Wilson, I am encouraged to hope that you have decided as I have decided—that under Governor Smith our country stands far more chance of returning to the path blazed out for us by our greatest President, than under the materialistic and self-seeking advisers who surround the other candidate; men whose influence has already made it manifest that high ideals and a forward-looking policy—not only for this country, but for the world—would stand as little chance under Mr. Hoover as they have stood under President Harding, President Coolidge and Mr. Mellon.
To me, the contemptuous casting aside of all of President Wilson’s wonderful dreams of a better world, and the substitution of crass materialism and a dollar-and-cents viewpoint of everything has been a world tragedy. I know Governor Smith and I know that in his own way his interest in humanity, his intolerance of the oppression of the weak and his desire to help those handicapped by circumstances has led him to the same belief as to what our country’s attitude should be, and as to how its course should be guided, as animated President Wilson.
I would deeply appreciate it if you would write me confidentially what you have decided, addressing the letter to my house, 49 East 65th Street, New York City.
What would that letter be worth if FDR had signed it himself? He wrote thousands of letters, and routine examples abound. But letters with content of this quality rarely appear. The owner was certainly disappointed to learn that the signature was the work of a secretary—and, for obvious reasons, so was I.
May 4, 2010
Sometimes, I think, as 21st Century people we tend to think of the distant 19th Century as a time when people were less civilized, less educated, and less articulate. As autograph collectors know, that is far from the truth.
We recently acquired a fascinating collection of autograph letters that proves the point. It consists of five scrapbooks full of letters from people of prominence, some much more than others, in the 1890s. The collection was assembled by a professor in the Department of Accounting and Penmanship at the Kansas Normal School, now Emporia State University. He had his students write to ask for handwritten items—sentiments, words of advice, or reminiscences—to be included in these albums. Amazingly, although it was certainly a different time, people complied.
The albums contain letters and notes from presidents, senators, representatives, Supreme Court justices, Civil War generals, authors, activists and reformers, educators, and others. Many comment on the value of education. But many others relate to the interests and careers of the writers themselves.
Among the items are a letter by Susan B. Anthony demanding that the men of Kansas “repent” and grant women the right to vote; one from the United States consular official in Sierra Leone, who recalled watching the exhumation of the body of Napoleon on St. Helena; a seven-page autobiographical letter by the first United States Senator from Iowa, George Wallace Jones; and a letter describing how Indians chased the author’s stage coach across the western plains.
One of my favorite reminiscences is by former Confederate Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, who recalled nearly riding his horse over a wounded Federal soldier lying in a field of tall grass one night after the Seven Days’ Battles around Richmond, Virginia, in 1862. The soldier, he said, “faintly cried out, ‘don’t ride over a dying man.’” Lee dismounted, raised the soldier’s head on his arm, gave him a drink of whisky, and called an ambulance to take him to a Confederate field hospital. “Thank you,” the soldier said. “I have a father and mother in Maine who will bless you and thank you for this kindness after I am dead.” He indeed later died. “God grant!” Lee wrote, “that no one of your eighteen hundred students will ever behold the horrors of a bloody battle field—that our grand reunited country has seen its last Civil War.”
One cannot read these letters without appreciating how very articulate those people were. That, in turn, makes collecting their letters all the more enjoyable.
Remembering the Holocaust.
February 26, 2010
This week I talked with a local man who, as a German child in southern Poland, lived much of the Holocaust experience that I discussed in my last article.
He choked with emotion as he recounted Nazi horrors that he had experienced. His parents were not Jewish, but both opposed the Nazi regime. His mother was executed in Plötzensee Prison, and his father died at the Mauthausen concentration camp.
He recalled that he was 4 years old when an SS detachment came to arrest his mother. The soldiers picked her up in a convertible Mercedes-Benz. One of them leaned down to him and said that she would return in two hours. She never came back.
He has a letter from Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi Reichsführer-SS, refusing permission to see his mother. He also has a postcard that his mother wrote to his aunt, who was caring for him and his sister, saying that she would no longer be alive by the time that the children and their aunt read the card. Finally, he has a card from the prison authorities simply informing the family that his mother was no longer there.
His home in Poland was next to the railroad track. He told me of sitting on a high wall as a 7-year-old child and watching SS soldiers herd Poles, Czechs, and Jews like cattle into boxcars on trains bound for the gas chambers at Auschwitz. When a car was full, he said, the soldiers slammed the doors shut. A child separated from the parents was unceremoniously herded into the next car.
The Nazi atrocities were indeed beyond words.
Some may wonder, then, why I handle Nazi autograph material. One reason is that the historical impact of the Third Reich is undeniable, for the immense world war that Adolf Hitler spawned set the stage for the Cold War that shaped the military and economic history of the second half of the 20th Century. One does not have to agree with Nazism to recognize the significance of its historical role.
But there is another reason, one that I believe is more compelling: We must never forget what happened, because we must never allow it to happen again.
President Harry S. Truman rightly insisted on holding the war crimes trials in order to document Nazi atrocities systematically and publicly so that no one could ever convincingly claim that they did not happen, were minor, or occurred without the authority of the German government. The evidence from the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials overwhelmingly debunks the claims of modern revisionists who deny the Holocaust.
While I respect the sentiments of dealers who decline to handle Nazi autograph material, as a matter of conscience I would view my own refusal to do so as aiding those who want to sweep the Third Reich under the rug. I could not do that before—and, after talking with this man earlier this week, I certainly could never do it now.
January 8, 2010
I often say that given the option of spending a few thousand dollars on a signature of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or spending the same amount of money on a good-content letter, I would take the letter every time. With few exceptions, as seasoned collectors know and new ones quickly learn, it is the message that gives real historical value to the signature.
Even many seasoned collectors, though, ignore those whose names themselves mean nothing. Yet there are many unknown people whose letters are every bit as fascinating and as much a part of history as those of leaders of the time. For example, letters of Civil War soldiers on both sides, describing the battles in which they participated and conditions under which they lived, provide historical insight that a study of those in power cannot.
This comes to mind as I am preparing to list a group of Holocaust and related letters that come to us from a noted author. Most are family letters from no one of historical significance. Yet the history that the letters reflect makes owning them worthwhile. They include letters from prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, and Dachau—people who could say little, and whose mail the Nazis heavily censored, yet who managed to convey the difficulty of their existence in the few words they were allowed to write on officially-issued paper.
Consider, for example, the Sachsenhausen prisoner who asked his wife, with obvious pain, “Please let me know how you meant it in your letter before the last with the greatest humiliation of a woman through a man. I do not understand that well.” He added, “In reading your letter I walked with you through our entire place. I thought of each little place which reminded me of any happy, content, and beautiful experience. I do not think about the discontented ones.”
Then there is the Auschwitz prisoner, who—perhaps knowing, but perhaps not, that the Nazis likely blocked communication from his family—wrote to his wife, “I am really glad to have received a letter from you but am curious why you haven’t written for such a long time. . . . Please write to me often, and please answer every one of my letters.”
As I held and read these letters, images flashed through my mind of Jewish men lined up to be shot at the edge of a mass grave and of women, with looks of knowing fear, clutching and comforting their children in line for the gas chambers. The Nazi atrocities were beyond words.
The people who wrote these letters lived experiences such as those and likely died as a result. Their names mean nothing autographically, but their letters bring history alive. As such they are well worth collecting.
Fairness and trust.
December 7, 2009
A few evenings ago, I had a nice visit with a client. The topic turned to fairness in autograph prices.
There is a fairly well established range of value for most material. Prices vary based on a number of factors, which famed autograph dealer Mary A. Benjamin cogently explained in her book Autographs: A Key to Collecting. Generally speaking, those variations establish a range of values for a given item. Prices that fall within the established range are reasonable, while prices that greatly exceed it, absent a reasonable explanation for doing so, are not.
I recalled a gallery that I saw while on vacation a few years ago. In the window was a beautifully framed Abraham Lincoln piece. It was an autograph endorsement, signed A. Lincoln as President, on the back of a letter. Lincoln wrote lots of those, referring letters to cabinet officers or directing that a petitioner be discharged upon taking a loyalty oath, and consequently they are among the most common Lincoln autograph pieces. Because of Lincoln’s status as one of the great Presidents, though, and because of his role in maintaining the Union, his autograph material is uniformly expensive. Most dealers offer endorsements such as that in the range of $6,500 to $7,500. Only endorsements with independent historical significance or an excellent association command higher prices.
The framed endorsement that I saw in that window, though, was priced at $19,900. The exquisite framing added value, to be sure. But it struck me that I was looking at some $13,000 worth of framing—and that the price was aimed at buyers who might want a piece of history for display but who would have no concept of the true value of the autograph piece itself.
Some would say that such a price is fair if a buyer is willing to pay it. I have a different view. Since my clients look to me for knowledge, advice, and effort, I have a responsibility to treat them in a way that creates and reinforces trust. Lasting relationships, and indeed friendships, rest on candor and fairness. The collector whom I might be tempted to overcharge today will assuredly never be a client who asks my help to build a collection tomorrow. Hence I cannot be a mere purveyor of paper—and professionalism, with all that the term implies, cannot be a mere shibboleth.
November 6, 2009
After more than 20 years of working with historical autographs, I am still amazed at where people find some of the most wonderful pieces.
I spent some time tonight with an auction catalog. One of the items listed was an 1858 Abraham Lincoln letter that someone found a few years ago inside a book at a flea market. That reminded me of a piece in my own collection.
About 10 years ago I bought a World War I soldier’s pay book issued to a sergeant in Battery D, 129th Field Artillery Regiment, 35th Division, a National Guard unit composed of soldiers from Missouri and Kansas. It is dated November 1, 1918, just ten days before the armistice that ended the Great War. The captain of that artillery battery, which came under fire in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, was my fellow Missourian, Harry S. Truman, whose autograph material forms the centerpiece of my private collection. Truman had signed the pay book in blue fountain pen as the commanding officer and added his rank below his signature. The piece is in extra fine condition—as though it were issued yesterday. At the time, it was the earliest Truman piece that I had ever seen on the market.
The seller was from Independence, Missouri, where Truman lived most of his life. He told me that his mother had bought a used book at—you guessed it—a local flea market and had later discovered the sergeant’s pay book underneath the fly leaf, which had been glued down around it. Apparently whoever owned the book had put the pay book beneath the fly leaf for safekeeping. There is no telling how long it had been there.
So things like that really do happen. Be sure to check twice before you sell something at a garage sale or throw it away.
October 29, 2009
Sometimes all it takes to determine that an autograph could not possibly be genuine is a little math.
Over the past few months we have been offered a couple of autographs that themselves proved that they could not possibly have been genuinely signed. One was a signature of J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the other was a signed engraving of famed British Africa explorer David Livingstone.
The Hoover signature was on the back of a post card from a Miami, Florida, hotel. The card bore a 1975 copyright date. But that was the problem—Hoover died in 1972. Since the card was printed at least three years after his death, Hoover could not possibly have signed it. The card itself disproved the autograph.
The Livingstone engraving was on book weight paper with water stains at the bottom. The owner speculated that it had been removed from the front of a book that was discarded after it became wet and speculated that Livingstone had signed the book. Our first thought was that the signature was probably preprinted. Books by and about notable people, with printed facsimile signatures below their photographs, were common in Livingstone’s time.
Yet the scan we received did not suggest a printed facsimile signature. There appeared to be depth of ink where the strokes crossed, all in the right places. At the bottom, though, the engraving bore a small printed legend stating that it was published in London in 1880. Since Livingstone died in Africa in 1873, this piece likewise disproved itself. So there was no need to examine the signature further. Even if it was hand signed, assuredly David Livingstone did not hold the pen.
Sometimes autograph authentication is difficult. Sometimes, though, all it takes is a little math.
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