Autograph Collecting 101: How Can I Tell If My Autographed Photo Is Authentically Signed?

Updated on May 18, 2019
Timothy Anderson profile image

A long time autograph dealer/writer, Anderson's autograph articles have been published in The Saturday Evening Post & many other magazines.

That Taylor Swift "signed" photo you got in the mail or from an eBay auction?  Is the signature real, or is it a pre-printed autograph?  Keep reading to find out.
That Taylor Swift "signed" photo you got in the mail or from an eBay auction? Is the signature real, or is it a pre-printed autograph? Keep reading to find out.

Have You Been Scammed With a Fake "Signed" Photo?

Every day hundreds of "authentic" or "hand-signed" photos are purchased on eBay, Amazon and other internet autograph sites.

Many are offered with a "Certificate of Authentication," (COA) or some type of document claiming the signature on the photo is genuine and has been authenticated by an alleged autograph authentication agency.

A COA included with an online autograph purchase doesn't necessarily guarantee what you've bought is genuine. If the seller is a crook or forger, what makes you think their "Certificate of Authentication" is anything more than worthless lies printed onto paper?

As the old saying goes, "caveat emptor" -- let the buyer beware.

Here are some common ways unsuspecting autograph buyers are fooled into thinking they have purchased an authentic autographed photo, and how to identify "signed" photos that really aren't.

Star Wars' Daisy Ridley's genuine hand-signed photos in character as "Rey" are selling for $200 to $300 each.
Star Wars' Daisy Ridley's genuine hand-signed photos in character as "Rey" are selling for $200 to $300 each.

Modern Photos With Pre-printed Signatures

In the 1950s and 1960s, a new way of pre-printing "autographs" onto photos emerged as color photos became more popular and cheaper to reproduce.

Some of these fake-signed photos will have the signature's "ink" in various colors unlike the earlier 1920s to 1940s photos where the imprinted signatures were typically black or white.

Sarah Michelle Gellar helped launch the WB with her "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV series.  The "writing" is not real, but simply pre-printed onto a photo.  Notice there is no personalized inscription, i.e. "To John," or "For Heather."
Sarah Michelle Gellar helped launch the WB with her "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV series. The "writing" is not real, but simply pre-printed onto a photo. Notice there is no personalized inscription, i.e. "To John," or "For Heather."

Sometimes the more modern ones utilize a technique where a stamp made of metal, similar to a rubber stamp, could be used in a production line-type facility and "mash" the signature replication down into the photo, similar to an old-style printing press. At the same time, like a rubber stamp, it left an ink "signature" in the slight indentation. These starting showing up in the 1950s and lasted into the 1980s, and still occasionally turn up.

Unlike a rubber-stamped autograph (see the next section), this type of fake autographed photo gave the appearance of leaving an indentation similar to what would happen if a ball point pen was used to sign. An authentically signed photo with a ball point pen normally leaves a minor groove, or trail as it is pushed down against the photo when signing.

Beatle Paul McCartney's authentic, hand-signed 8 x 10" color photographs in excellent condition are worth $500 to $1,000 today.  His signed photos are among the most valuable of any living person.
Beatle Paul McCartney's authentic, hand-signed 8 x 10" color photographs in excellent condition are worth $500 to $1,000 today. His signed photos are among the most valuable of any living person.

The way to recognize one of these fakes is the fact the photo will often be in color, and the writing will usually be blue or black. Since the signature is not from a fountain pen, sharpie, or ball point pen, it won't smear or transfer if tested with a very, very lightly wet Q-tip.

I'm not recommending you do this, so attempt the Q-tip test at your own risk. You don't want to smear the ink, just dab in a tiny spot to see if the ink is, absorbed onto the Q-tip. An ink smeared autograph loses some of its value.

Finally, the ink in the imprinted signature will be one uniform color and shade from start-to-finish. No variations in tone or color. A true autograph will always have some light and dark areas, particularly at the beginning and end of the writing.

And like the vintage pre-prints described below, these modern ones will never be personalized, as in "To Tom," or, "For Mary."

If you wish to get some detailed information on how to spot a pre-print, click here.

This vintage 1920s photograph of famed silent film star Rudolph Valentino appears to be signed in white ink, but in fact, it's a pre-printed facsimile "signature."
This vintage 1920s photograph of famed silent film star Rudolph Valentino appears to be signed in white ink, but in fact, it's a pre-printed facsimile "signature."

Vintage Photos With Pre-printed "Signatures"

Back in the silent film era in the 1920s, Hollywood's many studios learned that their top stars were far too important making them money to spend time signing photographs that were being requested from their many fans.

So some smart marketing guru figured out -- 100 years ago -- how to fool an unsuspecting autograph collector into thinking he or she was receiving a genuinely autographed photo from their favorite star, whether Rudolph Valentino, Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford or Clara Bow.

Lucy Lawless played "Xena" on the popular 1990s TV series.  Her authentic hand-signed color photographs in character as Xena are worth around $100 today.
Lucy Lawless played "Xena" on the popular 1990s TV series. Her authentic hand-signed color photographs in character as Xena are worth around $100 today.

Many of the various studios' top stars were told to authentically sign a photograph of themselves, often with a sentiment like "Sincerely yours," or "Best wishes," followed by their autograph.

The studio would then take this authentically-signed photograph and reproduce it thousands of times. Typically the signed photo would be photographed and reproduced. In effect, a photo of a signed photo. And the "signature" would usually be white or black in color.

These old photos with pre-printed signatures will never have the "writing" in blue, purple or green fountain pen ink. And while they can make fun silent film collectibles, they do not bear true autographs and are worth little compared to genuinely hand-signed photos.

Think of these as a sort of fancy photocopy or computer scan. Mass-produced, and not original.

Comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.  Parents of actor Ben Stiller. This is an authentic, hand-signed photo.  Notice it is personalized to "Seymour."
Comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. Parents of actor Ben Stiller. This is an authentic, hand-signed photo. Notice it is personalized to "Seymour."

Another tip off to these types of pre-signed photos is the fact they are never personalized, as in "To Bertha," or perhaps, "For Mr. Watson," etc. You see, you can't reproduce a photo signed "To Charlie Martin from Lon Chaney" and send it to fans who requested a signed photo and don't know who the heck Charlie Martin is.

So the first tip-off to a possible pre-signed photo is it won't be personalized to the fan by name.

A second clue is to hold the photo at an angle up to a light. If the writing on the photo has a "sheen" to it, different in color from the rest of the photo, then this suggests it is not a pre-print. But this still doesn't guarantee authenticity; it could still be a rubber-stamped "signature," or possibly a secretary-signed photo. I'll explain these in the next sections.

Some collectors have been known to take a Q-tip or similar small cotton swab and after wetting one end, touch it gently over a tiny area of the writing, usually at the end of the "signature." If it's a pre-print, there is no ink transfer. If it smears slightly, or if there is an ink transfer, then it is not a pre-print, but this doesn't rule out other possibilities.

However, I don't necessarily recommend the Q-tip test as any visible smear will lessen the value of the photo. Do this at your own risk.

Keep reading.

Rubber-stamped autograph of silent film star John Gilbert, one-time fiance of actress Greta Garbo..  Notice the dot after his last name. | Author's collection
Rubber-stamped autograph of silent film star John Gilbert, one-time fiance of actress Greta Garbo.. Notice the dot after his last name. | Author's collection

Rubber-stamped "Signed" Photos

A rubber-stamped "signed" photo is usually easy to spot. Like the pre-prints, it won't be personalized to someone by name, like "For my friend Arnold," or "To Mary," etc.

The ink in the "signature" can often be splotchy, and many will have some slight smearing if the stamp isn't perfectly executed. Purple ink for some reason seems to have been one of the preferred colors for rubber stamps on older photos, and sometimes besides some slight smearing, you might see a few spots of ink left by the edges or borders of the rubber stamp.

And like a pre-print or autopen signature (next section), a rubber-stamp has no variation. In other words, if you compare two of these photos side-by-side, there will be no variation at all. The signatures will be perfect matches without any deviation in the writing. This is a physical impossibility since no one can sign their name exactly the same way twice.

I've seen some rubber-stamped signatures with small dots or periods after their name. Shirley Temple's rubber-stamped autographs often have this trait.

When in doubt, take an 8x or 10x magnifying loop (or something even more powerful) and examine the lines in the writing. A true signature will have "motion" marks, or "flow lines" in the direction the pen was moving.

Also, look very closely at "intersections," where the writing crosses over itself, such as the middle of a capital "X." You should be able to see which stroke came after the first, either with an overlay of extra ink or again, motion or flow lines.

NASA astronaut Don Lind.  This photo has been signed by a machine called an "autopen."
NASA astronaut Don Lind. This photo has been signed by a machine called an "autopen."

Photos Signed by Autopen

In the 1950s, a clever machine was invented called the autopen. It would sign letters, documents or photos with the autograph of a politician or celebrity.

John F. Kennedy was one of the first politicians to use the device when he was running for president in the late 1950s. Many of his supporters received letters in the mail asking for donations to his campaign. Each letter bore what appeared to be an authentic ink signature.

This is a John F. Kennedy autopen on a letter from 1959.  Autopenned  letters are not authentically signed, but are sometimes fun to collect depending upon the content.
This is a John F. Kennedy autopen on a letter from 1959. Autopenned letters are not authentically signed, but are sometimes fun to collect depending upon the content.

In fact, while the ink was real, the signature was not; it was merely a "mechanized" version of a rubber stamp. And just like a rubber stamp, the signature was always the same. No variations, but real ink.

The easiest way to determine if a signature is autopenned is to compare it to other suspected autopens. Sometimes an autopenned signature will have a small dot at the beginning and end of the strokes in the writing. This is due to the fact the autopen machine's small mechanical arm had a momentary pause as it it lowered down onto the object being signed. This is especially true when a Flair or Sharpie pen was used.

The arm is following a grooved signature template, which is why the signature will always appear the same. However, over time the template will begin to wear out and some shakiness in the signature becomes apparent, especially in looped letters like "J" or "B" where the mechanical arm struggles to turn corners.

Astronauts are famous for using autopens starting in the 1960s, and again, just like the rubber stamped photos described in the previous section, they will never be personalized to someone by name. Anytime you run across an astronaut's "signed" photo that isn't personalized, you must assume it could be an autopen and then do your research!

Take the following link to learn more about autopens.

Secretarial Or Spouse-signed Photos

Once a person becomes famous, they can expect to receive fan mail requesting an autograph or signed photo. There was a time when a person had a reasonable chance of writing to and receiving an autograph or signed photo through the mail of their favorite athlete, congressman, or movie star.

Today, if you were to write to Brad Pitt, LeBron James or Reba McEntire, your chances of receiving a hand-signed photo is about 0.009 percent. Or less.

While it's not as common today, in years past many celebrities had their personal secretaries hand-sign a photo. A few famous folks -- Confederate President Jefferson Davies and baseball legend Babe Ruth come to mind -- sometimes had their wives sign many of their through-the-mail autograph requests.

That's Babe Ruth's wife Claire next to him while he obligingly signs a fan's baseball.  She sometimes signed his through-the-mail autograph requests and did a pretty good job of mimicking his signature.
That's Babe Ruth's wife Claire next to him while he obligingly signs a fan's baseball. She sometimes signed his through-the-mail autograph requests and did a pretty good job of mimicking his signature.

Whether spouse or secretary, some made great efforts to mimic the celebrity's signature as closely as possible, whereas others (assuming the fan wouldn't know the difference) simply signed in their own handwriting.

The photos signed in the secretary or spouses handwriting are usually easy to spot when compared to an authentic signature.

The photos where the signer mimicked the famous person's handwriting are more difficult to detect, but almost without exception, little clues or flaws in the writing will show up.

These are much harder for a novice to authenticate, and this is where doing some Google research can pay off. Type in the celebrity's name in the search field, and then add the word "autograph." Within a few seconds you'll have hundreds of leads and pages to visit. I suggest you take the "Images" link and compare your autograph to those that are displayed.

If you're a collector of sports autographs, I highly recommend you obtain 50 Most Forged Sports Autographs: A Comprehensive Guide to Help You Save Money and Avoid Bad Buys. This excellent reference book can help you determine whether your Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or Muhammad Ali autographs are real or forgeries. You'll find examples of 47 other authentic sports star autographs and forgeries with explanations of how to tell whether yours is genuine. Checking this book before you make a purchase over the internet can save you a lot of time and money.

I also suggest you consider searching eBay's listings with the same search terms. This is no guarantee that the ones you're seeing are authentic, but it's a start. And it's free!

Finally, if the autograph has a high value, you may wish to pay for an authentication by an expert. A typical authentication can run $25 to $50, but even higher in some cases. Ebay has an online authentication service for just $10. One place to find autograph authenticators is at the web site of the Universal Autograph Collectors Club (UACC).

If you're considering purchasing a relatively rare and expensive autograph, such as one by Davy Crockett or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I suggest you consider using a well-known and respected autograph authenticator.

Some of the most commonly forged autographs are those of professional athletes.  Buyers should only deal with reputable and established autograph dealers.
Some of the most commonly forged autographs are those of professional athletes. Buyers should only deal with reputable and established autograph dealers.

Autographs That Are Forgeries

Forgers have been busy ripping off unsuspecting autograph buyers for many years. Some of the more famous modern forgery scams include the 1972 Clifford Irving forgeries of Howard Hughes where the scammer claimed he was assisting the reclusive billionaire with an autobiography.

He showed his publisher McGraw-Hill what he claimed where handwritten notes and letters from Hughes and was set to pocket nearly $800,000 before he was exposed. He spent a year-and-one-half in prison.

In the early 1980s, a German forger named Konrad Kujau convinced Stern magazine that he had discovered Adolf Hitler's lost diaries and the magazine paid him nearly $4 million before discovering they were fakes. He too ended up behind bars.

And then in the mid-1980s there was Mark Hoffman, a Utah one-time Mormon missionary who was a master forger and selling fake autographs of many American and Mormon historical figures. When his forgery scheme was about to be revealed, Hoffman killed two of the people he'd conned with homemade bombs.

There was a time many years back, when eBay shut down the sale of autographs due to so many forgeries and complaints. After loud and long protests from authentic autograph dealers and autograph buyers, they reopened the category after setting some new rules and standards.

Still, the fact is autograph forgers have been around for more than a century and their autograph forgeries are the most challenging to spot.

In the year 2000, the FBI concluded a "sting" operation called Operation Bullpen where a team of professional forgers was arrested and charged with fraud. Nearly 60 crooks were charged and convicted. They mostly forged sports and celebrity autographs, and a lot of those are still floating around today.

Always buy from a reputable dealer, and if it is an expensive item, make sure it has a lifetime money back guarantee of authenticity, or comes with a Certificate of Authentication from a recognized autograph expert.

Again, you can find reputable autograph dealers at the websites of the UACC or The Manuscript Society among others.

Collecting Autographs Through the Mail

It was in the late 1960s when I first wrote to several celebrities asking for an autographed photo.

A few weeks later I received a pre-printed photo with a facsimile autograph from singer Nancy Sinatra. Even back then I could tell it wasn't a genuine signature.

However, after nearly six months had passed, I received a small, authentically-signed photo from British actress Diana Rigg who I loved as Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers.

Today it's getting harder and harder to write to a celebrity and actually receive a genuine autograph. But it's still possible if you follow some well-known tips.

First, always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). This raises your chances. Consider writing to celebrities who are retired or no longer in the current spotlight; many will appreciate being remembered.

If you want a signed photo, consider buying one on eBay or some other internet site selling unsigned photos. These typically cost $1 to $5 each. Then, send to the celebrity with your SASE enclosed and be patient. If you hear back at all, it may be several months.

Finally, make sure you're sending your request to a proper address. I still occasionally send autograph requests through the mail, and the key is to have a current and accurate celebrity address reference guide.

My preference is Jordan McAuley's The Celebrity Black Book 2015: Over 50,000 Celebrity Addresses.

Jordan has all sorts of tips and suggestions that will raise your chances of getting free celebrity autographs through the mail, and it's one of the most recent celebrity address autograph books available. This is important since celebrities are constantly moving and one of the challenges in publishing an address directory is keeping it current. While not perfect, I've found from personal experience that this is one of the best sources available.

And this isn't just another movie star address guide. Jordan has addresses for politicians, authors, athletes, musicians and other categories.

Once you receive an autograph through the mail, take the time to do some basic research as I've explained in a previous section. Compare your newly obtained autograph to others presented in the images section of Google, Yahoo, or some other search engine, as well as those being offered on various internet auctions such as eBay or Amazon.

Good luck and happy autograph hunting!


Questions & Answers

© 2018 Tim Anderson

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