Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the September 1997 edition of The Vintage and Classic Baseball Collector (VCBC) magazine. We have received approval from the prior owners of VCBC magazine to republish this article in digital format. We are thrilled to be able to re-circulate the fine works of VCBC magazine for today's vintage collectors.
by Rich Ferrari
This article is mant to serve as a guide for collectors to become familiar with handwriting (autograph) and document analysis. Hopefuly, you will be better protected from acquiring a forgery or secreterial signature.
Document and handwriting analysis is not an exact science, and is subject to error. One could interpret the facts incorrectly, wrong conclusions can be drawn from the facts, and sometimes it is impossible to determine the facts to formulate an opinion.
With more information and study, you’ll be better equipped to trust your judgment, and come to at least a preliminary conclusion regarding your own acquisitions. In my own collecting experience, the items I had reservations about when first purchased, are items that I later confirmed were not authentic.
This article is not meant to promote forgery fear or cast doubts. The goal is to set a standard of excellence in determining the genuineness of autographs.
Standards For Comparison
Authenticity of a signature can not be determined without comparison to a few signatures that have proven to be genuine. The best source of authentic standards are public records such as drivers licenses, bank records, cancelled checks, and legal documents. Collectors may encounter some difficulty locating these for reference.
Some items that could be used for reference are offered at auctions, and most times are pictured. Player contracts, cancelled checks, and some legal documents are included. Hand written letters and other items may also prove to be good reference sources once they've been compared favorably with known standards. Save the catalogs for your reference library. Auction houses may have catalogs from past auctions for sale.
Note: Be aware of the difference between a standard for comparison and an autograph offered at an auction. Because an autograph is in an auction catalog does not prove it to be genuine.
Circumstances under which a player gave an autograph will affect the autograph only in appearance, but will not change the basic characteristics of the player's handwriting
If this seems like too much to do, then purchasing autographs from autograph dealers and auction houses who have standards for comparison, and are capable of determining the genuineness of a signature should be utilized.
If an auction house or dealer does not have a known standard from which they compare, then how can authenticity be determined? From memory, not 200+ baseball Hall of Famers and hundreds of other non-Hall of Famers.
Without standards for comparison, even an expert in document examination could render a conditional opinion, at best. If one were to specialize in certain players, then a preliminary opinion may be acceptable. There are times when a seller will offer a story to go along with an autograph.
At no time should a story substitute for an autograph having been compared to a genuine example. Listening, although, can be beneficial. I have been in two situations where I had asked questions about how an autograph was obtained. The more the seller talked, the more uncomfortable I became with the purchase.
Editor's Note: I recently had an experience where a collector approached me to try and sell a few Tom Brady autographed rookie cards. These card were supposedly signed very early in Brady's career. He even offered the following picture for proof.
Sure, someone might be able to pull this picture off the internet, but it was at least something that gave me a sense that the collector could be telling the truth. After speaking with him and evaluating the autograph, his story was making more sense and in this instance the autographs were authentic.
Magnifier Or Loop in Authenticating Autographs?
Many times what is not clearly visible to the naked eye can be easily seen with magnification. A hand magnifier or jeweler's loop are inexpensive, but very useful.
In making a portion of the handwriting or document appear larger, it may be studied in detail. Magnifciation is helpful in viewing the crossing of ink lines, alterations or pen lifts where the writer stops then starts gain.
Examining Photo Copies As A Comparison
Photo copies can't be used for examining ink, paper, etc., but may be used for preliminary comparison of signatures related to slant, spacing, character formation and proportions. When purchasing an autograph based on a photo copy, the sale should be conditioned upon viewing the original.
The bottom line is, you or the person you buy your autographs from have to be better at determining authenticity than the forger or secretary is at imitating genuine handwriting.
Tips On Identifying Handwriting
Some collectors may not want to be bothered analyzing their purchases, but here is a short overview if you have an interest. Identifying handwriting is not
always simple. Handwriting of the same person writtern under different circumstances may often vary within certain limits.
Variations could occur in size, proportion, space, slant, etc. However circumstances under which a player gave an autograph will affect the autograph ony in appearance, but will not change the basic characteristics of the player's handwriting. It is also a well-known fact that many players' autographs varied during their lifetime. An example is Willie Mays, whose signature looks quite different today when compared to examples from early in his career.
Editor's Note: In getting back to Tom Brady's autograph, Brady is the perfect example of a player who's autograph has changed significantly over time. Thus knowing the nuances of the players changes in signature for different eras can be important.
Early on, before the pros, Brady's autograph was a bit of a mess and morphed into a much clearer autograph, often with a '12' in the signature as shown here:
But post 2016, Brady's signature once again became more like scribble again as this great article from Beckett notes.
Here's a signed 2017 Super Bowl ticket:
When comparing a signature to a known standard of the same time period, the conclusion of genuineness or difference depends on the combination of identical or different writing characteristics.
Here are the primary ways you may use to draw conclusions:
1) If there are a sufficient number of identical writing habits and characteristics, and there is the absence of divergent characteristics, then one could safely conclude genuineness.
2) If there are a sufficient number of divergent characteristics and the absence of identical characteristics, then one can conclude that the handwriting is different (forgery or secretarial).
When more handwriting is available for comparion, conclusions can be drawn in a much easier manner. In signature-only comparisons, there is obviously more room for error. This is something to keep in mind when purchasing items with only a signature on them.
The Fischhof Method In Evaluating Autographs
Obviously a forger will do his best to duplicate handwriting. He is looking to make a signature as similar as possible to an authentic example. Unless it is traced, a signatute is forged either through imitation of a genuine signature with an authentic example in front of the forger, or by practicing over and over and using the free hand method.
The forger's result is based on how observant he is, and how much skill he possesses to reproduce the handwriting attempted. Even skillfully done forgeries are similar in appearance, but not in the details. The Fischhof method is easy to use, especially in difficult situations.
To use the Fischhof method, simply compare a signature to a known standard by viewing them both upside down. Julius Fischhof established the fact that when we are not influenced by reading letters or words, we have a more objective view. By comparing "form" only, without the distraction of seeing familiar names or words, you can notice differences more easily.
I have focused on handwriting comparison for the most part, because if we are attentive to details, comparison can be performed by many collectors. Ink and paper analysis, while informative, takes even more study along with elaborate equipment.
The following are characteristics to observe when comparing handwriting:
1) Is the writing skill good, average, or mediocre?
2) Writing speed-Is the freedom of movement very rapid and rhythmic, average or slow and laborious?
3) Are the letter sizes large, average or small? What are the sizes in proportion to other letters in the handwriting example?
4) Letter formations-View how the writer forms each letter and the spacing between each. Be attentive to lower case letters, since there is a tendency to examine capital letters with greater enthusiasm.
5) Pen pressure-Do the writing strokes vary from light to heavy pressure? Is the pen pressure heavy on downstroke and light on upstroke? Or vice versa? Are the beginning and ending strokes thin, light and flowing, or blunt and abrupt?
6) Signature breaks-When does the writer lift the pen from the paper? Which letters most always precede or follow these breaks continually?
7) Writing instruments-Fountain pens were marketed heavily late in the 19th century. They were widely used until the early 1950's. Pencil is a graphite writing instrument used from the 1700's and infrequently for documents.
Ballpoint pens were introduced into the retail market in the United States in late 1945. The experience of most users from 1945-1949 were unsatisfactory, primarily because of the fading of the inks and the sloppiness encountered when using them. Improved ballpoint pens were introduced in 1949 and became widely used and accepted in the 1950's.
Thin fiber-tipped pens, like Flair, were utilized by some consumers in the 1960's. Thicker fiber-tipped pens such as the Sharpie saw wide acceptance (for autographs) in the 1980's to the present. It is difficult to distinguish handwriting characteristics with these fiber-tipped writing instruments (especially Sharpie) due to the thickness of the pen tip and the inability to clearly see the pen pressure exerted by the writer.
8) Slant-Does the handwriting slant to the right or left, and to what degree, or is it erect? Is the slant the same as the standards used for comparison? There may even be consistent changes in slant within the signature. An example of this would be the "e" in Babe Ruth.
By now you may have come to the conclusion that authentication of autographs can be difficult. Often new information becomes available and contributes to the evolution of collecting autographs. The bottom line is you or the person you purchase from, have to be better at determining authenticity than the forger or secretary is at imitating genuine handwriting.