Is It Real?

Many collectors of historical autographs discover that one or more of their collectibles is a forgery, or a secretarial signature, or an autopenned example. This problem is much more prevalent among the sports and entertainment categories, but it does happen in the historical category.

Collectors cannot rely on auction houses and dealers to weed out “mistakes.” I read a large number of catalogs, and at one time or another, most offer items with authenticity problems. Please take the time to learn some basic collecting information.

Truman autographs on Foreign Service Appointments are generally pre-prints. Yes, I know many books say HST signed “everything.” But I have seen letters (and I own one) sent as Senator with an obviously secretarial signature. As president, Truman was overwhelmed with work. He decided to have his signature pre-printed on the low-grade Foreign Service Appointments.

Right now I am looking at the foreign service officer appointment of Perry Jester dated 12/9/47. If you don’t use a magnifying glass you would assume HST’s signature is authentic. It even has light and dark areas and flying starts and stops. It’s a beautiful example of his signature, except it isn’t an original one and is worthless.

Napoleon Signatures aren’t always Napoleon.  If you have the Stein & Day Book of World Autographs, you will see all the variations of his signature. What they don’t tell you is that Murat (one of Napoleon’s Marshalls) signed a lot of Napoleon’s correspondence. But Murat did not put a paraph under the signature—a dead giveaway that the signature is secretarial and worthless. 

Albert Schweitzer used a secretary to write most of his letters in handwriting and with a signature very similar to his own. If you own the Stein & Day Book of World Autographs, you can see examples of both. (If it’s too neat, it’s most likely the secretary.)

Presidents stopped signing land grants in 1832. After that time, clerks were authorized to sign for them. The clerks for Fillmore and Buchanan got very good at imitating presidential signatures.  The key:  Look below the so-called presidential signature for the word “By” and another signature. That’s the clerk who signed the “authorized forgery.” A land grant with this type of signature is not authentically signed and is almost worthless.

President Andrew Johnson signatures on Military Appointments. Many collectors are not aware that he used a “stamped” signature on nearly all military and naval commissions dated after his first 2 months in office.  Johnson had hurt his hand, and this steel stamp was created to ease his signing chores. You can find an example of the “stamp” in Hamilton’s 2 vol. set of “Autographs of America” or email me and I’ll send you a sample.

There are many other examples.  I’ll provide more info in a future article.


  1. Mark robbins

    I really appreciate Barb posting this blog that offers the opportunity for collectors to communicate and trade information on line —if they desire. This last part of the statement is key. Up until now I have actually not found a website where collectors either do or show interest in sharing information on collecting serious manuscript material that in anyway compares with the virtual stamp club, Richard Frajola board for philelists or stamp community forum for stamp collectors or the coin community forum for coin or currency collectors. Here’s hoping this blog will prove the exception.

    As a contribution to the is it real discussion, I would like to point out two other non authentic signature situations common in the presidential realm. The first is Herbert Hoover postal appointments and most diplomatic appointments. Virtually all of these contain printed or lithographed signatures with Hoover very early on in his presidency charging his attorney general with the means fvgetting around signing these routine appointments that he considered a waste of his time. His attitude on the subject was recounted in his memoirs. The interesting thing is that this did not appear to apply to justice dept appointments cosigned by William mitchell or the rare treasury appointments cosigned by Andrew Mellon.

    The other president I want to mention is Eisenhower who did authentically sign many appointments but diplomatic or department of state appointments between 1957 and 1960 often bear a printed or lithographed signature the form of which can be seen in Paul K Carr’s monograph through the UACC

  2. tim k

    I have a Woodrow Wilson “signed” postal appointment – but I really can’t tell if it’s autopen or not which, to me, makes me assume that it is (unfortunately) even thoough I bought if from a reputable auction site. It did not come with a COA but that would not have made me feel any more secure about it. I’m almost afraid to buy any letter “signed” by Kennedy as president given that he had two secretaries who signed for him on a routine basis.

  3. Mark robbins

    Tim: fax me a copy of the signature at 813-633-0441 and I can probably give you a reasonable idea of what you have for Wilson. Wilson signed many of his presidential appointments; even postal or diplomatic appointments that Hoover did not. As for Kennedy, you need to get a sense of JFK’s flow to disquish real from secretarial or auto pen . The more you see the more you will feel comfortable in this regard. Again, the UACC did a signature study on JFK where literally hundreds of signatures applied to official congressional bills are shown. After looking at the you get a sense of what is good. If you have to think about it at all, assume it is not authentic. The same can be said about Nixon for which Frederic Casoni’s signature study is useful. It used to be felt that authentic JFK or for that matter LBJ as president was rare. I disagree completely. Although there is a lot of non authentically signed items out there, there is a tremendous amount of genuinely signed items as well

  4. Christian K. Dahl

    A “mystery” item I own is an ADS signed by Meriwether Lewis. The problem is that it doesn’t look like his signature or handwriting. The mystery is that is does deal with a real and obscure event very late in his life concerning medical treatment for a man that was actually on the Lewis and Clark expedition, a man named Dorion. If he had a secretary late in his life, say around 1809, I haven’t been able to identify him. The writing most closely resembles that of William Clark, who was authorized by Lewis to act for him in his absences. So, I could have a contemporary forgery of Meriwether Lewis by William Clark. Both men had erratic spelling, and Lewis did have late-life medical and addiction problems which could have affected his handwriting. The ADS was once sold in a Charles Hamilton auction, which I know doesn’t guarantee anything, but does make me a little more hopeful. Markings on the back also indicate that Mary Benjamin May have had it in her stock at some time. I’ve taken it to the Missouri Historical Society, and the archivist there thought it was genuine. Not an autograph expert though. It might always be one of those “who wrote it” items.

  5. mark robbins

    Christian: Items that passed through Charles Hamilton or Mary Benjamin usually have a very well represented provenance. Although I would have no doubt of the authenticity of an item previously passed by either of them, the fact that the way you are writing your note suggests to me that you don’t have anything in writing from either of them suggests that the provenance is speculative at best. This would be unlikely for an item as rare as Meriweather Lewis. Where you got this item and how much you paid for it should give you a good idea as to the genuineness of it.


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