Fake Autographs, How to Tell if a Signature is Real

Fake Autographs, How to Tell if a Signature is Real

The primary concern for any autograph collector is authenticity. Nothing else even comes close. Unfortunately, there are a number of ways that autographs can be faked that go beyond simple forgeries. Besides deliberate forgeries done to deceive consumers, there are a number of ways to reproduce autographs that collectors need to be well aware of. They can look quite convincing, so it is important to be able to tell forged signatures from authentic autographs.

Pre-printed Autographs

Pre-prints are a type of facsimile autograph that is printed simultaneously with the photo. Talent agencies will often send these when the signer is not available or chooses not to sign. Although the above photos of Harrison Ford appear identical, they are actually two separate photos. Because they are printed from a file with a digital signature already on the photo, they will look identical every time they are reproduced.

So, what if you don’t have two preprints to compare to each other? You can tell that an autograph is printed by holding it under the light at an angle. The signature should look flat, whereas live ink will appear to be slightly lifted.

Examining your autographs this way should allow you to be able to tell that the signature is a part of the printed photo, rather than the ink that has been laid on top of it. Additionally, the ink used to print the photo and the pen ink should look distinctive when held under the light and closely examined.

Clint Eastwood preprint vs secretarial autograph comparison

While getting a preprint will come as a disappointment to most collectors, some will be delighted. Simply getting anything back from one’s favorite celebrity can be a fun experience. Especially when it comes to kids. At the very least, it’s a kind gesture to fans, but if you ask me, any response at all beats a return to sender, except for maybe a secretarial signature.

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Secretarial Signatures

A secretarial signature on an 8x10 photo signed as "Clint Eastwood".
A photo signed by a secretary as “Clint Eastwood”.

Some agencies will have secretaries sign for their celebrity clients. To be clear, this is essentially an authorized forgery. Sometimes, secretaries will sign photos provided by the agency or worse—the photo that collectors send in.

Secretarial signatures are not well-liked in the autograph-collecting community. That’s because they are not authentic signatures and these forgeries ruin whatever item they are placed on. Receiving a secretarial autograph can also feel disingenuous for collectors.

This kind of signature is done with live ink by a human hand. It’s therefore hard to tell that it’s fake unless you know what you’re looking for. The only way to tell that a secretarial signature is fake is by comparing it to known authentic examples.

This can be tricky if you don’t have any references, or you are not familiar with the signer’s autograph. The best advice, in this case, is to find a source you trust to help you make comparisons. You can also pay a third-party authenticator to do the analysis for you in exchange for a small fee.

Stamped Signatures

Mark Hamill's stamped signature.
Mark Hamill’s stamped signature.

Stamped signatures are similar to secretarial signatures in that they are both done by a third party. However, instead of being done by the hand of a secretary with live-ink, the secretary simply uses a rubber stamp. The stamp reproduces the signer’s signature on the photo which looks good at first glance but there are giveaways.

The telltale sign of a stamped signature is the uneven application of ink. Sometimes the ink appears spotty or ghosting will occur around the signature. This happens when unintended parts of the stamp make contact with the photo and leave spots of ink. Also, like pre-prints, these should match other examples that were imprinted with the same stamp.

What is an Autopen Signature?

Unlike an autograph done by a human hand, an autopen signature is produced by a machine called an autopen. Autopen machines have been around for a long time which means they’ve become very good at mimicking a signature. These machines use real pens guided by programming or a template that reproducers pen strokes using preset motions.

The signatures can look authentic and have deceived even experienced collectors at times. The only tells they have are spots at the beginning and end of letters. These occur when the machine pauses and ink is allowed to slightly pool.

The best way to determine if a signature is done by an autopen, though, is again to compare examples. Signers will usually have multiple templates that vary the look of their autopen signatures. However, if you can find two identical signatures done with live ink, then you can bet that you’re looking at an autopen.

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Autograph Authentication

Autograph authentication

At this point, you are likely questioning the authenticity of the autographs in your collection—as you should be. Before you make any autograph purchase, your first consideration should always be authenticity. At a minimum, you should seek out known examples of real autographs to compare with the one you’re trying to authenticate. You can find those by asking collectors on the Tales From The Collection Facebook group or by going to one of the many online forums dedicated to autograph collecting.

If you don’t feel confident enough to assess the authenticity of an autograph yourself, you can always turn to the experts. Third-party autograph authentication services not only allow you to send your items in for authentication, but they also offer opinions on authenticity online

For an affordable price, Beckett’s Signature Review or PSA’s Quick Opinion allows collectors to send in pictures of their autograph for these third-party authenticators to render an opinion about whether the autograph is likely to pass a full authentication or not. This should give you some piece of mind before buying or when considering the authenticity of an autograph that you already own.

Start Collecting Autographs Through the Mail

If you’re interested in starting out in the hobby of through the mail (TTM) autograph collecting, check out the complete guide here. You can use our fan mail template and find addresses all on Tales From The Collection!

What is a facsimile autograph?

A facsimile autograph is not a real autograph. Rather, it is a reproduction, similar to a photocopy. Facsimile autographs are also known as pre-prints and are printed photos with a reproduction autograph already on them.

What is an autopen machine?

An autopen machine is a device that can reproduce a person’s autograph or signature. It is often used by public figures who need to sign a large number of documents, such as letters or autographs. The autopen machine consists of a pen that is connected to a motor.

The motor is programmed with the person’s autograph or signature. When the autopen machine is turned on, the motor moves the pen, reproducing the autograph or signature.

Published by Tim Santens

I am a gamer and autograph collector. I love writing about both and sharing the stories I find.

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