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How to Tell if an Autograph is Real

Autograph collectors are a diverse group. They range from casual hobbyists and haphazard accumulators to critical connoisseurs and serious investors, but one thing they all lose sleep over is authenticity. An autograph collector’s worst nightmare is finding out that a carefully curated autograph collection is infested with forgeries. It’s a horror that becomes all too real for many collectors, with some authentication services reporting that as much as half of the autographed media and memorabilia submitted each year is not authentic. New collectors may find it hard to know which dealers and auction houses are trustworthy and reputable. However, there are indicators expert authenticators use to verify autographs that even the newest collectors can utilize.

How Can You Tell if an Autograph Is Real?

The way most experts begin the authentication process is by assuming the autograph in question is fake and then attempting to prove otherwise. 

  • Provenance. Proving where the autograph came from is perhaps the most important indicator of whether the autograph is real or not. Autographs signed in person are the easiest to authenticate. Older autographs may come with supporting documentation that establishes the history of ownership from the time it was signed until it was most recently purchased. This documentation may include sales receipts, invoices and proof the autograph was once part of a reputable collection. 
  • Comparison to Verified Examples. Most autographs that collectors are interested in buying have published copies of the signature that are known to be genuine and can be found on the websites of major auction houses or museums, in published materials such as biographies or periodicals, within correspondence, or on official documents.
  • Analysis of Materials. What the autograph is written on and what it’s written with can tell a lot about its authenticity. The color of the ink, condition of the paper or other media it’s written on, and condition of both in relation to their purported age, all provide information. If the autograph is written on materials that aren’t current to the time period or with ink that wasn’t in use then, the only possible conclusion is that the autograph is fake.
  • Handwriting Comparison. While good forgeries are designed to be hard to spot, it’s possible to detect a forgery by comparing verified instances of a signature with new-found examples. Tiny details like the repeated slant of a certain letter or letters, how letters are dotted and crossed, the pattern of breaks and strokes, and quirky individual touches like loopy or pointed ends to Ys, Ps, Qs and Gs, can provide clues 
  • Gut Check. After looking closely at the details of the autograph, it’s often useful to take a broader view by stepping back and asking “Does this look right?” Does it look like a famous autograph signed by a famous person who has likely signed hundreds of autographs before with a natural, flowing and well-practiced hand? Or does it appear to be carefully drawn on as a forger would do? Is the signature shaky or show hints of hesitancy and odd breaks in the flow of the writing?

How to Detect a Fake Autograph

Most autograph collectors aren’t experts in provenance or history, materials analysis, or handwriting. So, although proving an autograph is authentic may be best left to the professionals, detecting a fake is a somewhat simpler task that, with a few tips, even a layperson can accomplish.

  • Turn the Autograph Upside Down. Turning the autograph upside down allows novice detectors to look at the autograph objectively and helps expose slight differences between the autograph in question and known examples. 
  • Check the Ink for Visual Clues. Without being experts on the history of inks, collectors can detect visual clues with a magnifying glass. Stamped and printed signatures don’t leave marks and indentations like real autographs do. Instead, the signatures may feel smooth to the touch if printed, and the ink may appear darker along the edges and lighter in the middle if it has been applied by a stamp. 
  • Examine the Signature for Robotic Moves. Robotic auto-pens are used by some famous athletes, actors and other famous people who sign huge amounts of autographs for sale and distribution. These types of autographs have little value and hold no interest to discerning collectors. Auto-pens make perfect replicas of the person’s signature, but there are a few observable tells. Again with the magnifying glass, look for hard dots where the autograph begins and ends, abnormal shakiness in the lines from the vibrations of the auto-pen, unnaturally machine-straight lines, and odd inconsistencies caused by accidental wobbles of the auto-pen.
  • Hold the Autograph Up to the Light. If the ink seems too light in color and the signature has the appearance of equal pressure being applied throughout, the autograph is likely a fake. Ink that glows purple in the light is probably stamped. Photo signatures that appear silver in the light are not likely to be authentic.
  • The More the Warier. Beware of auction houses and dealers with large inventories of a very famous autograph. True celebrities rarely hand-sign more than a few autographs at a time. For a dealer to have more than one of a popular signature in stock at one time is unusual and could indicate forgery. 
  • The Privacy Ploy. Requests for privacy by sellers and auction houses may be a ploy to hide the sale. A reputable seller should be able to guarantee the authenticity of the signatures they sell with provenance and supporting documents. Transparency about their history, past dealings, references and expertise is the hallmark of a reputable seller or auction house.

Actual Signatures vs. Printed Signatures vs. Stamped Signatures

The only way to be completely sure an autograph was actually signed by the real person is to see the autograph signed. That could be at an in-person event, on a video or even through a picture of the item as it is being signed. An actual signature can be compared to known examples to see if it matches the unique handwriting style of its purported owner. However, it can get tricky because signatures from the same person can differ from one day to the next depending on the signer’s environment and frame of mind when they’re signing. 

Some signatures are not actually signed at all. Printed and stamped signatures allow famous people to produce mass amounts of signed memorabilia for sale or distribution. To an untrained eye, stamped and printed signatures may appear to be the real deal and are sometimes put up for sale as authentic autographs. While stamped and printed signatures aren’t inherently worthless and are often knowingly purchased by fans as keepsakes, they have little to no value in the collector’s market.

Printed signatures typically refer to photographic reproductions of a signed photograph. Printed signatures can be detected by the color and tone of the signature in relation to other elements of the photograph, by the way the signed area reflects light, and by the lack of indentations where the autograph was supposedly signed.

Stamped signatures are made with a rubber stamp individually or en masse. They also lack indentations and have consistent sharp edges instead of the sharp edges and trails we see from the stroke marks of a pen.

Certificates of Authenticity and Letters of Authenticity

Certificates of authenticity (COA) and letters of authenticity (LOA) are used to support an autograph’s provenance.

Certificates of authenticity demonstrate that the autograph has been deemed authentic by an individual, business or authentication service. A certificate of authenticity is only as reputable as its issuer, and fake COAs that appear to come from reputable issuers can be produced by anyone with access to a computer. There is no governing authority over autograph authenticity that issues official certificates.

The same goes for letters of authenticity, which are simple letters that describe the who, what, where, when and how an autograph was signed.

Reputable certificates of authenticity and letters of authenticity from authentication services include a certification number or other unique identifier that is searchable in the service’s database of certified and registered autographs. 

How to Get a Certificate of Authenticity

Certificates of authenticity can be designed and printed by literally anyone. Original owners, sellers and businesses frequently print their own certificates of authenticity to show that autographs are authentic based on their knowledge. These types of certificates don’t establish authenticity on their own, but they do help establish the chain of ownership and origin story of the autograph.

Autograph authentication companies use specialized autograph authentication equipment along with handwriting analysis and computer technology to perform an assessment that ascertains whether the autograph is legitimate. There are many autograph authentication companies on the internet, but only a handful are widely recognized: James Spence Authentication, PSA ( Professional Sports Authenticator), and Beckett Authentication Services.

Authentication services require submission of the autograph and all supporting documentation for analysis, whether dropped off in-person or sent by mail. There are also a number of forms that have to be filled out and sent with the submission, and there may be specific guidelines for how the submission should be packaged and shipped. Most authentication companies charge an evaluation fee in addition to the fee for the certificate of authenticity.

There are pitfalls to having an autograph certified. Some companies grade autographs based upon their condition, usually on a scale of 1 to 10. Faded or messy autographs may receive a lower grade from a authentication company, which makes the process more costly than it is worth for those items because they are difficult to sell. Occasionally, lower-grade autographs are rejected entirely because they are tough to authenticate. Remember, authentication services are only as good as their reputations. When an authentication service issues a certificate of authenticity for an autograph, they are staking their reputation on the authenticity of that item.

The Best Place to Buy Authentic Sports Autographs

Authentic autographed sports memorabilia is in a class all by itself. More than any other collectible, autographed sports memorabilia is highly sought after, has immediate value and is a great investment. The best place to find authentic autographed sports apparel and memorabilia is from a reputable sports collector item platform. These platforms offer signed jerseys, footballs, photos, helmets and other collectible items with rare features including game-used, limited edition or inscribed items. The best sports collector item platforms have exclusive autograph relationships with many of the biggest superstars in sports today, participate in hundreds of signings per year, and have game-used relationships with popular teams worldwide. 

Strike 7 Sports is a great place to find authentic, hand-signed NFL and NBA sports apparel and collectible memorabilia. It deals exclusively with the best sports collector item platforms and only promotes officially licensed products that come with certificates of authenticity from the most reputable authentication services. All Strike 7 Sports apparel and memorabilia items come with an individually numbered, tamper-evident Fanatics Authentic hologram that can be reviewed online to ensure its authenticity and eliminate any possibility of duplication or fraud. 

Strike 7 Sports only works with reputable memorabilia dealers. View our autographed sports merchandise today.

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