Is This Real?

How to Authenticate Ephemera & Determine Originality

By Jonathan Smalter

No matter what subject areas or media your collection focuses on, you will sometimes (and probably quite often) have a need to authenticate some aspect of an item (e.g., signatures and/or handwriting), or determine whether it is an original or a copy. In some cases, assessing originality is a way of gauging authenticity (e.g., determining whether an item is a forgery). Learning what clues to look for, which details are common ‘red flags,’ and what areas of collecting are particularly affected by forgeries and reproductions, is something that comes with a great deal of experience. There is no quick, easy replacement for the knowledge accumulated by handling and researching large quantities of collectible ephemera. Luckily, though, there are a few tips and tricks that will get you started, help you feel more confident in buying and trading, and hopefully avoid some common mistakes that novice collectors often make.

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There are many nuances to authenticating signatures. Given the prevalence of forgeries in certain areas (sports celebrities and U.S. presidents are two good examples), at a certain point, it pays to consult an expert in the field. It is also a good idea to deal with reputable sellers who guarantee their merchandise and have clear return policies in the event you purchase something that is later proven inauthentic. That being said, there are several ways you can quickly assess signatures or manuscript material yourself to draw some initial conclusions. Here are a few questions to ask:

  1. Is it handwritten or printed? Often books contain facsimiles of author’s signatures. A common practice in the 19th century was to include these beneath a frontispiece portrait of the author. Because of this, I regularly receive phone calls or e-mails from people claiming to have books signed by Mark Twain, Civil War generals, Winston Churchill, etc., etc. As far as I can remember, every single one of these has been a printed example of the signature rather than an authentic, hand-signed copy. This is common with letters, as well (especially form letters sent to numerous recipients).

    To check whether the signature is handwritten, hold it up to a light and look at the reverse side of the paper. Do you see any indications of unevenness in ink coverage, i.e., are there areas where the ink is darker, blotted or smudged; or is it fairly uniform? Still unsure? Gently run your finger or fingernail along the page to see if the writing has depressed the paper at any point (usually the darkest points are the places to check here). If you can discern points where the paper dips because it was pressed down by the writing, and others where it was not, it is likely someone wrote the letters by hand. If it’s still difficult to tell, have a look at the signature under magnification. If you see a matrix of uniform dots, you have yourself a printed example. These three techniques are a good start in determining authenticity, but your work is not done yet — all you have done so far is determine whether someone wrote it by hand; you have not established definitively by whom this was done.

  2. Does the signature match known examples? The internet is an excellent tool for initial searches, here (though be sure to check your source!). Using the subject’s name and the word ‘signature’ in an image search should bring up a good number of results if the person is well-known. If not, you may need to do a lot more digging, and you still may hit a dead end. Assuming that you do find a few examples, though, first, compare these to one another. Does there seem to be a ‘consensus’ between them regarding how this signature should look or all they all over the place? If the latter, it may be time to consult someone who has more experience with this particular signature.

    If the former, continue on to compare them against your own. Looking at the first and last letters in names is often most helpful because these are usually the ones that are most distinctively and consistently written. If there are significant differences (e.g., undotted i’s and uncrossed t’s in one example, when they are dotted and crossed in the other; noticeable discrepancies in how letters are connected to one another; large variations in size, neatness, or openness/tightness of the writing; etc.), the example you are evaluating may not be authentic. Make honest comparisons. Discounting important differences between a signature that has not been professionally authenticated, and known examples of the same signature, is a great way to end up with fakes in your collection. If you have reason to believe that your signature is authentic (e.g., due to compelling provenance), but it does not pass this initial test, consult an expert and have a professional assessment made about it. Because, at the end of the day, if you do happen to have an authentic signature that looks materially different than other known examples, it will be challenging, if not impossible, to convince anyone else of this fact should you ever decide to sell it. There are a few reasons why these sorts of discrepancies might exist, which I will discuss below.
  3. Is the signature a secretarial or autopen? Public figures often delegated the signing of books and/or the writing of letters to secretaries. Presidents also employed autopen machines (machines programmed to emulate a handwritten signature exactly) to the same end. The difficulty here is that both represent ‘handwritten’ examples of signatures, but neither are considered authentic signatures. In these cases, additional information is necessary to prove a signature’s status, and this usually comes in the form of provenance. If a photograph showing the item being signed accompanies it, this provides a strong argument for authenticity. In the case of signed books or photographs, inscriptions are useful — normally collectors prefer the signature alone; but in these cases, an inscription can provide an association between the signer and the recipient that establishes authenticity (e.g., a president presenting a signed copy of a book to a member of their cabinet).
Presentation copy with a letter.

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  • Did the signer use a particular color ink, or employ any other sort of flourish? Virginia Woolf often signed in purple ink. Ken Kesey was in the habit of signing with bright highlighters or even paint (I have seen bright orange and pink examples). Kurt Vonnegut regularly included a star beneath his signature, and sometimes also incorporated a doodle of himself. Dr. Seuss often created new characters to include as doodles with his signatures, and these examples are particularly sought after. If you are purchasing a signed item, if possible do a bit of research to see whether you should expect these sorts of trademark details.
Vonnegut’s trademark star
Virginia Woolf’s signature in purple ink
  • Are there are any other factors that make this example suspicious? First and foremost in this category: was the signer alive when this item was supposedly signed? Often forgers fail to research this basic bit of information and forge signatures on books that were published posthumously, or forge letters addressed to people that the supposed writer could not have known yet. Knowing some basic biographical information about the person whose signature you are researching can help you dodge these.

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Determining Originality

Not all items are signed, of course; there are still other factors to look at in terms of authentication, though. Collectors prefer to have the original article, not a licensed reproduction, and certainly not a forgery or a pirated edition. Telling the difference can sometimes be extremely difficult, but in the majority of cases, it just takes a little know-how. Here are a few things to watch out for:

  • Do the materials and techniques used to produce the item make sense for the time period? Educate yourself about different types of paper and other materials used in the production of documents. If the item mentions particular dates, and these do not match up with the look and feel of it, you may be dealing with a reproduction, or a forgery intentionally made to look older than it actually is. There are too many details to go into here regarding types of paper, printing processes, materials used for binding, etc., but there are many good resources on these topics, from websites maintained by trade organizations to scholarly books on the history of print and other media.

  • Are there any overt statements that identify this example as a facsimile or reproduction? Often gift shops at historical sites print reproductions of documents and intentionally emulate the look and feel of the original. To avoid confusion with the genuine articles, they state somewhere that it is a historical reproduction. If what you have in your hand looks and feels correct to you, read through any text in its entirety to make sure such a statement is not present. In the world of book publishing, there is an entire publishing company (First Edition Library) whose focus was producing facsimile copies of the original edition of a work. Book and jacket (where applicable) are made to look as close to the original as possible, even incorporating printing errors. The publisher includes notes on the jacket and the copyright page, though, indicating that these are reproductions…

    … except when they don’t. The first printings of the first three titles they released were all missing the trademark initials ‘FEL’ on the jackets. This understandably caused somewhat of an uproar with collectors of these works: later printings and all subsequent books in the series included this detail. This is why it is always important to look for other clues, though. First Edition Library printed all its works on acid-free paper, and many volumes included a slipcase in addition to a dust jacket. These are fairly easy ways to distinguish them from first editions.

Rare Book Boxes.

Rare Book Boxes

First Edition Library edition of Babbitt, with slipcase
  • Is it the correct size? Many broadsides were released in several different sizes, and these dimensions can be used to help determine which version you have. This is similar to the common distinction between trade editions and book club editions in the world of books: book club editions are usually not as tall nor as wide as trade editions. Knowing the proper size of an item can also help you determine whether it has been trimmed at the edges (whether to conceal damage or to accommodate rebinding or other modifications).

  • Have any elements been replaced or restored? Even if the majority of a book, magazine, document, or whatever you’re assessing is an original example, in some instances, you may find evidence of repair or restoration. Books are sometimes rebound, dust jackets and other paper items sometimes have material added to cover tears and chips, illustrated items may have restoration work done to revive coloration, etc. Ideally, an item should be wholly original, so knowing how to spot the signs that an item has ‘had some work done’ is important. Look for disagreement in age of materials, inconsistencies in color or texture, or anything that in some way just doesn’t seem to match its surroundings.
A first edition of Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, re-backed with original backstrip laid down.
  • Are illustrations original or reproduced? Magnification is helpful here, in the same way it was useful for assessing signatures. Original engravings and woodcuts should look crisp and clean, with well-defined lines and high contrast. Reproductions lose this definition, and they are often printed on lower quality paper, which can further diminish the appearance of the image. Images are sometimes resized when they are reproduced as well, which degrades the image further. Viewing these under magnification, it should be obvious whether you are looking at an original or a copy.

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Once you have these processes committed to memory to the point that they become automatic, you should see the average quality of items you acquire for your collection increase, by virtue of avoiding common reproductions, printed, stamped, or autopen signatures, and worthless forgeries (which you should clearly mark as such to prevent them being represented as authentic in the future). Inevitably, we are all human, though, so don’t be discouraged by the occasional mistake. It is very common to get caught up in the excitement of locating an interesting item and overlook some piece of evidence that makes its authenticity questionable. In these cases, take the error as an opportunity to learn what to do differently next time. Make some notes to review periodically, and include details about the purchases you have made in the past that should have been avoided, or for which you overpaid based on a misconception. If possible, store a few photos on your cell phone that you can review when scouting in the future, so you have a better idea what to watch out for. If you find that you are continuing to make the same errors, try talking with other collectors or professionals to see if they are willing to share a few tips and tricks.

Until next time, happy hunting!


Jonathan Smalter owns Yesterday’s Muse Books, located at 32 West Main Street in Webster, NY and online at His bookstore has been in operation for ten years, and he has nearly twenty years of experience in the book trade. He is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and the Independent Online Booksellers Association and currently serves as the head organizer of the annual Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair.