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Wow, this book has been signed by the author!  It must be worth a lot!

Not so fast, is that a real signature?  A real signature can vastly increase the price on a book while a forgery can ruin a good copy.

Hemingway signatureOne of the most common errors people make is mistaking a printed signature for an actual signature.  These are pretty common, especially with super popular authors.  It’s purely decorative.  The easiest way to tell if it’s a printed signature is to turn the page and run your fingers over it.

There’s often a little bleed through onto the back of the page, so look though the page at a light source.  If it’s uniformly dark, it’s probably printed.  If it’s irregular, odds go up that its  a real signature.  If there’s actual bleed through of the ink in irregular spots, its almost certainly a signature.

The other trick is to run your fingers over the signature, front and back.  First run your fingers flat, then make claws with your hands to run your nails over it lightly.  Run your fingers over a printed section, then over the signature.  A printed signature will feel uniform.  A signature will have some indentations if if was done with a pointed pen.  A felt tip pen signature will be smooth but will have bleed spots you can see from front and back.

If the ink used in the signature is a different color than the rest of the text, this also makes it likely it’s a signature.

Great, you have a signature!  But is it the author’s signature?

One of the quickest things to check is print date vs author’s death date.  If it was printed afterward, it’s definitely not real!

Wikipedia often has a sample signature for well known authors on the page about the author.  For example, the page on J.D. Salinger shows off what Salinger’s signature is supposed to look at.  Not every author has a representative signature, but it’s often a good first stop for well known authors.  A little searching on the internet should turn up lesser known authors signatures as well.  Looking through multiple signed copies on book selling sites can also give you a good idea of what it’s supposed to look like.

If it looks NOTHING like the author’s signature, it’s obviously a poor forgery. However, it probably won’t look quite like the sample one either. Authors often sign big stacks of books at a time or sign them at an awkward height or on unsteady surfaces.  If it doesn’t exactly match, it may still be the author.  You’re looking for something that looks similar, but isn’t an exact clone.

One that looks EXACTLY like the representative samples you’re seeing online should  raise a red flag.  Print out the signature and lay it over your suspected signature.  Put a flashlight behind the two pages.  If it lines up EXACTLY, you may have a forgery.  Printing out a copy and using carbon paper to trace on the signature isn’t exactly hard.  Trace over the signature, then go over it with a pen and you appear to have a real signature.

Looking at it through the page and running fingers over it may help catch that type of forgery.  It’s easy to do, but easy to detect because you’ll have a double set of overlapping impressions.  Or is if was done with a felt pen, you’ll have lines from the tool used to make the carbon copy when you shouldn’t have any impressions.

Erase marks around the signature may also indicate that carbon marks were rubbed out.

If they use a projector, it’ll be harder to detect but you’ll still have uneven marks in the signature because the forger is effectively tracing or coloring in the signature, not actually signing.  It may have overlapping unnatural grooves or bleeds where the forger went back over the section to make ti look ” real”.

A really good forger will just practice and practice to make a good natural looking signature.  But most people don’t have that patience or skill so it’s a very small number of  copies that would have that sort of care put into them and are probably being marketted near the top of the price range.

If it’s a truly expensive copy (costs more than  a car, for example) and a well known author, consulting an expert may be worth the money.  If the book is already in your possession this may be expensive, but its worth the investment.  If nothing else, you can then include the info of who verified the signature and when and say the documentation verifying it will be included with purchase.  (this will probably up the price you can charge for it)  Again, consulting the internet is probably your best bet to find an expert on that author.  Or call an auction house that specializes in that sort of thing.  They’ll know who they use. (they may charge you a referral fee, however)

If you have not already purchased the book from someone, asking for exactly that sort of documentation may be a good idea.  If they don’t already have it in hand, agree upon a price beforehand and indicate that the seller will cover the cost of the verification.  If it comes back as a fake, you are not obligated to buy and you aren’t out the cash for verification.  If it comes back as real, you’ll buy at the agreed price plus the cost of the documentation.  If it needs to be shipped to the expert, you may need to cover the shipping cost as well.  This adds to the cost as well, but is probably worth it in the long run for such a huge investment.

Using an escrow service may also be a good idea for very high value items where you can’t physically examine it beforehand.

But what if the person walks into the shop and you don’t have time to do all this?  For lower priced items, it may be worth the gamble to buy it anyway without doing the research.  Just be wary of things where the price is TOO good.  If  the person selling it to you KNOWS it’s a valuable book but wants an unrealistically low price for it ($50 for a signed Catcher in the Rye), be wary.  If they want a low price but don’t know what they have, it’s probably worth a gamble.

For things where they want a higher price than you’re comfortable paying without research, see if they’re willing to hang about for a little bit while you do some research, or come back later when you’ve had time to gather some data.  Serious sellers will probably be willing to come back later or let you do the research because they’re sure you’ll see the value and want to buy.  You may sometimes disappoint them by telling them it’s NOT a real signature since they may well have bought a forgery that’s decades old!

People with a copy they know to be a forgery will probably cut the price quickly and hope to sell it quick or just move on to the next shop, hoping to score with someone that didn’t do the research.  If you get someone in that you’re fairly certain is peddling a forgery and bolts off to try to sell it elsewhere, calling other dealers in your area and asking if that person has shown up with that book may be a good idea.  If he has a real signed copy, the other dealer may have time to have the research in hand and can buy.  If not, he’s still got time to do research and reject the forgery.  You don’t want other dealers buying forgeries either, because once they have that stamp of authenticity of coming from a dealer, people will probably never check them again and you might be the one to eventually end up with that forgery and curse your luck for being caught holding the hot potato.

This all sounds very scary, but unless you’re handling high end books, you probably will never see a forgery.  The effort required to pull it off is a bit beyond the skills of your average crook.  But it does happen. be careful what you buy and be careful what you sell.

Nora O'Neill

Nora O'Neill

Nora O'Neill

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you, that’s a great article and a really useful resource.

    I did have a website that had many, many author’s signatures but I can’t find it offhand.

  2. Well written Nora. This article you have written is very helpful indeed.

    I once saw on eBay an “Authorized Uniform Edition” listed as “Signed by the author” (Mark Twain) and I knew for a fact the signature was printed at the factory because I have several books of the series. Buyer beware.

    More than once I’ve heard the line you begin with, “Wow, this book has been signed by the author! It must be worth a lot!”

    Of course this depends on WHO the author is or was.

    Take for example unknown poets. One of their 500 ‘limited edition’ vanity press books (the real distribution was 50 and that 50 free to friends and family members) was signed to Aunt Edna. This will not substantially increase the value of the book. Especially if an Internet search on the author’s name pulls up just the birth and death stats and no mention of the book.

    I’ve seen times where a signed copy of a little known/unknown poet or author is for sale and it is way, way over priced. The only people that might really know about or want the book are relatives and they already got the book for free.

    Initially when I started bookselling I would get excited about seeing a signature and I’ll confess I still get a little jump start to my heart but I’ve learned that if I want to sell it as opposed to storing it I still need to price it realistically.

    • Thanks Therese! Great resource.

      One thing people might want to do is join the club and send in scans of signatures TomFolio does not have or perhaps even duplicates that will verify a previous posting. That way if you list a book as ‘Signed by author” then people will have the resource for verification. – Of course that is if you KNOW the signature is real…

  3. Pingback: Selling Rare Books | Bookshop Blog

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