Greetings fellow collectors!
Here is some information about the different types of "non-authentic" autographs you may encounter. Sometimes these are sold on ebay as they can still be neat collectibles, but unfortunately sometimes the sellers do not make it clear enough that the autograph is not HAND SIGNED by the athlete/celebrity. Also, there are many sellers who list these types of items in authentic autograph categories rather than in the preprinted autograph categories where they belong. Most of them do this not to deceive you but rather hoping you will choose them as a cheaper alternative to authentic autographs. As such, you should be careful and read the item description thoroughly for any of the following terms which will indicate to you that the item is not authentically hand signed by the subject. Responsible sellers should make it abundantly clear whether an item is authentically hand signed or not. As always, if there is ever any doubt, you should contact the seller for clarification:
Here are some terms you should know, and what to look for:
Preprint: The autograph was designed to be, and was printed, as part of the photo, or is simply a copy of an autographed photo. The photo itself was NOT signed by the athlete/celebrity.
What to look for: Very hard to tell from online images, but if you have the item in hand tip the photo and view it from an angle, you should see an authentic signature is at least raised off the photo. If it is not, it is probably a preprint. Also, you should see an extra layer of ink when 2 or more lines of the signature cross each other. If you only have an online specimen to examine, you might need to do multiple searches and see if you can find two of the EXACT SAME autographs. No human could ever possibly sign their names the EXACT SAME WAY twice! Try it on a piece of paper! There will always be slight differences no matter how hard you try! But, if you find 2 of the exact same autographs, they are most likely either preprints or autopens.
Autopen: This is a computerized machine that has taken a sample of someone's signature, and merely reproduces it on whatever the operator places on the machine bed. Photos, cards, letters, etc. These are frequently used by politicians who need to produce "signed" documents in large quantities, but in recent years have become popular for some celebrities to help them handle their fan mail.
What to look for: An autopenned signature will be shaky. No machine can duplicate human hand movements with the same fluid motions. Late model autopens are getting better at this, so sometimes you may need to look closely, perhaps even use a magnifying glass, but still the signs should be there. Also, the autopen will sign each signature the exact same way/size/shape/form, which is humanly impossible. If you have 2 autopen signatures and hold them together up to a light, they will match up perfectly. A sure sign they are not real.
WARNING! Some athletes/celebrities' handwriting/signatures can, in old age and/or frail health, develop shaky handwriting that could be mistaken for an autopenned signature. A perfect example of this is Baseball Hall of Famer George Kell, still to this day a gracious signer if you have the opportunity to see him at a ballpark or other public venue, yet his signature has gotten shaky in recent years.
Secretarial or Ghost Signer: This is someone who is signing items on behalf of someone else, and is perhaps the most troublesome fake to spot. There really is a signature on the item, the ink is visibly raised, double ink on crossed lines, not shaky like an autopen, etc yet still is not the authentic autograph of the subject. Determining a secretarial or ghost-signed autograph involves knowing the subject's own autograph patterns and making comparisons. Compare the autograph in question to known, in-person examples. Another problem with this is that many subjects have different variations of their autograph due largely to the circumstances of when/where they are signing: paid autograph appearances tend to produce slower, nicer signatures, while signatures obtained outside a hotel or ballpark, especially while walking, may be rushed and sloppy. As always, do your homework!
What it all boils down to is doing your homework. Knowledge is power, especially in this hobby! If you're buying on ebay, email the seller with questions, check their feedback, see what other kinds of items they are selling. Do they have a LIFETIME Authenticity Guarantee? Do they have tamper proof holograms on their items? Are those holograms serial numbered to make them unique? Does the COA match up to the hologram to make it unique? All are features that go a long way toward making your purchase a safe one. The hobby of autograph collecting is still a great, great hobby. Collectors just need to be informed, educated, and confident in who they purchase from.
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Steve & Jen