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How do you spot a fake autograph?

WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...

Photo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Alex Ferguson, allegedly signed by them
One of the photos seized - allegedly signed by Ronaldo and Ferguson

Two men have been found guilty of conning sports fans into paying for faked autographs. But how can you tell if a signature is genuine or not?

Jonny Wilkinson, David Beckham, Stephen Gerrard, Sir Alex Ferguson - the names of those signatures forged and sold by Faisal Madani and Graeme Walker is an A-list of British sports stars.

The pair were found guilty after trading standards officers raided Walker's Sporting Icons shop in Chester. Officers bought or seized 197 items that the prosecution claimed were forgeries.

Like many autographs sold, theirs came with certificates of authentication (albeit not from a reputable authorising body). So how can autograph hunters prepared to spend on their hobby detect real from fake?

Fake autographs are often mechanically reproduced. Run your thumb over the signature on a photo, suggests Antiques Roadshow expert Clive Farahar. If the writing feels flat against the surface, it could be a facsimile. You need to feel the texture of the ink on top of the photograph to know it has been added afterwards.

DEALER CREDENTIALS TO LOOK FOR
Universal Autograph Collectors' Club registered dealer programme
Autograph Fair Trade Assoc Ltd

Even then the signature itself could still be a sham. Autographs can be printed on top of photos, so it's important to feel the outline with your thumb.

It can be almost impossible to detect fake signatures on fabric like caps and sports shirts by touch because the fabric soaks up the ink without leaving a raised layer. But there are visible clues in the ink.

Garry King, an expert in signed memorabilia who gave evidence in the Madani-Walker trial, believes he could train anyone to spot the most obvious signs of a fake in 10 minutes.

When a signature is rubber stamped on an item, all the ink is applied at the same time and squeezed out to the edges of the rubber. It leaves a "kind of tramline". So when magnified, "you can spot more ink on the edges of the lines than in the middle".

Faked signatures of Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard
Michael Owen gave evidence at the trial of Madani and Walker

With signatures printed by machine, the giveaway is that all the ink is applied in the same moment, resulting in a smooth effect. But if a name is signed by hand, with a pen, the nib will cut through wet ink, creating "bridges" and "tunnels" visible under an eye glass.

Autographs can also be duplicated with an autopen where a machine uses a pen to replicate handwriting. A plastic or metal "matrix" of the signature is made from the template of an autograph. This matrix is loaded into the machine and the mechanical arm precisely traces the writing. Royalty depend on autopen machines to get through their Christmas card lists.

But under scrutiny, even the autopen can be detected, says Mr King.

"When you write your own name, you put your pen on the paper and start writing in one continuous movement. The pen is normally moving before you start writing. But the autopen comes down with a dot and comes off abruptly with another dot, which you can see when magnified."

Perhaps the hardest signatures to verify are those that have been faked freehand. In the days before autopen, Walt Disney and many other Hollywood glitterati had their secretaries sign photos for them, says Mr Farahar.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The angle of the signature
Pressure and speed of writing
Bridges and tunnels in ink
Rubber stamp 'tramlines'
Texture of the ink
Autopen dots at start and finish

"Certainly with JFK you could tell if it was by secretary one, secretary two or secretary three."

Human error - the fact real handwriting varies over time and in different circumstances - can make real and fake signatures extremely hard to validate or dismiss. Autographs by the Beatles are notoriously hard to authenticate.

"You can't recognise a lot of signatures done at stage doors. It looks like John Lennon but it could be anybody. If you walked out of a theatre as you signed your name, it would look dodgy," says Mr Farahar.

There are more obvious clues to fakery than scrutinising the ink so closely.

"If you got 10 people in your office to sign a card, the chances are you'll get 10 signatures of all sizes all over place - unevenly spaced, at an angle, you may even get one upside down," says Mr King.

"Put a real football shirt signed by a team against a fake one and you can see it straight away. With 10 autographs written by one person, the signatures will often be the same size, they'll be evenly spaced and the same way up."

WHO, WHAT, WHY?
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

Abundance is also an insight, says Mr King: "A forger can knock out 20, 30, 40 David Beckham autographs a week. A genuine dealer probably won't have as much as one a month for sale."

That's because like many Premiership footballers, Beckham won't sign more than one thing at a time because of fears it will be sold on. In addition, many will only dedicate a signature to an individual, knowing that it is then only of use to the named person.

Experience is key, says Mr Farahar. "To know what a signature should look like, you need to have seen one that was collected, probably personally. Or you have to rely on someone else's experience and professional reputation to tell you that something is OK."


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