(I wrote this article for the May, 2000 issue of 'IN THE GROOVE,' the magazine of the Michigan Antique Phonograph Society.)
Thomas Edison was a prolific autograph writer. As an inventor he signed thousands of worksheets and documents. As a businessman he signed countless letters, documents, stock certificates, etc. And as an early ‘celebrity' he was besieged by autograph seekers, to whom he was always extremely accommodating. In his 84 years he probably signed his name more than anyone, before or since! His autograph was wonderfully distinctive, with a characteristic ‘umbrella' over the top. In fact it was so distinctive that in 1899 he had it trademarked, and thereafter it appeared on every commercial product he sold, and in every advertisement. In his lifetime his signature must have been familiar to just about every man, woman, and child in the U.S.
Today his autographs are avidly collected. Professional autograph dealers typically charge $350-$500 for a simple signature, on a card or cut from a document. Routine signed documents can be found in the $600-$900 range, while signed photographs are usually seen in the $1500-$2000 range. Documents with interesting or historical content are the most coveted, with values varying enormously depending upon the significance of the content. For such items the sky's the limit!
Until recently autograph dealers were just about the only source for Edison signatures, either as buyers or sellers. Individuals wanting to sell an Edison autograph had few places to offer it, and collectors had few options to locate one. The Internet has changed this situation entirely. On-line auctions such as eBay offer a wide open opportunity to link sellers and buyers. The downside, alas, is that the Internet also offers a wide open opportunity to link con artists to suckers.
Professional dealers back their sales by their experience and reputation. No established autograph expert would risk his reputation over a forged autograph. Alas, fake autographs are almost ludicrously simple to make, and Internet sellers with no reputation to lose can take advantage of this obvious fact. In collecting the rule of thumb is always "Buyer Beware," but if you're looking at an Edison autograph on the Internet you had best do your homework first if you want to avoid being burned!
Signed documents are generally reliable. (Petty forgers usually don't attempt anything beyond a simple autograph.) The most common Edison documents in the market are corporate minutes, in which Edison's signature is included with several other corporate directors on a page, and signed checks, especially from "Edison Botonical [sic] Research". A vast trove of these documents entered the market in the early 1970's, from the estate of the late Charles Edison. They are plentiful, though not cheap. (One note of caution: there are many blank checks in the collector market printed with "Thomas A. Edison Private Account," unused stock from the same source just mentioned. These inexpensive items could easily be filled in to make a bogus document. Look for authentic cancellation marks on any Edison check.)
Loose autographs, either ‘clipped' or on a card, are more problematic. Among serious collectors clipped signatures are not particularly desirable. They are the easiest to forge, and of course if they are real it implies that someone destroyed a document to obtain it. One must question the motive of anyone clipping signatures. (In one very famous case several years ago, an Edison "researcher" clipped many signatures from documents at the Edison National Historic Site, selling them in the collector market until he was finally caught.)
While the majority of loose Edison autographs in the market are probably authentic, it is a simple matter for nearly anyone to create such a plain autograph. (I know at least one serious scholar who can mimic Edison's handwriting and signature almost uncannily. Fortunately he makes no attempt to mislead anyone with his talent, but not everyone is so honest.) It is certainly possible for a skilled forger to make an autograph that could fool even a very experienced Edison expert. Fortunately, most forgers are not quite that skilled.
Many collectors are lulled into a false sense of security by a "Certificate or Authenticity" or "COA" as it is often abbreviated on eBay. Some people forget that such certification is only worth as much as the reputation of the issuer. An original COA from University Archives is a valid document. A COA from Joe Ebay is a piece of paper. The sports autograph market is notoriously rampant with fakes, yet many of these are sold with COA. Autograph magazines suggest that buyers never accept a Xeroxed COA. Good advice, however with a computer it's only a moment's work to create an elaborate, multi-color, ‘official' Certificate of Authenticity in any name you want. Once again, buyer beware. You are better off relying on your own expertise than any Certificate of Authenticity.
One problem with determining the authenticity of an Edison autograph is that, like all of us, his signature evolved over the years. A signature from 1888 is quite different from another from 1928. However if you look at enough of them a consistent evolutionary pattern is evident. Another problem is simply that Edison, again like all of us, did not write his name exactly the same every time. When he sat down to sign 100 checks and documents in succession you can be sure that the last signature was not as precise as the first. But, once again, if you are familiar with his writing you can look past minor variations due to haste or fatigue. Ultimately, whether fresh or tired, young or old, there are consistent patterns in all of our signatures. I think this may be even more true of Edison than most, simply because he signed his name with such incredible frequency -- he had a lot of practice!
Rather than to attempt a comprehensive survey of the evolution of Edison's signature (a topic I propose to address in a future article), let's deconstruct an obvious forgery to show some of the points you should be aware of when you evaluate a potential purchase.
The signature shown here was sold on eBay in January 2000 for $450, handsomely matted and framed along with a picture of Edison in his laboratory. It was offered with a Certificate of Authenticity from an ostensible ‘forensic' expert, who plainly knows nothing about Edison and didn't bother to do his homework. It is the most amateurish fake I've yet seen. (The seller sold it in a ‘private auction,' with bidders' identities hidden, no doubt to prevent anyone from warning prospective buyers to beware.) This autograph fails on many obvious reference points:
1. There is no middle initial. In 40 years of collecting and researching I have never seen an Edison autograph without the initial "A" (without a period) or, very rarely, the full "Alva." It's beyond imagining that Edison, who wrote so many autographs that it was virtually an automatic, mechanical process for him, would neglect to write his initial.
2. The ‘umbrella.' Edison's characteristic umbrella paraph changed over the years. He first started using it in the late 1870's, and for several years it was a bold, almost straight line that was thicker at the right end as he held the pen more firmly. Over the years it became increasingly curved, until towards the end of his life it was nearly an oval. (Some later signatures have a trace of the line passing under the signature.) Whether straight, curved, or deeply ovalled, these umbrellas were very boldly written, with a rapid, smooth, quick motion. As a result they are never wavy or irregular.
3. The ‘baseline.' Edison had two types of handwriting. His ‘informal' style, as seen in lab notes, is open and broad, while his formal style, used in letters and signatures, is almost incredibly meticulous. They are both notable for their precision, however. Edison developed his writing style as a telegrapher, transcribing messages. Neatness counted and Edison's autographs reflect this. His signatures are always precise, as if written on an imaginary straight line. This fake is extremely irregular.
4. Linked letters. Almost invariably, there were breaks in the flow of his last name: E_d_is_on. Only rarely did he connect any of these letters. (The ‘E' and 'd' and 's' and ‘o' sometimes appear to be linked, but on close inspection it usually shows that the tail of the first letter merely touches the second, without being written in a continuous motion.) Also, the "h" in Thomas in this fake is seen drawn (crudely) from the base of the "T." Edison always started the "h" high up the shaft of the "T."
5. Linked "E". Note how the "E" of the last name is connected to the preceding letter. Late in life Edison didn't lift his pen completely from the page between his middle initial and "E", however the connecting line is typically thin and straight, not firmly drawn and curved as seen in the fake. Of course, the link should be to the initial and not the first name!
5a. As a subcategory to the above (and ignoring the lack of initial), a linked E would imply a late signature. However after Edison trademarked his signature in 1899 he very rarely signed his name as "Thomas." Virtually all of his later signatures have his first name abbreviated as "Thos", without a period. (In general, the full ‘Thomas' is much scarcer than ‘Thos'.)
6. Overall sloppiness. The irregular flow of the signature is a clear indication of someone trying too hard. It simply doesn't have the finesse of a real signature. Everyone, no matter how illegible their signature may be, writes their name with confidence and ease which comes from long practice. This shows a tortured attempt at drawing, not writing!
Taken on its own, any single problem above might be considered an abberation. To have seven such variations from the norm is unimaginable, and a clear sign of fakery. Buyer beware, indeed.