Autopen Signatures and Identifiers


A couple of posts back, I mentioned finding a signed Michael Crichton at a Friends of the Library book sale. Upon further research, I discovered that the signature in that gift edition of Jurassic Park was created by an autopen.


Amazingly, this hasn’t effected the value of that edition too much (as it lists from $100 – $195 at various places on the Internet). But I think more attention needs to be brought to this practice – especially for novice collectors like myself.


David E. Brown wrote a great article for Cabinet in 2000/2001: What’s in a Name, in which he talks about the identity and authenticity attached to one’s signature, and how that identity and authenticity have been undercut in the name of efficiency thanks to the machines that mimic signatures.

various autopen signatures for Ronald Reagan.

It’s rumored that some version of an autopen was used by Thomas Jefferson, although it wasn’t until Harry Truman that it became standard practice to make use of automated signature machines in response to mail and in other less official capacities. Soon this practice invaded Hollywood and the sports industry making use of the autopen to sign fan letters, studio photos, & sports cards.




Alex Hipolito illustrates autopens on his sports memorabilia Web site pointing out, in the image above, one autopen identifier. The arrows show ‘ink spots’ where the autopen stopped before it was lifted off the surface, causing ink to pool. In general, he says, this isn’t something you would see with an actual signature.  


Other identifiers can be a bit happenstance: 

  • the appearance of a wavy, wiggly, or interrupted line indicating someone may have ‘bumped’ the table on which the autopen machine sat.  
  • If you have the access to multiple signatures you can compare one to another to determine exactly how identical the signatures are. If it was signed with an autopen, the signatures will be practically identical.
  • Many people list the evenness of the signature as an identifier – if the lines of the signature are the same depth and width, it is most likely an indication that it was created by a machine.


As to how an autopen signature affects the value of an object – technically (& logically), because it’s not an actual signature, it shouldn’t raise the value of the object. HOWEVER, autographs tap into the emotional side of our nature, and more often than not we’ll jump at the chance to own something with an autograph (usually paying more than face value for the signed object). Because of this, autopen signed memorabilia or books will usually sell for an elevated price, but compared to the actual signature, it won’t garner nearly as high of a price.  It’s always best, however, to do your homework.

Many collectors and sellers will go out of their way to stipulate if something was signed in their presence (often times including photographs or other evidence of the signing event). 


Not every autopen signature is identifiable as such, so if you want to guarantee that you have an authentically signed edition, buy from stores where the signing event occurred. Buy from reputable sellers with proof of the actual signing, or be there when the signing occurs.

3 thoughts on “Autopen Signatures and Identifiers

  1. I believe Jefferson's polygraph is on display at Monticello. If I remember correctly, it would make a duplicate of his pen strokes while he was writing – very cool.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I don't know who you are magical book lady, but you saved my ass on this – people are selling this book for $200 – I almost paid $50 and found one in awesome condition that I bought at $15. I have been browsing your site – bookmarked – and now I'll be coming back thank you!

    Mikey

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