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Collectibles expert: Beware of fake Trump autographs

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If you purchased a Donald J. Trump autograph either before or after he assumed the presidency, you might want to take a closer look at his John Hancock.

That’s because there’s a possibility the signature wasn’t written by his own hand but by a forger or an autopen machine, a mechanical device that automatically reproduces a person’s signature for those who have to sign a multitude of documents.

Stephen Koschal, an autograph collector and authenticator based in Colorado Springs said such fraud in the autograph-collecting market is not unusual because demand for a president’s signature typically skyrockets when he takes office. That’s why several months ago Mr. Koschal self-published Donald J. Trump — A Signature Study & Autopen Guide as a reference book for autograph collectors and dealers.

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President Trump shows off his signature on an executive order about the Dakota Access pipeline in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

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“While they’re president, there’s a desire to get their autograph. They’re fresh, new, and while they’re president, collectors will pay top dollar. Twenty years later, it’s not that desirable.”

While running for president, Mr. Trump signed many hats, baseballs, papers — you name it. In fact, MarketPlace reported in November, 2016, that President Trump “signs absolutely everything. Babies, goodness knows what. His autograph is everywhere.” During that time, he wrote out his full name, Donald J. Trump.

But now, as president, he rarely signs items for fans, and if he does, he quickly scrawls just “Trump,” Mr. Koschal said. That means most of the complete-name autographs on the market predate his presidency.

With autographs, context is everything, he noted. Mr. Trump’s signature on a key presidential document would be worth much more than one on a Make America Great Again cap. But comparing apples to apples, he said, Mr. Trump’s signature on a 3 x 5 card preinauguration would be worth between $75 and $125. By contrast, a full-name signature written as President Trump would go for $350 to $500, he noted.

But here’s the problem regarding his signature, both before and after becoming president: It might not be real.

Twenty days after Mr. Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, ABC News reported that countless signed items sold on his website to raise campaign donations were not done with his own hand but with an autopen machine. That only became evident after the election, when opportunists seeking to capitalize on his victory put the items for sale on eBay, ABC said.

“What was soon obvious to some was that the Trump-signed hats, offered at various price points during the campaign on Trump’s website, including $125, $183 and $243, all appear to be signed in the exact same place — the lower left of the hat brim, with not a single variance in any signature,” according the ABC report. “Meanwhile, the bookplates in Trump’s ‘election edition’ of The Art of the Deal — limited to a run of 30,000 copies, his campaign promised — featured a slightly different signature from the hat, but again, each book signature appears to be identical.”

Mr. Koschal said such use of an autopen by a person in Mr. Trump’s position as a candidate is not unusual. And since Dwight Eisenhower, it’s been common practice for presidents whose demands for signing documents of all kinds is astronomical. In fact, Thomas Jefferson used a primitive autopen machine.

Mr. Koschal said that if a president is sending a letter to each member of Congress, an autopen would be used whereas a personal note to a friend would be signed by the president himself. One would be worthless, the other worth something on the collector’s market.

So, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get when it comes to autographs, Mr. Koschal said. And because of that, the age-old adage caveat emptor — Latin for “let the buyer beware” — should be remembered.

How do you know whether an autograph is real?

Michelle Dresbold, a Pittsburgh-based, nationally known handwriting expert, compared autographs to snowflakes.

“They can look alike but no two are exactly alike. You can sign your name in a similar way every time but you never sign it the same way twice. If it’s exactly the same, it’s a copy,” she said.

Also, the pressure that’s applied is different between a handwritten signature, which has variations, and an autopen copy, which has none. Ms. Dresbold said that with a piece of paper you can feel beneath it for pressure points. Mr. Koschal added that with magnification you can see if there is a pressure difference. If there is none, the signature is a copy.

Mr. Koschal, who also has written signature reference books on Robert F. Kennedy and presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, said would-be buyers of presidential signatures should be careful of fraud because the market has exploded.

Mr. Koschal said a signature by John F. Kennedy, clipped from a letter, would cost $600 to $700. A similar signature by Barack Obama would go for about $200.

He said the difference in cost is attributable to former President Kennedy being assassinated and there is a finite number of signatures he made. By contrast, former President Obama is a relatively young man who will presumably will be around for years signing documents, books, and other items.

The most popular president’s signature? Why, that would be our most popular president, Abraham Lincoln, whether his “A. Lincoln” signature in private correspondence or his full name on official documents.

Depending upon the context, a Lincoln autograph can be range from $4,000 on the low end all the way to the record $3.7 million paid for the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Michael A. Fuoco is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.  Contact him at:mfuoco@post-gazette.com.

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