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Lets start with....What is an Autopen signature? This is a word that is very often wrongly used or attributed to items that are stamped or printed. I am not going to go into great detail here but this basic guidance, which is accurate and not stolen from someone elses website! (which is more than i can say for some other articles on Autopens!) is wholly accurate and based on many years of practice experience.
Firstly, 'Autopen' is a trade name although it is now used as a generic word for a signature created by a machine, much like 'Hoover' is used to describe any vacuum cleaner. You may have read other articles about Autopen signatures, but let me tell you, most of them are wrong in one way or another, and if you take what they say as gospel, you will end up buying Autopen signatures as authentic, or mis describing them as printed or something else entirely different.
There are other manufacturers of similar machines, and not all work in exactly the same way, although they do have some of the same traits. There are also now more modern machines which are much more like your own home printer, in that they print the signature onto the item using inks rather than a pen, but that is a different subject and you only need to understand or study how your home printer works to be able to determine this type of printed signature. What we are discussing here are signatures created by the traditional mechanical Autopen machine only.
Some typicle myths about Autopen signatures are that they are always exactly the same; but they are not! Most people who use an Autopen machine will have more than one 'matrix' (that is the part of the machine that actually creates and determines the signature). The matrix is produced by the Autopen company themselves, and can be removed from the machine and replaced with another and so they may have available to them more than one signature style. But it must also be remembered that each of those signature styles can be changed in size simply by making a couple of adjustments on the Autopen machine itself, thereby creating a slightly different signature in size.
Some suggest or describe the Autopen signature is 'printed' again this is incorrect as the machine uses a pen (or almost any other writing implement) to write the signature in a similar way to yourself. So it is not printed at all, as this is an entirely different process, and the signature is signed in almost exactly the same way as yourself sign your name.
It is also said that the Autopen signature will always have wobbles or appear shakey, this too is incorrect. On a badly set up or poorly maintained machine this may well be true, but on a well set up machine you will be very hard pushed to see any wobbles or similar and the signature will look almost perfect. A good example of this are the Autopen signatures you will see on the cards sent out by Buckingham Palace signed the the Queen and Prince Phillip. These are probably the best Autopen signatures you will ever see, but still you will see them often being sold on ebay as 'authentic' so beware!
I have seen others suggest that you will not see the 'bridges and tunnels' but simply a solid line of colour, this again is wrong. The Autopen writing will have the exact same bridges and tunnels exactly as your own hand writing does. Take a look at your own writing using a pen under a magnifying glass, and you will see what i mean by 'bridges and tunnels'. Your pen will create a 'road' which will have along it a series of 'bridges' and 'tunnels' as it draws your signature.
Another myth is that the Autopen signature does not leave any marks or indentations on the paper or photo, and this again is incorrect. The Autopen machine uses a pen, pencil or similar to produce the signature, so for all intents and purposes an Autopen signature will look very similar in most ways to a real signature. If it is fitted with a ballpoint pen, then it will certainly leave an impression of some sort on the paper, just as you would when writing. The pressure of the pen in the machine onto the paper can be adjusted, so it will always depend again on how well the machine is set up.
Autopen signatures have a yellowing around them! Once again complete nonsense, as this 'halo' effect can happen with certain types of ink used in felt tip markers, and so this can happen, and is sometimes seen on all kinds of signed photos and pages, and has nothing at all whatever to do with Autopen signatures, only the type of ink within the pen and the paper used to write on.
The Autopen always leaves a dot at the start and finish! yet another myth that is put forward by so many sites and articles. Some Autopen examples do show this, but not all of them, so don't rely on this to confirm if a signature is an autopen or not, although it is generaly a good indication.
An Autopen signature never has any variation in line thickness. Wrong again, although this is something you should be looking hard for. The machine is normally fitted with a felt tip style pen, and because the machine cannot create the variable pressure and angle that you yourself will produce when writing, the Autopen signature will appear to have been written using the same pressure and angle throughout, making the lines the same thickness. But this is not always true, and i have seen many Autopen signatures that do have some variation in line thickness, and this can depend very much on how the machine is set up and the pen used.
Autopen signatures are always in felt tip pen. No they are not! An Autopen machine can be fitted with any number of writing instruments which may include a felt tip pen, and as these are the best option in such a machine, it means that they are used more often.
Most of todays TV and music stars use an Autopen machine! In fact, very few people use them, and they are mainly used by politicians (Tony Blair has used one a lot, even for his book!) astronauts and some of the top A list celebs, plus our own Royal family. However, many TV, Film and Sports celebs do use rubber stamps, die stamps, ink jet printers and their secretary or PA to sign their mail!
So what do you look for? Tough question, as it can be very hard indeed to spot good Autopen signatures. If you have ever had the chance to see the Christmas cards and other items sent out and signed by the Queen and Prince Phillip, you will know that they have probably the best set up and maintained Autopen machine around, as these are almost impossible to spot unless you really know what to look for, and can only really be confirmed by comparison with other known examples from the same year, as they are so good. You will see these autopen signed cards being offered on ebay on a regular basis as 'authentic' by various sellers, but in almost every case they are Autopen signed, even the year date is added by the machine and the signature styles are changed each year as well!
You should look out for the dots at the start and finish, the wobbly lines, the very even pen strokes etc, but those alone will not prove that it is or indeed is not an Autopen.
The one thing that will confirm an Autopen signature as an Autopen is comparison with another known Autopen example, plus some carefull examination under a magnifying glass for some of the obvious traits.
In most cases if you find the same matrix example (remember that each celeb may have more than one signature matrix example) then you will find that each one will be either exactly the same (taking into account the possibility of a different pen) or at the least will have parts of the signature that are exactly the same. Remember too that machines can be adjusted for size and speed, and can make some same matrix signatures appear different, but careful comparison may show otherwise.
The most common users of Autopen machines were NASA, who sent out tens of thousands of Autopen signed items. Most of these Autopen patterns can be found at this excellent website, and i suggest that you spend some time looking at these, and then perhaps consider buying some examples for your own collection. Astronaut Autopen signed lithos are collectible in their own right, and are often purchased to fill that space in a collection. I have at least 100 assorted examples in my own collection, and these prove invaluable when teaching others what to look for.
And finally, if you collect space signed items, and need a full set of Autopen signatures, then Donnis Willis offers a set of transparancies that you can simply lay over the top of your suspect signature. These work a treat, but remember also what i have laid out about above, as its not always as easy as it seems with Autopens!
You can buy the full set of Autopen transparancies by clicking here.
Copyright Garry King and Autografica 2014. Updated April 2017.