“How do you know it is genuine?” has been for the past sixty years the question most on people’s minds when they learn you can actually collect historical letters and documents. In 1994 when I wrote the standard reference work on forgery detection, Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents, I had a much more sanguine point of view than I do today. In a world in which everything and every one is inflated, it is no wonder that the authentication of historical documents has suffered as standards keep falling; except that in the world of authenticating historical documents, it is a question of genuine or fake—there aren’t any degrees.
A person potentially interested in the field shouldn’t be discouraged; they only need to bring to their interests the same skepticism that one must have in every aspect of modern life. Harry Truman said he was from “The Show Me State”. Today, everybody needs to have that attitude. We all wish we could leave our doors unlocked, but we know we can’t.
You have to authenticate the dealer. The principle I stated in the introduction to Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents still holds true: “Ask dealers about their experience—not just in terms of years but also how much similar material they have handled. Ask about articles in scholarly journals, papers delivered before authentification and library groups, recognition by their peers of their being experts. But, most important, ask dealers how they authenticated pieces in question.”
Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents will show you that authentication of historical letters and documents is based neither on “intuition” nor on “gut feelings.” Authentication of historical letters and documents uses an analytic approach that can be illustrated and proven. Dealers who cannot explain their methods of authentication to your satisfaction are ones you should avoid. Certificates of authenticity, a term I had never heard before ten or twelve of them were bandied about authenticating clearly forged Elvis Presley manuscripts about five years ago, are as meaningless as the qualifications of those who have written them. I had never heard of the “experts” who wrote the Presley authentifications—several claimed to be curators of Presley museums, but a few minutes on the Internet and searching news stories turned up no trace of them. The museums were as much a figment of their imaginations as the Presleys were the creations of the forger’s imagination.
“How do you know it is genuine?” Ask the person offering it for sale how they know, and ask them to prove it—like a real expert has to do in court.
Every statement of authenticity has to assume the expert will have to prove the accuracy of their statements – in real life. Having testified as to the authentification of documents and the motive in the Mormon murder case, in which the defendant faced a choice of execution by hanging or firing squad [he plea-bargained for multiple life sentences], I had no sympathy with the Elvis Presley museum “expert” who told me he was actually “only an ice cream dealer”.
The real expert will be happy to inundate, and risk boring you, with information. Then, you can be assured, you are not only collecting the genuine article, you are dealing with it.