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Collecting Rare Books and First Editions - Is "Flat Signed" Better?

This (or a variant of it) is probably the most often asked question I hear. What I'm talking about is, of course, whether it is better to buy a book (or get it autographed by the author) with just a signature alone or whether it is better to have it with a personalized inscription.
Published on 18 March 2013

By Barry R. Levin

This (or a variant of it) is probably the most often asked question I hear. What I'm talking about is, of course, whether it is better to buy a book (or get it autographed by the author) with just a signature alone or whether it is better to have it with a personalized inscription.

With modern books by living authors, the popular wisdom states that it is better to have a "flat" (I hate that term) signed book - that is to say, a "stand-alone" signature, not a book with an inscription to an "unknown" person. For example, if I wrote a book, would you like me to sign it for you: "For (your first name here) - Hope you like it, Barry R. Levin," or just "Barry R. Levin." Many dealers will tell you that it is easier to resell your modern signed books if they are just "flat" signed. "No one named 'Bill,'" they will say, "wants a book signed 'For Bob.'"

Is this bit of popular wisdom true, are flat signed books better? Well, yes and no.

The very best autograph dealers and authorities will tell you quite candidly that, in many cases, "a stand-alone" (or "flat," if you must) signature in a modern book can be all but impossible to authenticate. Yes, he or she can rule out most fakes, but still can only tell you most of the time that a modern stand-alone signature "looks good," not that it is 100% authentic if the piece has no provenance. A signature is almost (and in some languages in reality) a pictograph or symbol that represents a person's name, a stylized form of script often unlike the person's normal handwriting. It is possible with practice to copy that symbol. Yes, it helps if you know something about the mechanics of handwriting, and also of pens, inks, papers, etc., but a fair number of people can do a passable job of copying a given person's signature. It is extremely difficult, however, to copy a person's script, or handwriting in general. (I am not going to give you a primer here on the whys and wherefores of this for obvious reasons). Take my word for it, that is one of the reasons why the names of the handful of great forgers that have been caught are so well remembered - it is a true (if despicable) art form.

For instance, I talked to an important collector of Stephen King the other day. He told me a very interesting story. He bought a copy of a proof for a new Stephen King novel, over the internet. The copy was described as being flat signed by the author. When the proof came, it was not signed. He emailed the seller, and the seller told him to send it back and he would send him a signed copy. Suspicious, the collector took a soft lead pencil and put a very small mark on a given page and sent the proof back. A week went by, and a signed copy of the proof was delivered to him. He looked at the signature (one that he is very familiar with) and it "looked good." He opened the proof to the page on which he had placed his mark on the copy that he had sent back, and lo and behold there is his mark. Now the collector knew that King was on vacation that week, and knew it was not possible for the seller to have gotten this particular copy signed in the time allotted - so even if the signature "looked good," it had to be a forgery.

Another collector sent me a scan of a very popular British author's stand-alone autograph. Once again, the "signed" book had been purchased on the internet. She wanted to know if the signature was authentic. Now, it is almost impossible to truly authenticate an autograph from a scan and with no provenance, and it is not a free service we normally have time to render. Saying that, I did have time that day to look at the scan, so I did. This author's signature is one that is a little hard to get in this country, mostly because of the overwhelming demand at the moment. It is also, unfortunately, a particularly easy autograph to forge. I sent the collector an emailed note to that effect, along with an example I had of a signature known to be authentic. My advice was, and is, to only buy autograph material from an expert, one with proper credentials, especially flat or stand-alone examples of signatures.

In the last few years, I have seen a rise in the number of forged autographs of science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors, including Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Stephen King, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and even those of Ray Bradbury, whose signature is the most common authentic autograph in the field.

My point in telling you all of this is simply to point out that the more words on your autographed items, the better! The number of people who can fool an autograph expert drops in direct proportion to the number of words on the page. If you are buying a stand-alone or flat signed book, the provenance for the piece can be as important as the honesty and knowledge of the seller.

It is also important to note that it is always a good idea, when having a book signed for you by an author, to have the author date the signature, especially if the book is being signed in the year, or, better yet, the month and year of publication. Books so signed are very desirable to collectors. Also, because the handwriting of authors often change over time, sometimes dramatically, the dating of the signature becomes doubly important. Ray Bradbury and Clark Ashton Smith are two notable examples of striking signature changes that come to mind.

None of us will live forever; no one is immortal. Collectors are one of the greatest conservators of our cultural heritage. The signed books we buy or have autographed for us today will one day bear the signature of a deceased author. How will people in the future know for sure that a particular signature is authentic? Some collectors put a note in their signed books (hopefully on acid-free paper) saying that they got the book signed at such and such a time and place. This is harmless and can be used as provenance to a point, but in the future it will be only as good as the reputation of the individual collector who wrote it. If he is not of note, it may prove to be almost as good in the future as a letter of authentication from a dishonest dealer or forger. No, the best measure of an item's authenticity is that which is integral and internal. Few if any collectors today care if Jules Verne or H. G. Wells inscribed a book to an unknown person. Just the opposite, a long inscription is preferred. Why is that true? Because of course these authors are now no longer signing anything, and it is easier to authenticate an inscribed and signed copy, so the more words from the master's hand, the better. Who knows, maybe in a hundred years, Ray Bradbury's signature may be worth something, and a book with a long inscription and maybe one of his drawings - priceless?

At this point, it would be wise to point out that even those collectors who do not like personalized inscriptions in their modern books will eagerly buy the following types of inscribed books:

• ASSOCIATION COPY: An inscribed or signed book that once belonged to someone the author knew or to someone very well known (i.e., another author, a movie star, a former president, etc.).

• DEDICATION COPY (sometimes called "THE COPY"): The copy inscribed by the author to the person or persons to whom the book is dedicated.

• PRESENTATION COPY: A copy of a book given by the author as a gift to the recipient, usually inscribed and often dated very near the time of publication. (NOTE: not a copy signed by the author at the request of the autograph's recipient.)

• INSCRIBED SENTIMENT: A copy of a book that is inscribed without being personalized. An example would be a copy of my imaginary book inscribed, "This is my favorite of all of my books. Barry R. Levin," or, "With my warmest regards, Barry R Levin." My favorite inscription of this type was on a book I once owned, signed by the author with the note, "This is the first copy of this book I ever signed." The "inscribed sentiment" may be the best of all worlds, for the collector of modern signed first editions by living authors.

So now you know why I have answered the question of "Is flat signed best?" with the answer, "Yes and no." For the purpose of resale in the lifetime of the author - "Yes," if there is no question of authenticity; and, "No," because an inscription makes it far easier to authenticate the handwriting of the author, and ipso facto, the signature, and thus the dictum applies, "The more words from the master's hand, the better."

So, how would you like me to sign my next imaginary book for you?

(Posted on, presented here by permission of the author.)

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