Autographs of Old West Widely Forged Warns ExpertsBy Mark Chervenka
Autographs of Old West Widely Forged Warns Experts
On April 29, 2003, two previously unknown documents with the signature of William "Billy the Kid" Bonney, brought $25,000 and $35,000 at auction.
Both pieces were sold with notarized statements of authenticity signed by a Tombstone, Arizona antiques dealer who declared the pieces "correct and authentic in every way."
The sale of the rare autographs was extensively reported in the press where it caught the eye of Warren Anderson, a historical document dealer and document appraiser of 23 years experience. Anderson ordered the auction catalog of the completed sale and immediately recognized one of the Bonney pieces. Anderson recognized it as an item he had examined two years earlier in 2001 and had labeled a forgery.
Anderson then telephoned the auction company, Little John's Auction Service of Orange, California. Anderson said the Bonney piece he studied was submitted by an Internet appraisal service. He did not know who owned the piece. The appraisal request also included a second document signed by Christopher "Kit" Carson.
"It was pretty apparent that both items were forgeries. The forger had made some historical mistakes that were obvious to me. My 2001 appraisals declared both items were forgeries and of no value," said Anderson.
John Gangel, owner of Little Johns's, has been in business since 1968. His auction company has sold some of the rarest firearms in the world. Gangel said he accepted the Bonney documents because both came with the notarized statements of authenticity.
Gangel, surprised by Anderson's phone call, halted the auction transaction. "As soon as the authenticity was questioned, I put a hold on the sale," said Gangel.
Anderson suggested a third party be called in to analyze the documents. Gangel agreed and the documents were sent to a laboratory specializing in dating ink, Forensic Federal Associates operated by Albert Lyter in Raleigh, North Carolina
Lyter is recognized as one of the top authorities in the world on dating inks. He was involved in the Howard Hughes will, Mormon history forgeries and other high profile cases. Lyter's report released in June 2003 concluded that the ink and other materials were modern, that "...the commercial availability of the materials used suggests that some of the writings were not prepared until the 1960s at the earliest."
The Bonney documents have now been returned to the seller who lives in New Mexico.
Anderson warns that he has examined more fake documents related to the old west in the past three years than the previous 20 years combined.
"In the past, people who sold autographs usually sold them to dealers before they were resold to collectors. Dealers make mistakes too, but at least there was some filtration in place to catch most forgeries. Now, online auctions have given autograph forgers the opportunity to sell directly to buyers with no filtration.
"In June 2003 alone, I was asked to appraise 10 Wyatt Earps, four Kit Carsons, and a Virgil Earp, Annie Oakley, John Wesley Hardin and Joseph Smith. All were forgeries, said Anderson. It's like someone opened the floodgates."