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It's signed, but is it genuine?

When a book surfaces with an Ian Fleming signature that looks 'good', we can sometimes 'want' it to be real when it might not be. So how can we decide if a scrawl is genuine or not?


Is this 'Ian Fleming' signature real? Read on...


When it comes to collecting Ian Fleming books, there are one or two ‘Holy Grail’ items that all collectors would give their right arms (or maybe more), for.

 

Maybe it's a first edition, first impression of the book that started it all – Casino Royale – a book limited to just 4,728 copies, It's one that doesn’t appear to be getting any easier to find, nor with much change from £15,000-20,000.

 

Or maybe it's proof copies – the very earliest versions of the James Bond books. These often have typos or changed sentences that give an insight into the process of writing the book. Examples can be found for substantially less.

 

But my guess is that beating both of these is probably the Holy Grail of Holy Grails – an actual ‘signed’ Ian Fleming book.

 

Signed = Sought after


Because Bond books were published before book signings were really a ‘thing’ (plus the fact Fleming was acutely aware of the value his signature would add to a book), the number of signed Fleming books thought to exist is very small indeed.

 

If Fleming signed a book at all, they were typically presentation or association copies – sent to known friends, often with a personal dedication.



Examples of these are scarce enough that some of the dedications have become quite famous – such as an oft-used ‘Read and burn’ instruction. Examples of it being used include in a copy of The Spy Who Loved Me, to close friend Noël Coward (above right). But it also appears on multiple copies of Casino Royale. (see above).


For anyone who wanted a signed book, but didn’t personally know Fleming, there was just a single set of specially bound and signed books of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, made available to the general public in 1963 (left). Produced in response to the success of the first James Bond film a year earlier, these expensive (20 guinea) books were limited to 250, with a further 35 non-numbered ‘presentation’ editions.

 

And that was pretty much it!

 

So why do I say all of this now? 


Time to get back to that Fleming signature at the very start of this blog.


This is the book it actually came from (below):



Two days ago, this book was due to be auctioned at a well-known UK auction house. It was catalogued as an Ian Fleming signed book.

 

As someone who has personally handled three Ian Fleming books where the signatures are not in doubt, I had a rush of excitement. This signature looks… ‘good’.

 

But then came the doubts.

 

Have a look at the published date (above right - not the auctioneer’s picture, but one I’ve found that relates to this edition). This book is a 4th print of You Only Live Twice - dated August 1964 – a date that many will recognise as the month Fleming died. 


In fact, he died on 12th August.

 

Suddenly things don’t quite make sense. The exact date of the first printing of this book does not seem to be documented (as far as my own research has taken me), but it cannot have been any earlier than July 1964 - because Playboy magazine serialised it between April-June of that year. That leaves a window of just five-six weeks to have printed the 1st-4th printings of this book before Fleming died.


Also throwing a spanner in the works is the fact there doesn't seem to be an exact date of 'when' this specific 4th print August printing was done either (Gilbert doesn't log it, and nor can I find any precise dates). Not having an exact date this book was published makes it very hard to know if this book came out in the first or second half of the month. 


But is it really possible that a book dated August 1964 could have gotten out, and had Fleming sign it - all within a time-frame of maybe just a week? It would have 'had' to have come out in the first week for Fleming to have had any chance of being able to sign it.

 

Suddenly a decent looking signature looks less-so.


Perhaps others thought this too - because with just a few days to go, this lot was actually withdrawn.


A little knowledge can be dangerous


The above exemplifies the problem with so-called 'signed' books. No matter how good a signature looks, when you start to dig deeper, certain factors seem to get in the way and start making it very difficult to really verify this as genuine.


A further problem is that even a little knowledge about signatures can be dangerous.


While signed books that are 'not' association/presentation copies or one of the 250 On Her Majesty's Secret Service books are uncommon, they are certainly not ‘impossible’. I recently handled one of these books myself – a signed French translation of From Russia With Love.

 

This means even the slightest possibility that a book ‘can’ turn up can make us really want something we see to be genuine. We soon start to think of reasons why it 'could' be real instead of being sensible and questioning its veracity.

 

This matters because lately, it does feel like there has been lots of ‘signed’ Fleming books that have come onto the market.

 

None have any real provenance – leaving just the buyer to take a leap of faith as to whether it’s genuine or not.

 

That’s problematic. You ‘thinking’ it’s real is no provenance at all.

 

How can you spot a fake?

 

First the bad news! The bad news is that booksellers will not, in all likelihood be very helpful here. Reputable sellers, such as Harrington’s, will not authentic a book other than the ones they personally sell and are confident about (typically association copies) – meaning if a book does turn up, and ‘looks’ good, it can be very appealing. There might be just enough similarities that could convince us that the things that might not look as good are just natural variations of the written hand.

 

The ‘better’ news: Better news is the fact the bad fakes are usually ‘so bad’ they are pretty much self-evident. Recently, a number of online Bond book collecting groups have spotted books that pretty much scream ‘fake’.

 

But that leaves a sizeable number of books somewhere in the middle – where a signature presents just enough telltale signs that it could be good – while the bad signs can be dismissed as Ian Fleming having a bad day.

 

So, given most collectors are not graphologists; nor have they spent years learning the skills of specialist autograph authenticators, how can you tell if a book that claims to have a genuine signature really is the real deal – especially if the book in question is also much earlier, and so avoids any doubts as to whether Fleming was still living and breathing?

 

Seek the only books where you can be certain:

 

The only real answer is getting yourself familiar with what a genuine signature looks like. That means going online and finding examples where the inscription either has some degree of infamy, or where the previous ownership is clear, or where the same book has a good history of popping up for sale regularly over the years.


However, to my mind, the ONLY places where you can 100% be guaranteed that the signature you’re looking at is genuine is one that comes from any of the 250 signed limited editions of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Few books have this level of cast-iron solidity of fact.

 

Below, I've pulled together examples of what some of these particular signatures look like.

 

But as well as showing you a good range, the aim here is also highlight a few important things:

 

Signatures can still look wildly different: While Fleming’s signature is generally consistent from one to the other, they can look very different too.


You don't always need a 'must-have': Certain features that some people claim ‘must’ be present do not always appear on a genuine signature


Size isn't everything: Size of signature is not a reason on its own to dismiss/accept authenticity


Rules are there to be broken: Certain signature rules do get broken from one example to another.

 

Here’s what I mean:


They can look very different:



Have a look at the three above. Regardless of whether Fleming signed all these books in one sitting - which would explain some degree of variance, especially at nearer the end - you don't need to be an expert to see that while certain elements remain constistent, Fleming's signature does vary dramatically. 


The 'Fleming' part of number 63 is more larger, and less subservient to the 'Ian' (as in the two signatures either side of it). The 'F' of Fleming is a little different in each, as is the 'G' and 'I' of 'Ian'. There is an actual 'gap' in the 'Fleming' part of the signature in number 37 that isn't present in the other two, and you if you studied it hard enough, you could assert that the flourishes all slightly differ.

Compare these three above to number 128 (left), and again, there are other differences. On number 128, the 'Fleming' seems very non-distinct and trails off into the distance more. The way the 'I' joins the 'a' of 'Ian' could be viewed as very dubious if you didn't know this was from a signed edition.


You don't always need certain 'must-haves':


If you've looked a lots of Ian Fleming signatures already, you might have noticed that NONE of the examples above have a underline flourish (often seen with a couple of dots too), that other Ian Fleming signatures sport. People often argue that a signature needs this underline as a sign that it is real


But, I've not seen a single example of one of the 250 signed OHMSS books that has this.


So, it seems that maybe I've identified a rule of sorts: That the official signed OHMSS set doesn't have the underline, but others do.


Below are examples of the underlining and dots from two very good provenance books.



You will also note, that these examples (and many others that sport the dots and underlining) are also written on an angle. The signed OHMSS signatures are much flatter.


There's plenty more other differences:



Here's another set of signatures from the 250 signed On Her Majesty's Secret Service books. Here I would highlight how the dot of the 'i' of Fleming is different - ranging from a dot, to a tick, to a dash.


Look too at the differences between the first two 'F's of 'Fleming compared to the one on the far right - which isn't linked at all with the usual flourish.


Size isn't everything


Is size a giveaway of a signature not being real? I don't think so.


You don't often see pictures of more than one of the signed On Her Majesty's Secret Service books together, but here's one, and as you can see, one of the signatures is substantially larger than the other (and with lots of other small variations):

Finally...


Here's some examples that are not numbered, but are presentation copies. Although all broadly similar, there are lots of minor differences - I would argue. Look at the enormous 'e' of Fleming on the larger of the three below. On the top right signature, the 'g' of Fleming is noticeably different too.



So...what are we really saying?


OK, I admit, if you put lots of signatures in a line, you're going to spot differences.


No signature is going to be the same each time, and certainly not if you're doing a lot all at once.



Here (above) is how even ‘consecutive’ signatures still vary considerably.


But….What I hope to have shown you is that if you see a signed book, you've got to look at it and really study it hard.


You've got to start looking for things that are common across the board, but also the things that appear in some signatures and not others, because they may ‘not’ be signs that a signature is fake.


I do think I've discovered that there are no underlines on the signed OHMSS set - (none that I've researched anyway) - so maybe that's one rule we can confirm.


If you have one of the 250 signed OHMSS books with an underline, let me know!


There's a whole lot of other signature variations where Fleming writes the word 'from' or 'the author' or other remarks, such as 'best wishes' that can also give you a clue as to how he writes. Go online, and see what you can see.


But, what I hope this spread of signed OHMSS signatures show, is that variation is normal.


Of course, that doesn't make judging a new find any easier.


So, what do we all think of that first signature we started with at the top of this article - the one on the 4th print You Only Live Twice?


Are you more or less convinced it could be real having seen these other 100% genuine signatures?


I'm still not sure myself. It's still a very difficult area to be really conclusive....


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