Paper And Watermarks

The brownish tint of old age which paper needs to help out a fraud is

obtained in various ways--sometimes by steeping in a weak solution of

coffee, but in other cases by holding it before a bright hot fire. This

latter device is, fortunately, not easy of accomplishment, considerable

care, judgment and even luck being needed to ensure a satisfactory

result. In our own case we have failed persistently in the attempt, the

paper becoming tinted so unequally as to excite remark at first sight.

All the old pattern of letter paper was almost uniform in size--post

quarto, and the watermark is invariably very distinct, explainable by

the fact that the art of close weaving the wire mould was not then

brought to its present state of perfection.

The watermarks are very fairly imitated by means of a pointed stick

dipped in a solution of spermaceti and linseed oil melted in water and

stirred till cold; or, equal quantities of turpentine and Canada balsam

shaken together. The same result may be obtained by the use of megilp, a

mixture employed by artists.

The detection of this watermark fraud is simple and infallible. If the

suspected document be moistened with lukewarm water the spurious

watermark disappears immediately, but if genuine, it becomes plainer.

The worn and dingy appearance inseparable from age in a letter is

accentuated by rubbing it lightly with a dirty duster. The effect is

usually obvious under a strong glass, the passage of the dirty cloth

revealing itself in minute parallel lines.

Very little care is needed to distinguish between paper that has been

taken from books and the genuine letter paper of the period. To begin

with, such letters are always on single sheets. In genuine cases, the

sheet is as often as not a folio of four pages. In the majority of cases

the bogus sheet is of no recognised size. If taken from a book larger

than post quarto, it has had to be cut to conceal the tear. This

operation has made an irregular sized sheet--too small for post quarto,

too large for the next size. In the genuine writing paper, all four

edges are usually rough like those of a bank note. If the sheet has been

abstracted from a book, one edge must have been cut or trimmed.

Again, such paper is of unequal thickness, the writing paper of the

period being much smoother and finer than the printing paper, while in

parts it is almost certain the ink has run, as it does on a coarse,

absorbent paper. This is a sure sign that the paper is printing and not


Further, such paper is certain to show signs of wear at the bottom edges

where they have been handled and exposed, while that part of the page

which has been closest to the inside edge of the cover is generally

cleaner, and shows less sign of wear. In many cases the impression of

the book binding is plainly visible.

A careful examination and comparison of a few sheets of genuine letter

paper of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the blank leaves

found in printed books will reveal differences so marked that mistake is

scarcely possible afterwards.

It often occurs that grease marks interrupt the forger. Knowing that he

cannot write over them, and that they are hardly likely to have existed

on the paper when it was new, and when the letter was supposed to be

written, he avoids them. The result becomes apparent in unequal spacing

of words and even letters.

On one occasion a really excellent forgery, which had successfully

withstood all the tests we had applied, had its real character revealed

by a curious oversight on the part of the forger.

It was an early seventeenth century document, and our attention was

arrested by a peculiar uniform smudgy appearance, such as results from

blotting with a hard, unabsorbent, much-worn sheet of blotting paper. At

the period of the presumed date of this document blotting paper was

unknown, writings being dried by means of a specially prepared fine

powder called pounce, sand, or a powder containing fine crystals of

metal intended to give an ornamental gloss to the ink. Close examination

under the microscope revealed the truth. There were no signs of pounce

or any other drying powder, the crystals of which are usually plain to

the unassisted eye, but there were distinct signs of the fibre of the

blotting paper left in the ink.

Another forgery we discovered through the presence in the centre of the

sheet of paper of a very faint square outline which enclosed a slight

discolouration. The sheet had, as usual, been removed from a book, and

the square outline was a faint impression of a book-plate which had been

affixed to the opposite page. The discolouration was caused by the ink

on the book-plate.

It should be superfluous to have to remind intelligent and educated

persons that it is necessary for a collector of old documents to make

himself familiar with the peculiarities, habits and customs of the

period in whose literary curiosities he is dealing. Yet fact compels the

admission that extraordinary laxity and even ignorance exist on these

points. We are acquainted with a collector, by no means uneducated, who

gave a good price for a letter purporting to be by Sir Humphrey Davy,

the inventor of the miners' safety lamp, enclosed in an envelope. He was

ignorant of the fact that envelopes were unknown until 1840, thirty

years later than the date of this particular letter. Envelopes supposed

to have been addressed by Dickens have been offered for sale and

purchased, bearing postage stamps not in circulation at the period.

One would imagine that a forger would pay sufficient attention to his

materials to be on his guard against the blunder which earned the

perpetrator of the Whalley Will Forgery penal servitude. He put forward

a will dated 1862, written on paper bearing in a plain watermark the

date 1870! Another indiscreet person asked the Court to accept a will

written and signed with an aniline copying pencil, but dated years

before that instrument had been invented.

Both the works by Dr. Scott and Mr. Davies, given in the list, show

samples of watermarks of the various periods affected by forgers of

literary documents.