Henry Bernstein has seen Bob Dylan in concert 27 times and owns three items signed by him: a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, a photograph of the singer, and a John Wesley Harding songbook. His favorite song is “Tangled Up in Blue”.
When Simon & Schuster, Dylan’s publisher, offered limited-edition autographed copies of the musician’s new collection of essays for $600 each, Bernstein was among 900 fans who decided to buy one. Last week he received his copy of The Philosophy of Modern Song, Dylan’s first collection of writings since he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, with a certificate of authenticity signed by Jonathan Karp, the publisher’s managing director.
There was only one problem.
Karp’s signature “looked more real than Bob’s,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein was one of hundreds of fans who scoured social media and concluded that the supposedly autographed books weren’t actually signed by Dylan.
“I got the nostalgia bug,” said Bernstein, who already owned an unsigned copy of the book as well as a Kindle version and an audio version. He added: “When he touches this book – he wrote it, signed it – it feels like Bob Dylan’s soul is with me.”
Instead, many fans suggested that the “autographed” copies of the book were machine-signed.
Justin Steffman, a professional authenticator who runs a Facebook group for collectors, said the autograph was most likely done by an autopen. The machine, which replicates signatures, is used by universities, celebrities and most notably the White House.
Handwritten penmanship usually has a flow, Steffman said. But “it goes from point to point with a pen machine,” he said, adding that the beginning and ending points of each stroke put more pressure on the page. Dylan’s autograph in the new books also appears to have “a slight wobble throughout the signature,” he said.
“It doesn’t look like something a person signed; it looks like a copy,” Steffman said.
When orders started pouring in last week, Dylan fans began comparing their notes online, and it quickly became apparent something was wrong, Steffman said. Steffman collected images of at least 17 signatures, all of which appeared to have been machine-made. Items signed by Dylan typically sell for $1,500 or $2,000, he added.
“They started showing up, everyone got them the same day and it was instant — we all realized it was an autopen,” Steffman said. “More and more people shared their copies, and we put them all together.”
Steffman said Simon & Schuster’s customer service initially refused to issue refunds, even denouncing “rumors online” about the possibility that the signature was a fake. Twitter and Reddit users also weighed in; A chat board organized by a fan encouraged others who bought the book to write directly to Karp, the managing director of Simon & Schuster. Fans flooded his inbox, including Bernstein, who, like others, received a personal reply from Karp promising a quick refund.
As of Sunday, Simon & Schuster had issued a public statement that offered few details but acknowledged that Dylan’s signature had been rendered “in a replica written form.” The publisher said it would give buyers “an immediate refund.”
In response to a request for more details, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster declined to elaborate.
“We acted quickly to address the situation, halted sales of the book and initiated the process of providing an immediate and automatic refund to all customers who purchased the book,” spokesman Adam Rothberg said in a Tuesday E-mail.
Dylan’s music label Columbia Records did not respond to a request for comment.
Dylan is far from the first celebrity to be accused of using automated signatures. Fans have issues with signatures from Dolly Parton, Brian Wilson, Kenny Loggins and Ozzy Osbourne. Former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was criticized for using a mechanized signature on letters of condolence to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While questions remain about the decision to use an autograph on the Dylan book, fans are confident that Dylan had nothing to do with it.
“I was surprised by the sheer number they said they had — 1,000 copies in and of itself seems like a red flag to me,” said Laura Tenschert, who hosts a podcast titled Definitely Dylan. “I would assume he has better things to do with his time.”
Tenschert described the situation as “chaotic,” but said, “Personally, I would assume that Bob Dylan was not involved.” She pointed to his history of keeping ticket sales “affordable and accessible” for fans, which, as she said, “suggests that reaching his fans is more important to him”.
There’s also the million-dollar elephant in the room: Dylan, 81, sold his entire music catalog to Sony Music for an estimated $200 million this year, and he sold his songwriting rights for well over $300 million in 2020 Universal Music.
“It would be very unusual for me that he was involved in cheating his fans,” said Tenschert. “I don’t think he needs it.”
Steffman, the authenticator, believes the autograph used in the book is based on the pencil signature Dylan uses on his artwork.
“Everyone immediately reacted so strongly, and that continues to happen with multiple artists. It’s just shocking that they can flood the market with these autopens,” he said. “Someone has to hold them accountable.”