How to become a Forensic Document Examiner


Questioned documents and forensic handwriting analysis – or, as it’s known, diplomatics or forensic paleography — is the kind of job you’d enjoy if you don’t want to get stuck with a fake reprint of a Ty Cobb baseball card next time you head to Antiques Roadshow. But the real Ty Cobb card and the fake Ty Cobb card look exactly the same!” you’ll yell when the appraiser tells you you’ve been duped. And in fact they will. And if it’s a good forgery, the paper will even have the patina of age that comes about through years of sitting in a footlocker somewhere — or, in the case of the forgery, being baked in a fraudster’s oven to artificially dehydrate the inks and weather the paper.

In a case like this, the forensic document analyzer will look at everything he has at his disposal, including whether the baseball card is signed. If it is, a whole other branch of the discipline opens up, in particular handwriting analysis, a true forensic art that is based on nuance and subjectivity as much as anything in forensics can be. If it’s not, and you need a for-sure answer, the examiner can even look at the carbon in the fibers of the paper. No matter how good a forgery it is, it’s damn near impossible to fake the carbon-dating of the paper it’s printed on. If it’s valuable enough, who’s to say that the forger didn’t create the duplicate on paper stock from the era?

Take another famous case the forensic diplomatics solved — the Hitler Diaries. In the early 80s, a German magazine published portions of what they thought were the hand-written journal entries of Adolf Hitler. The magazine had paid a fortune for these. The journalist who claimed he discovered them sent them for review by — no, not forensic scientists — but World War II historians. Based on the content alone, the experts ruled the documents authentic, a decision largely based on the concurrence of dates and events. Fueling the rush to positive authentication was the director of the newspaper, who jumped on the authentic band-wagon.

Did anybody ever think to call the forensics guy? Ahhh, no.

But he came calling anyway: Julius Grant, a British secret agent and forensic scientist, decided to have a look. This was a guy who made a living doing chemical analysis of inks, papers and materials used in making documents, and testifying to what he found in court. And he was no slouch. Leading authorities regularly regarded him as the greatest forensic scientist in the realm of diplomatics and document analysis. When shown the purported Hitler Diaries, Grant took all of two weeks to reach his conclusion:

Fake. Really fake.

Not only was the ink brand-spanking new, the paper had been…