Entertainment

Bob Dylan gets tangled up in book autograph controversy

“It does not look like something a person signed; it looks like a copy.”

Bob Dylan performs on a double bill with Neil Young at Hyde Park on July 12, 2019 in London, England. Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for ABA


Henry Bernstein has seen Bob Dylan 27 times in concert and owns three items autographed 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.”

So when Simon & Schuster, Dylan’s publisher, advertised limited-edition, hand-signed copies of the musician’s new collection of essays for $600 each, Bernstein was among 900 fans who went for one. Last week, he received his copy of “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” Dylan’s first collection of writings since he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2016, with a letter of authenticity signed by Jonathan Karp, the publisher’s CEO.

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There was only one problem.

Karp’s signature “looked more legit than Bob’s,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein was one of hundreds of fans who sleuthed their way around social media, reaching the conclusion that the supposedly hand-signed books had not, in fact, been 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, “If he touches this book — he wrote it, signed it — it feels like the soul of Bob Dylan is with me.”

Instead, many fans suggested that the “autographed” copies of the book had been signed by a machine.

Justin Steffman, a professional authenticator who runs a Facebook group for collectors, said the autograph was most likely created by an autopen. The machine, which recreates signatures, is used by universities, celebrities and, most notably, the White House.

Handwritten penmanship normally has a flow, Steffman said. But “with a pen machine, it goes from point to point,” he said, adding that the beginning and the end points of each stroke apply more pressure to the page. Dylan’s autograph in the new books also appears to have a “slight shakiness throughout the signature,” he said.

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“It does not look like something a person signed; it looks like a copy,” Steffman said.

This cover image released by Simon & Schuster shows “The Philosophy of Modern Song” by Bob Dylan. – Simon & Schuster via AP

As orders began arriving last week, Dylan fans began comparing notes online, and it quickly became clear that something was amiss, Steffman said. Steffman collected images of at least 17 signatures that all looked as if they had been created by a machine. Items autographed by Dylan typically sell for $1,500 or $2,000, he added.

“They started popping up, everyone received 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 all put it together.”

Steffman said Simon & Schuster’s customer service had originally refused to issue refunds and had even denounced “online rumors” about the possibility that the signature was a fake. Twitter and Reddit users also chimed in; a chat board organized by a fan encouraged others who had purchased the book to write directly to Karp, the Simon & Schuster CEO. Fans flooded his inbox, including Bernstein, who, like others, received a personal response from Karp promising a speedy refund.

By Sunday, Simon & Schuster had issued a public statement that offered few details but acknowledged that Dylan’s signature had been rendered “in a penned replica form.” The publisher said it would give buyers “an immediate refund.”

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In response to a request for more detail, a spokesperson for Simon & Schuster declined to elaborate.

“We acted quickly to address the situation, took the book off sale and initiated the process of issuing an immediate and automatic refund to all customers who bought the book,” spokesperson Adam Rothberg said in an email Tuesday.

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 taken issue with signatures from Dolly Parton, Brian Wilson, Kenny Loggins and Ozzy Osbourne. Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, was criticized for using a mechanized signature on condolence letters to the families of service members who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While questions remain about the decision to use an automated autograph in the Dylan book, fans are confident that Dylan had nothing to do with it.

“I was surprised by the sheer number they were saying they had — 1,000 copies in and of itself seems like a red flag to me,” said Laura Tenschert, who hosts a podcast called “Definitely Dylan.” “I would assume he has better things to do with his time.”

Tenschert described the situation as “messy” but said, “I, personally, would assume Bob Dylan was not involved in this.” She pointed to his history of keeping ticket sales “affordable and accessible” to fans, which, she said, “suggests it’s more important for him to reach his fans.”

There is also the million-dollar elephant in the room: Dylan, 81, sold his entire recorded music catalog to Sony Music for an estimated $200 million this year, and he sold his songwriting rights to Universal Music in 2020 for well over $300 million.

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“To me, it would be very uncharacteristic to the point he was involved in scamming his fans,” Tenschert said. “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.

“Everybody has reacted so strongly right away, and this continues to happen with multiple artists. It’s just shocking they can flood the market with these autopens,” he said. “Somebody needs to hold them accountable.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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