Historical documents are crucial components of our knowledge of the past. Written texts, records of births, deaths and marriages, government documents, journals and diaries of historical figures as well as ordinary citizens combine to give us both the larger context and the smaller picture of life in a particular era. It is important that the documents upon which we base our views of the past and present, and upon which legal, inheritance and criminal decisions sometimes rest, be verified as authentic.
A few of the forged documents that have come close to being accepted as authentic were the "Donation of Constantine;'" love letters supposedly written by Abraham Lincoln; "Vortigern," a play by William Henry Ireland, who claimed the work was by William Shakespeare; diaries supposedly written by Hitler, Jack the Ripper and Mussolini; and "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." One of the most famous forgeries of recent history is Clifford Irving's "autobiography" of Howard Hughes.
Those qualified to judge the authenticity of a document are referred to as questioned document examiners (QDE) and fall into one of three categories: government examiners, private examiners and graphologists. The type of examiner called upon for a specific case depends on the type of document and the specific elements of the document that need authentication.
Qualified document examiners who work for the government are often forensic examiners, solving legal cases and crimes by determining a document's authenticity. Other government-employed examiners authenticate foreign documents to be used in U.S. courts of law or provide authentication of documents that leave the country to be used overseas.
Private Examiners and Graphologists
Private examiners perform much the same function as forensic examiners but they primarily work in the private sector. Private examiners authenticate documents that will be of historical significance if authentic, as well as legal documents of significance to private individuals. Persons considering the purchase of a document or text of purported historical significance usually turn to private examiners to determine the item's authenticity. A graphologist involved in document authentication analyzes signatures or handwritten manuscripts to verify authorship or prove a signature's validity.
Training and Certification
A person who wishes to become a qualified document examiner must have at least a bachelor's degree in any area of concentration. He must then study and work for two years in the field of forensic or questioned document authentication. All examiners do not become certified. A professional organization such as the National Association of Document Examiners awards certification to an examiner who submits an application, passes written and oral examinations and submits case files.
The National Association of Document Examiners is one of several professional organizations that a document examiner may join. Others include the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners and the Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners.