Virgil "Gus" Grissom autograph study
by Steve Zarelli, Zarelli Space Authentication
Gus Grissom holds a special place in the hearts and minds of space collectors. Not only was he a member of the United States first group of astronauts -- the Mercury 7 -- but he also tragically died in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, forever cementing his legacy in the pantheon of space explorer heroes.
To this day, Gus Grissom is one of the most sought after astronaut autographs. While he was a somewhat willing signer in his lifetime, he had a relatively small window of time to sign autographs and died long before the era of commercial signings.
Authenticating Virgil "Gus" Grissom autographs
Gus Grissom signed autographs for approximately seven years before his untimely death on January 27, 1967. In this time, his signature remained relatively unchanged, but his habits did evolve before his death.
- Signatures should be signed quickly with no hesitation.
- Grissom had a reckless application. You will see many rushed signatures with slurred together letters.
- There is a great deal of variance in the size and shape of his Gs.
- The flow of Grissom's signature is critical. He had a somewhat "jerky" motion that is difficult to replicate. Many forgeries look too "smooth."
- Relatively well-executed forgeries date back to the early 1970s.
- Grissom frequently used the Autopen for mail responses. Authentic examples are often personalized.
- Occasionally, secretarial examples emerge.
- Gemini 3 crew signed items are exceedingly uncommon and should be approached with caution.
- Most autographs should be on official NASA lithographs, postal covers or ad hoc items signed at events. Be wary of signed 8x10 glossy "action poses." These items may have existed, but were not readily available in his lifetime. Often uncommon signed "action" glossies bear forgeries.
In this study, I will present a number of verified exemplars that show his signature over the brief period he was signing.
Virgil "Gus" Grissom autographs
In earlier Mercury-era photos, Grissom tended to sign his full name including middle initial. On rushed crowd examples, you will occasionally see "V I Grissom."
Gemini era and later, Grissom started using "Gus" more frequently and seldomly signed his full name.
Virgil "Gus" GRissom Autopens, Preprints and secretarial signatures
NASA created two Gus Grissom Autopen patterns, which Grissom used frequently. Often group-signed items with other authentic signatures will bear a Grissom Autopen.
Grissom preprinted signatures exist on a handful of known items including a Mercury 7 grouping with a Mercury patch, a Gemini Program poster and small size photos that were sent out for mail requests.
Because Grissom used the Autopen heavily, secretarial examples are not common, but they do appear occasionally on NASA letterhead, photos and other items. Secretarial signatures are not deceptive to a trained eye -- they tend to be slowly and neatly drawn with obvious formation inconsistencies. Proxy signature images courtesy of Chris Spain's Astronaut Autograph Guide.
Virgil "Gus" Grissom forgeries
Due to his death in 1967 and popularity at the time, Gus Grissom has been the target of forgers for decades. Many "old" forgeries exist.
The first prolific forger of Grissom -- and other astronauts -- was a well-known philatelic dealer named Charles R. Riser of Bowie, Maryland. Riser was active in the 1960s and 1970s, published a newsletter, and became a trusted name in the collecting community. Riser forged the postal cancellations, rare covers and the autographs that were on them. Sharp-eyed collectors eventually put the pieces together, and Riser was indicted for mail fraud and sentenced to probation in 1974. Yet, his work still haunts the hobby decades later.
Since Riser's time, a host of other forgers have tried their hand at Grissom. Some fakes are quite obvious, others more deceptive. I won't feature obviously bad and grossly malformed examples, rather here are some known fake styles that have appeared over the years.