Dating a Document through Watermarks

Southworth has been using date codes on most of our watermarked grades since at least 1941. The reason for the date code is so that Southworth can tell what year the paper was made.

Southworth has received numerous calls asking if we can determine when a particular sheet of our paper was made. On approximately half of the calls we receive, we identify that the paper was made after the document states it was written.

One of the calls that Southworth received was from Mr. Marvin H. Dawson, a Forensic Document Examiner with Dawson Document Laboratory, L.L.C. Mr. Dawson wrote the following article explaining first hand how important a date-coded watermark can be.

Dating a Document through Watermarks

By: Marvin H. Dawson

One of the questions a forensic document examiner is asked to solve many times is the age or common origin of two or more sheets of paper. For example, there are times when one party in a probate dispute will allege a “page” was inserted in a Will thereby changing the distribution of the estate to benefit an individual “the family knows the decedent despised.” Other times several family members may submit a different Will to probate, each Will bearing a different date. For the average examiner paper analysis alone does not resolve the question. The age or common origin of the document(s) may be determined through typewriting, printing, handwriting or even ink analysis; however, many times the problem may be quickly solved if a watermark is noted on the documents(s). If there is a date mark on the watermark, the case could move even more quickly.

Watermarks frequently establish the authenticity or spuriousness of the questioned document(s), the genuineness of which may depend on the date of the watermark or more importantly the date mark on the watermark. The following case history demonstrates how a date mark on a watermark alone can expose a fraudulent document.

In 2001 a case was submitted to Dawson’s Document Laboratory, L.L.C. in Spartanburg, South Carolina alleging that “page 3″ of a Will was fraudulent and was not prepared at the same times page 1, 2, and 4 (the signature page) was executed. The decedent’s signature was on pages 3 & 4. An attorney’s secretary testified she had prepared the Will, witnessed each page and personally witnessed the decedent sign page 3 and 4 at the same time. According to the witness, all pages were executed at the same time. Technically the page 3 signature was not necessary for the Will. An elderly lady had passed away leaving two natural children and an adopted son. Most of the family “recalled” the decedent leaving each child 1/3 of the Estate. The Will submitted to probate left 90% to the daughter, 10% to a son and nothing to an adopted son. An examination of the Will was conducted at the County Probate Court and included a microscopic examination, an examination with VSC-4 instrumentation to note any ink differences and a light box to identify and photograph watermarks. The Will was dated 1998. All pages bore a Southworth dated watermark. Based upon Southworth Paper records, pages 1, 2 & 4 were manufactured in 1997; the watermark on page 3 dated year 2000. The document was submitted for probate in 2001. The forensic document examiner testified the decedents signature on page 3 was a simulation (forgery), the inks used for page 3 margin initials and decedents signature were different from pages 1, 2 & 4; however, all of this was opinion testimony. The real strike for justice in this case was an undisputed fact from the records of Southworth, the watermark date proving that a sheet of paper was not in existence when the Will was originally executed, thereby page 3 had been inserted at a later date for the purpose of gain. The court threw out the fraudulent Will and probated the decedent’s Estate under appropriate statue.


Mr. Marvin H. Dawson has over 25 years of experience in the Forensic Document field. He has had extensive training from the FBI and Secret Service. He has contributed testimony on numerous occasions as an expert in this area for the Federal Courts, State Courts, Local Courts, Court Martial Proceedings and State Boards and Regulatory Proceedings. In addition to being a Forensic Document Examiner, he is also a Forensic Photographer.