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Secret Art in the Passport
How we use it to Fox the Forger

Report of the lecture given by Martin Lloyd
on April 27th 2016

Martin Lloyd previously worked for H.M. Immigration service and since 2008 has been lecturing to groups such as U3A, National Trust, NADFAS, Gresham College, historical societies and business groups.  He has also broadcast on local and national radio and television.

In his book The Passport, the History of Man’s most Travelled Document he traces passports over three thousand years.  In this interesting lecture he limited himself to the last four centuries.  He used examples from his collection of historic passports to illustrate how passport design has developed from the handwritten paper to the technically complex document we use today and how forgers have responded to the challenge presented by secret safeguards inserted to confound them.

He began by focusing on the 1659 paper passport of a German baron fighting as a French cavalry officer in the pay of Louis 14th against the Spanish at a time when their border was disputed.  Such a document would have set the baron apart from the ordinary traveller and its wax seal would have been difficult to forge.  Such complex seals would have been the work of skilled seal engravers and would remain intact for many years.  The skills of printers were also called on though setting up type was expensive and uneconomic with little demand for individual passports at this time.  But by 1689 the growth of international trade saw the creation of passports for ships and the move to preprinted passports with sections to be filled in as required.  To counter forgery these might have a detailed woodblock engraving, the wax seal and the signature of the king.

Early in the 18th century the growing need for passports at a time when many were illiterate meant increased use of symbols such as complex coats of arms as these would have been intelligible to all.  Preprinting increased the need for security and the use of a signature and a seal became more common, with the seal remaining in the personal safety of the authoriser, though the practice of using seals was far from universal in Europe with some states using the skills of copper block engravers instead.

Martin also shared with us the intricacies of introducing covert features into passport design such as watermarks.  This was an expensive development but increased the challenge presented to the forger.  Illustrating with passports from France, Russia, Germany and Hungary, Martin showed how a tiny detail in watermarking could be inserted which would trip up a forger, such as one missing petal in a complex frieze of daisies on a border.  The increased volume of travellers with passports and the need for faster processing at borders led to greater use of techniques such as blind embossing.  Again, it is expensive to do and this deters forgers.

Martin showed how advances in technology have informed passport design but the security devices used remain only as effective as the person using them.  The capacity for human error abounds.  He illustrated how the use of blind embossing, photographs and laminating passports have all brought their challenges.  He touched on the use of chromolithography, the use of colour and fading to complicate photocopying by forgers, the subtlety of embossed paper which the experienced checker can tell by touch has been flattened, and the use made of ultra violet light in checking passports.  Simple tactics such as the use of several pages and a cover with gold blocking and a complex coat of arms as used on the blue UK passport present more of a challenge to the forger than the current passport which has to be read by machine and contains all the key information in one page.  In Martin’s view forgers must rejoice at such developments.

Finally in his response to a question from a member about the biometric passport, he made clear his regret at how far we have come from the use of the skills of the artist and artisan in passport design and how near we are, in his view, to a time when the current passport morphs into an ID card and the state tracks every aspect of our lives.

Vivien King

Related Link (opens in new window):

Martin Lloyd's blog