Autograph Collectors: Don't Ever Be Scammed Again
Some Things to Think About Before Buying Your Next Autograph
Last week someone who visited my web site contacted me asking about a very rare autograph of the “Rat Pack” members. Being an avid Frank Sinatra collector (and very skilled with his autograph ) I suspected before even seeing them that it was highly UN-likely they were authentic. But I suggested he submit them to a third party authentication service like PSA or JSA. Not surprisingly they failed authentication. He told me he wasn’t concerned because the dealer in Las Vegas included her Lifetime Guarantee of Authenticity. What happened next is very important and what Everyone whoever buys a high value autograph should think about. The dealer responded with “oh I don’t think much of JSA”.
Now I wasn’t so troubled with the fact she didn’t like JSA, but what I found so unsettling is that this is a serious problem within the autograph memorabilia industry. And, it essentially makes many autograph Lifetime Guarantees WORTHLESS! Yes, I said worthless! Why? Because what this dealer did is completely VOID her responsibility by issuing a COA that had NO criteria, no standard. So, no matter WHAT or WHO authenticated this autograph, all the dealer had to do was disagree with the finding. I guess for the past 20 years I assumed other dealers issued COAs that protected the customer and NOT eliminate all responsibility of the seller. I thought all reputable dealers did what I have done for the past 20 + years and that is specifically state in the COA “what constitutes a non authentic autograph”. Anyone who has bought from us can see on our COAs that we state “if it fails PSA or JSA authentication”. Hence, there will never be a question, if such a scenario should arise. No room for interpretation, no wiggle room for the dealer, no scamming the customer.
Meanwhile, after this conversation took place, I started going through all my COAs from other dealers, reputable dealers. And guess what? NO ONE, NOT ONE dealer specifies in his/her COA what constitutes a non authentic autograph. So, are these other dealers honoring their Lifetime COAs? And who do they accept as the “final word” on the autograph? Do some say PSA or only JSA , or maybe reject ANY third party authentication? Who knows? But, unless the COA specifically states who and what authentication is acceptable in order to honor a refund, it is a guessing game. And, surely not in the favor of the buyer.
Now I know there are reputable dealers that WILL honor a PSA or JSA finding. But, why leave it open for interpretation? Why not employ a standard directly on the COA, so the customer will not have to worry should the above situation arise?
So, below I have added about Ten top concerns and my own opinioned advice (2 cents worth) when investing in autographs. Hopefully this information will result in great value to you one day. Or, at a minimum save you from wasting thousands of dollars on fraudulent autographs. .
1). Proceed with caution with ANY dealer that uses NO third party authentication, PARTICULARLY for high end items. Not that every item they offer needs to have PSA or JSA but that the dealer employs some form of a standard. Although authentication services are not perfect, they are a skilled second opinion AND an opinion that is independent and has NO financial interest or bias as does the dealer selling the item. Also, think twice about any dealer that is against third party authenticators as it may signal they have something to hide.
2). Dealers who provide poor images or NO close-ups of the signature on their web site, so you cannot easily examine the autograph. They may have a reason why they do not want you to see close-ups. For example, dealers selling “clipped” signatures of high end items like Ben Franklin for $15,000 and not even post a close up image of it on their web site. AND, no third party authentication. Some of these dealers are relying on the inexperienced, vulnerable buyer (i.e. victim) to come along.
2). Never buy “clipped” signatures of high value autographs like Abraham Lincoln as MANY (if not most) are forgeries. Only invest in official documents like Presidential Appointments. Forgers are not likely to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on an Abraham Lincoln document just to forge it (have never heard of such a case in 30 years of collecting).
3). Be very cautious of Group photographs like complete TV show autographs or autographed movie posters by cast members (i.e. Rat Pack), as many (if not most) are secretarial or outright forgery. It is very difficult to get an entire cast to sign a movie poster. And, as for vintage movie posters (prior to 1975) I don’t think I have ever seen an authentic one that included major stars. I noticed a web site that sells autographed movie posters like the Godfather, including Marlon Brando’s signature. They are all forgeries. A genuine Godfather autographed poster, with Marlon Brando, has NEVER appeared on the market.
4). Since we cannot get in person autographs from deceased celebrities we must rely on signature studies and recognized reputable authentication services like PSA or JSA (although they are not perfect, since they are humans, they are by FAR the best in the industry). I have witnessed hundreds of autpgraphs being sold with COAs from ALL of the authentication services and forensic “experts” for many years, so I am speaking from a lot of experience. I have much doubt about the credibility of forensic handwriting experts authenticating autographs they have no knowledge of. Authentic Confirmation must be the most important element in every dealer's/seller's business model, since it is the foundation of the entire autograph memorabilia industry's credibility. There is a reason WHY most major auctions and dealers selling high end autographed memorabilia use either JSA or PSA, above all the other services out there. Yes, you will read online from a minority who don't "like" PSA or JSA. But are these reputable sources? Are they major auction houses or reputable dealers?
I often here someone say "the only way to prove it is authentic is to get it in person yourself". Ok, true. But, what if I want a Babe Ruth, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain or any other Historical autograph or signed document? You can see why that statement/advice doesn't have much value.
5). Many dealers are NOT collectors. They will sell anything, including autographs they have NO knowledge on or experience with. Collectors that are also dealers often buy for themselves; hence usually go through a lengthy analysis of a signature. When I buy an autograph it is for my own collection, even though I may post it for sale, it is an autograph I have studied for many years and highly desire to own myself. You will see on my web site that I do not sell everything, only certain categories and historical figures within those categories. For example, under the main menu selection Celebrity Autographs, there are several subcategories such as Wizard of Oz. I have collected and studied Wizard of Oz related autographs for over 25 years, and have developed a "sixth sense" what Oz autographs are genuine and which are forgeries. BUT, of course I am NOT an expert in everything. Hence, you will NOT see on my site autographs from modern day celebrities like Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, Tiger Woods, the NY Yankees, or Barack Obama. Even if I did collect these autographs, there is not even historical data to do a competent analysis. With the exception of reliable and/or documented in person examples.
6). There are several signature studies out there for certain major celebrities. For example, if you are a reputable dealer and you have not educated yourself on signatures like Frank Sinatra, in which several in- depth studies exist, than that dealer should NOT be selling Frank Sinatra autographs. I see too many dealers selling the blatantly obvious Sinatra, Hepburn, Monroe, Elvis, (and the list goes on) secretarial signatures.
7). There are some autographs that are so rare, it is highly unlikely you have a genuine specimen. For example, I have NEVER seen an Authentic Rat Pack set of signatures (all 5 members of the Pack). Ebay consistently has forgeries and secretarial examples but NEVER has an authentic one appeared on eBay or anywhere else for that matter. And, when someone tells me they have one, in 100% of the cases they have been fakes.
8). Before you buy an autograph, ask if it is guaranteed for life. But, do not stop there. Ask the dealer WHO he/she considers the “final word” for authentication. The reason is many dealers offer a lifetime guarantee, HOWEVER , it is another story when/if you ever have to ask for your money back because it failed authentication by PSA. Some less reputable dealers will give you the “run-around” and will tell you they don’t accept PSA or JSA’s opinion. Hence, ask them up front to include on their COA WHOSE authentications they DO accept to back up their guarantee. If they will NOT include this on their COA then that may be a “red flag” to do business elsewhere. Not to toot my own horn, but I didn’t realize until recently that I was one of the few dealers who provide this on my COAs.
NOTE: There are some self proclaimed “forensic experts” that have unscrupulous reputations and known to pass any autograph for a price. If a dealer mentions such a referral, search the internet for information on that so-called “expert” as such an authentication may be worthless to the “reputable” autograph community. For example there is one forensic expert that has been banned on eBay for highly questionable COAs with his name on them. Amazingly there are STILL dealers referring him to collectors. Authentication services are operated by humans, so none are 100% perfect. But, some are far more accurate and reputable than others. Most of the major auction houses and dealers rely on PSA or JSA for authenticating autographs.
9). Another observation I have had over the years is people telling me they “know” so and so’s autograph because they knew them personally. That is a bit absurd when you think about it. WHY would a relationship with someone mean you are an expert with his/her signature? I had someone send me a couple autographed photos of Jack Haley that were clearly not authentic. The gentleman insisted I was wrong because he personally knew Jack Haley. So does that make him an expert with Haley’s signature? Did he sit and watch Jack Haley write his signature several times? I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between my parent’s genuine signature and a forgery because I have never studied their signatures. Do you think Nancy Sinatra is an expert with her father’s signature? I doubt it, unless she is an avid autograph collector and has acquired a skill to analyze and “sense” authentic signatures and handwriting. But, there have been extensive signature studies done for a number of celebrities, including Frank Sinatra. These studies have been accomplished by very skilled collectors who have several years of experience collecting and studying signatures like Frank Sinatra.
They are the guys who can spot an unnatural look and flow to a Sinatra signature, a fabricated “F” in Frank, know Sinatra never “rounded” his ”i” in Sinatra, know the typical genuine width of the F, or the height of the “S” in Sinatra relative to all the others letters, along with several other (possibly hundreds) of variables and nuances that makes the difference between a genuine and fake autograph. To the inexperienced eye these nuances are invisible. To the experienced eye, they are deafening.
As part of their analysis, they use known authentic examples such as legal contracts, checks, and in person examples, along with an acquired “sixth sense” in handwriting and signature application. The latter of which formal training and certificates can not provide.
Remember, this is NOT about promoting (or bashing) a certain company or organization but about establishing a STANDARD by which collectors and dealers can follow AND ADHERE TO.
In the world of technology including the one you are using right now (the internet), and cells phones and email we are only able to communicate with each other because Standards have been set. I recall 15-20 years ago when all this technology was being born it was like the "old wild west" where many companies were innovating their own proprietary technology. Hence, you had to buy that company’s hardware and could ONLY talk to other people that where using that company's technology. Eventually the industry realized that was a “crap shoot” and it would never work. So around the early 90’s standards were established and eventually all the tech companies jumped on board and designed their technology around a standard (those who didn’t are no longer in business). All of a sudden the internet, which was already almost 30 years old at that time, became popular for innovation and hence internet browsers were born, routers (the backbone of the internet) were built and email, and now webinars and iPhone. Maybe one day there will be enough motivation for the collectible industry to follow a standard and evolve from a “crap shoot” to a community where collectors and dealers are communicating with each other.
On the other side of the fence, we wanted to make you aware of a dilemma within 3rd party authentication. The issue primarily involves the often speedy, haphazard authentication process conducted at sport memorabilia shows. This is where authentication companies setup temporary booths to authenticate autographs. They primarily are there to authenticate sports autographs and the authenticators also usually do not have a high degree of expertise for Non-Sports autographs. It has been reported by many that these setups, designed to sell as many authentications as possible within the hours of the show , have resulted in mistakes. We recently had a client purchase a JFK Signed letter that we are certain was authentic, based on our extensive research and expertise with JFK. The sport show authenticators were evidently not well versed in the intricacies of JFK and instead of “opting out” of the authentication due to lack of expertise with JFK, they “assumed” the letter was secretarial. And they based that finding on nothing but a guess, as the PSA letter only stated “likely a secretarial”. Now if they had actually researched the signature they would have eventually (maybe) discovered this was indeed a genuine early JFK signature. I contacted PSA and spoke to the President who was very professional and understood the dilemma. I re-submitted the JFK letter for a more thorough and complete analysis by personnel with the appropriate level of expertise. And in the end, certification finding was reversed to “Genuine”. It is an annoying reality. Hence, we highly suggest you do NOT use these temporary, “makeshift” authentication setups at malls and sport shows
So, let me reiterate so no one will say I am being hypocritical. Third Party authentication is an important service within the autograph industry and I am a firm believer of independent authentication as it weeds out the forgers and shady dealers and also provides an oversight for dealers that don’t possess a high level of expertise. For example, I constantly see even seasoned autograph dealers selling the obvious Frank Sinatra and JFK secretarial signatures. Which is baffling since these two examples have extensive signature study data.
What I do disagree with is a process that is conducive to haphazard analysis and conclusions, i.e. 5 minute sport show authentications where appropriate expertise, proper equipment, reference libraries and even (due ot lack of Non-Sports expertise) higher level second opinions are not available.
One day I look forward to a responsible leader of one of the authentication services to introduce an "OPT OUT" option where authenticators who cannot possibly have expertise in every autograph they see, can decline an authentication based on lack of expertise, "not sure" and NEVER have to use, what one authentication company executive told me, the "doesn't feel right" option. Basically, to fail an autograph because the authenticator has a "certain feeling" about something that cannot be defined based on standard techniques, processes or procedures.
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