Ten Warning Signs a Dealer May Be Selling Autograph Forgeries
Ten Warning Signs a Dealer May Be Selling Autograph Forgeries
Author Kevin Conway
There have been countless write-ups and articles about what to look for when it comes to buying autographs. Most have the same basic information such as “if too good to be true”, compare to known exemplars, secretarials, autopens, etc. Therefore, instead of regurgitating the technical aspects of authentication, the focus here will be “autograph dealers”. What specifically to look for in a dealer’s presentation, reputation and behavior that may trigger a “red flag” that something is “not right”. Consequently, as more suspicious autograph sellers appear on the market; this will hopefully equip collectors with the data that will help avert a costly, painful experience. . Listed below are primarily my own personal experiences over the last 30 years of collecting. And although a particular behavioral element may not always necessarily indicate dishonest intentions, there have been countless scenarios in my own collecting life that such noted behaviors have been consistent with "questionable" autograph sellers.
1). Whether you are buying on eBay or a suspicious looking website, always look for a ”pattern”. These patterns may be in the form of a fishy consistency in the configuration of the signatures, type pen used, medium used, most of inventory conveniently UN-inscribed and imaginary supply. Ten years ago when forgers were even more prolific on eBay than today, you could usually look at their “Other Items for Sale” and notice a fishy consistency with all their “autographs”. Eventually, coming to the conclusion the SAME person was manufacturing all the autographs. Also, many suspect dealers have an "imaginary supply" of highly scarce items. For example, one website that sells autographed movie posters always seems to have plenty of "Godfather" signed movie posters including Marlon Brando's autograph. Not only is this scarce, a genuine Marlon Brando signed "Godfather" poster has never appeared on the market. If one ever does it will sell for several thousand dollars, not $399 as this particular site sells for.
2). The seller does not issue a COA and claims they are worthless. What he is really saying is, if you ever request a refund because the autograph is deemed a fake there will be no documented guarantee and hence no recourse for you to get a refund.
3). The seller’s inventory (i.e. website) is “unnatural”. What that means is an inventory of Genuine autographs will have a dramatic diversity including NOT just photos and signed pieces of paper, but mediums that are highly unlikely to be forged including personal checks, contracts, letters (especially on celebrity stationary) , official documents like presidential appointments, etc. When the inventory begins to look too much like common stock, i.e. easily forged glossy photos and paper cuts and most or all items are NOT inscribed, a red flag should go up. Most of the forgery businesses I have seen are all on “easy to create medium” like glossy photos, programs, books, and pieces of paper.
One popular tactic for sellers of autograph forgeries is to buy old books and tear out the blank pages and use fountain pens to forge the signatures with a vintage appearance. However, most of the time the newly applied fountain pen ink has a very distinctive, “unnatural” look to it. Quite different from ink that has aged over a 50 year period. See the image below.
In this image you see a PSA Certified genuine Frank Sinatra at the top and a blatant forgery on the bottom. Note in particular the "look" of the ink in the forgery. It has an unnatural look to it, like a freshly produced fountain pen. In addition, the signature was obviously traced from the Frank Sinatra signature study so you can see where the forger is tracing slowly at the beginning so the ink is applied heavily in the first few letters. Also, note all the natural characteristics in each letter is missing, in particular how Frank Sinatra uniquely made his "a" with an underlying loop. Also, look at how unnatural the "Fr" connection is in the Frank forgery.. *And of course , as with most forgers, this one does NOT risk adding more evidence of his handiwork in the form of an inscription. Most of the time (though not always) Frank Sinatra would add an inscription to in-person autograph requests, as did other major stars like John Wayne, Judy Garland and others. .
After you've seen hundreds of genuine vs fake examples the subtleties of a forgery become blatant. Look closely and you'll begin to see many more flaws in this forgery example.
4). Nothing or Very Little of the seller’s inventory has been verified by a Reputable independent 3rd party authentication service like JSA or PSA.
For obvious reasons, suspicious sellers have an aversion to independent authentication. Most suspect sellers will try to convince you that industry recognized 3rd party autograph authentication services are not credible. What they are really saying is “I don’t want anyone to have the power to reveal my autographs are fake”. As a matter of fact, you will probably hear the typical autograph forger and/or seller of autograph forgeries malign ANY institution that has been specifically established to protect the public from those very unscrupulous characters in the forgery business. Such institutions include the UACC (the largest oldest autograph collecting organization - since 1965), and independent 3rd party authentication services like JSA and PSA. The primary reason suspect sellers object to an Independent analysis of their autographs ? Because such independent analysis exposes fraudulent autograph sellers.
5). Ask the seller (if NOT buying on eBay) if you can check out his eBay autographs for sale. Most legitimate autograph dealers (with a website or other selling venue) also have an eBay account and certainly have a history of selling autographs on eBay. If a seller cannot show you his eBay account with autographs for sale there is a possibility (not always of course but another checkpoint) the seller has such a notoriously bad reputation for selling autograph forgeries, that he has been banned by eBay from selling autographs. * Of course this does not help in identifying someone who IS still selling fakes on eBay but is just another "check and balance" with someone selling suspect autographs on other online venues. On the contrary, eBay is flooded with non-genuine autographs and is a High Risk source as many sellers are inexperienced and/or "anonymous" (unknown in the autograph collecting community and have no established business outside of eBay, hence forget about any long term guarantee of authenticity).
6). Prices are unrealistically low and usually a fraction of true value. For example, there is a website that sells such rare (but actually forged) items like Boris Karloff autographed “Frankenstein” photos for about $500, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland signed photos for $299. The market will not allow this to happen. If a genuine signed “Frankenstein” appears for sale it will sell for no less than $5000. PLUS, even if there was an extremely rare chance such a photo was acquired for such low cost it would not last a day as experienced collectors would buy them immediately and you would see a “sold out” on the item. Likewise if GENUINE signed John Wayne, Frank Sinatra & Judy Garland photos were selling for $299, they would sell out immediately. However, this particular seller seems to have an unlimited supply.
7). PROVENANCE and/or Proof of Purchase. Suspect sellers, in particular blatant forgers, will have no proof of purchase for items on their websites. If in question ask WHERE they acquired, and proof. Certainly they must have receipts for some of their items. Of course no dealer is going to reveal what they paid for an item and may not want to share their source. But, any reputable dealer has receipts for items they have purchased other than specific items you are interested in buying. An unethical dealer engaged in selling autograph forgeries will NOT have REAL provenance or proof of purchase for probably any items you sample from his/her inventory. Obviously, because their items were never purchased and have no true history of origin. RED FLAG: It is a common practice for sellers of autograph forgeries to claim their autograph inventory was acquired from a "deceased source", as obviously such a claim cannot be verified.
8). Most suspect sellers will have no credible affiliations with industry recognized organizations. A credible affiliation is an organization that holds their members accountable. For example, if you are a member of the UACC and you are openly selling fake autographs, you will be banned. In the past such fraudulent activity even landed the seller on the UACC Hall of Shame list. Organizations which do NOT hold members accountable like the Manuscript Society or Better Business Bureau should NOT be any indication that the dealer is reputable, as the only criteria to maintain membership is a membership fee (what does the BBB know about autographs??). . And as mentioned before, ask the seller if they are a member of an organization like the UACC and listen for his/her reaction (is it hostile?). Listen for an air of suspicion in their rationale of WHY they are not a member? Look for the typical behavior of someone engaged in illicit activity. A bizarre behavioral aspect always comes to the surface, eventually, often in the form of a hostile or defensive persona. I am not a psychologist, this is based on my own experiences and experiences others have shared with me.
Remember, if a dealer is suspected of selling autograph forgeries he/she CAN be a member of the BBB or the Manuscript Society, but CANNOT be a member of the UACC. And this is a fact , no matter what “spin” a suspicious dealer may attempt with derogatory comments about the UACC. Such negativity is typically emotionally driven as a result of their UACC membership being rejected or terminated. The UACC is the oldest and most respected autograph collecting organization since 1965. You can go to UACC.ORG and see the Dealer Directory of active Approved Registered Dealers.
*NOTE: Be careful of autograph websites that do NOT display images of all their autographs. This is one way for some "suspect" dealers to avoid the close scrutiny of "expert eyes" within the autograph community.
9). There is an uncanny familiar behavior when a suspect seller is “called out” or questioned about their autographs. Since a seller of autograph forgeries cannot defend their products, the result is often vehement, personal attacks against those who question them.
10). Ask them for a rare item that is not listed on their site. For example, a “Rat Pack” signed photo, a George Reeves as “Superman” signed photo, or an Abraham Lincoln signature.. If the dealer all of a sudden produces such a rare piece that is inconsistent with their "available" inventory, it probably just came out of the oven. (Of course this is probably not the case with a dealer who, for example with an Abe Lincoln signature, specializes in historical autographs).
10b). BEFORE you buy an expensive autograph, ask the seller if they guarantee it will pass PSA or JSA and if it fails will they refund in full? BEFORE YOU BUY. Don’t assume the dealer’s COA or guarantee will be honored AFTER you buy. Most unscrupulous dealers know the cost of litigating a fake autograph usually is not worth it and hence may not honor their guarantee if the autograph fails JSA or PSA.. . Also, if possible ask a reputable dealer or experienced collector you know for an opinion on the item. Or submit it to PSA for “quick opinion”. If the opinion is negative tell the seller you checked one particular autograph on his site and the opinion was “not genuine”. You are not only looking to determine whether the autograph itself is suspect, you are also being vigilant for a particular “behavior”. If the dealer displays a hostile reaction to opinions from other dealers or authentication services, such defensive behavior (in my own personal experience) often signals a dealer with something to hide.
10c). (yes, I know this makes #12) The suspect dealer will have no REAL testimonials on their website or through a REPUTABLE independent review service (such as one approved by Google). Some websites post fake testimonials which usually have some initials and very generic info like a state. Trust me, Happy customers leave REAL testimonials with their REAL identity.
NOTE: but be weary of many of today's review/complaint websites, many of which are illegitimate.
What I mean by “illegitimate review sites” are websites setup to look like review sites but are actually imposters and are inundated with UNVERIFIED fabricated, even malicious reports for retaliation purposes against others. For example, fake reports by ex-spouses, vindictive neighbors, relatives, and malicious competitors. In the case of the autograph collecting industry, you will often see derogatory comments about Independent 3rd party authentication services by those in the business of selling forgeries (for obvious reasons) on il-legitimate review sites like Rippoffreport.com that do NO identity verification and make their money by charging victims exorbitant amount of money to alter or challenge the "fake" negative reviews . . I suspect it is a matter of time before Congress passes legislation to outlaw these shady "complaint' sites that peddle Slander.
What makes these sites so attractive to malicious predators is 1). They require no identification and hence the authors of the reports can post anonymously. 2). No requirement or proof that the author even did business with the company he/she is reporting. 3). These sites will NOT remove any fabricated report unless you pay them an exorbitant sum of money. Now that we understand the “purpose” of these so-called “review sites”, a few examples of illegitimate review sites include Ripoffreport.com, Pissedconsumer.com and several others. We actually had this happen to us over ten years ago after we reported a notorious autograph forger on eBay.
Consequently, this eBay seller was banned from selling autographs. However, in retaliation he wrote a fabricated review about us and posted it on all the “illegitimate review sites”. Of course he never purchased anything from us including the John Hancock letter he claimed we sold him, because we’ve never in our 35 years collecting even owned a John Hancock of any kind. Ironically, we have an exceptional reputation within the autograph industry and have not had ONE single REAL complaint in all our years selling rare autographs.
Read what REAL Customers have REALLY said about us ..
10d). (OK, 13 warning signs, this is it). The dealer's Guarantee of Authenticity is vague and has a time limit. Most reputable autograph dealers offer a Lifetime Guarantee , i.e. NO time limit.
10e). This list keeps growing. But, this is very important....
One very important “sign” I failed to not only include but Emphasize. And that is the dealer who has “hair trigger lawsuit”. You know him. The dealer that is always ready to pull out the "l’ll sue you card” the minute you confront his/her questionable autographs. This goes back to previous examples of how a suspect dealer will NOT be concerned or even curious about a bad autograph he may be selling. And, many times not even surprised. In the past, whenever I inquired about a suspicious looking autograph being sold by an honest seller, they are always very concerned such as “how do you know”, “can you tell me more”, etc etc. The suspicious seller, on the other hand, is not interested in hearing any such feedback as the most unethical seller most likely already knows he/she is selling forgeries. Instead, the suspect seller’s only response is to silence any whistle-blowers that may threaten his/her illegal activity. And threatening a law suit is a very common intimidation tool for them to employ.
Now I realize there are reputable dealers that may fail one of the above tests. For example, an opinion from one dealer may tick off another reputable dealer and result in a hostile reaction. However, the point is to look for an overall behavior, a pattern. A blatantly dishonest dealer will surely fail several of the above tests. Also, opinions of authentication services continue to be an endless debate in the collecting community. However, there is no one that loathes the 3rd party authentication services more than the “forgery industry”, for obvious reasons. At the same time, the sometimes volatile competence of 3rd party authenticators is a legitimate debate that will live on, hopefully for the betterment of the industry. The industry wide “forgery containment” value of 3rd party authentication on the other hand, is undeniable.
Disclaimer: The above is based on my personal experiences, and are not intended for any specific person or dealer. Also, these steps are not "set in stone". For example, some dealers do not accept 3rd party authentication. That in and of itself does NOT always mean the dealer is dishonest and/or selling forgeries. (Although I've never a seller of autograph forgeries that did NOT loath ALL Independent 3rd Party Authentication services.). The same goes for any of the steps above, they do not constitute an affirmation of guilt if a dealer does not follow one of them. The purpose of these guidelines are to make you aware of potential risks when deciding to buy autographs based on observations I have experienced over the past 35 years that have raised a "red flag" . And most, if not all of the time a suspicious autograph seller will have more than one conflict within these guidelines/examples..
In the end, every genre of collecting or investment has risks (none more than the stock market!). But, what is more exciting, than owning a genuine historical artifact right from the hand of Abraham Lincoln, JFK, Babe Ruth, John Wayne or any other American culture icon that can add an immeasurable amount of enjoyment and/or excitement to your life?!
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