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Ten Warning Signs a Dealer May Be Selling Autograph Forgeries

Ten Warning Signs a Dealer May Be Selling Autograph Forgeries

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.

4). Nothing or Very Little of the seller’s inventory has been verified by a 3rd party authentication service like JSA or PSA.

4b). Ask the seller if you can check out his eBay autographs for sale.  Most legitimate autograph dealers 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 chance the seller has such a notoriously bad reputation for selling autograph forgeries, that he has been banned by eBay from selling autographs. 

5). Suspect Seller has 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 miscreants 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?  Because these organizations would expose the fraudulent autograph sellers.

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. 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 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.
 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.
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.

** In the coming weeks I will be doing a video of basic autograph authentication and demonstrate some of the techniques used to determine the difference between a genuine and fake autograph

Helpful Resources:

A community of reputable autograph dealers and collectors:
Autograph Magazine Forum

A Great database of vintage Hollywood genuine signature exemplars:
The CEAD

Detailed Autograph Authentication Report :
Conway's Vintage Treasures Authentication Report

The Universal Autograph Collectors Club (UACC) is the oldest autograph collecting organization with an Approved Dealer Program Directory:
UACC Dealers

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