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The Fundamental Problem with Third Party Autograph Authentication

Posted 2/7/2011 22:37 | Filed under Third Party Authentication | Comments (0)
The autograph business is trickier than other collectibles businesses. Fake autographs are much more widespread than fake coins, comic books, sports cards, stamps or any other collectibles simply because any dishonest person can produce a forgery in a matter of seconds.

Therefore, one might think that companies dedicated to "authenticating" autographs would be beneficial to the autograph business. That's what I thought many years ago, until I learned more about them.  All three of the major third party authentication companies (Global/GAI, JSA and PSA/DNA) have demonstrated incredible carelessness and incompetence. They also have been accused of playing favorites, they don't know what the term "conflict of interest" means and one company has even been suspected of outright corruption by knowingly authenticating fakes.

In future posts I will detail some of the most glaring mistakes and problems with each of these companies. But for now, I want to discuss what the fundamental problem is with the very concept of third party authentication.

I've been actively collecting autographs for 23 years. I've obtained thousands of autographs in person from the celebrities themselves. Over the years I've also bought, sold and viewed tens of thousands of autographs. It's my job and my business to differentiate fake autographs from real autographs and I'm pretty good at it. Yet do you know how many signatures I am able to consistently "authenticate"? Maybe two: Cal Ripken and Tiger Woods. Ripken and Tiger both have changed their autographs drastically over the years, but within the same era, their autographs are extremely consistent. Show me 10 questionable Ripken autographed items and 10 questionable Tiger autographed items and I am pretty sure I could give you a definitive real or fake answer on 9 of each. There might be one that I would be unsure about.

[caption id="attachment_23" align="aligncenter" width="211" caption="Cal Ripken's autograph from 1985 versus . . ."][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_26" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Cal Ripken's current autograph"][/caption]

Dan Marino is my favorite NFL player of all time, and I've gotten him in person several dozen times in many different situations dating back to the 1980s. But Marino's autograph can look very different depending on when and where it was signed. I can spot obvious Marino fakes, and I can spot ones that are definitely real. But probably close to half of the questionable Marino autographs I see, I couldn't tell you one way or the other.

I distinctly remember a TV news magazine show about fake autographs several years ago. They interviewed Marino and had him review possible fakes on eBay. He spotted many of them, but on one or two he said even he couldn't be sure. If Dan Marino can't give a definitive answer on the authenticity of some Dan Marino autographs, then what business does any third party authentication company have stating they can?

These companies claim to be experts in thousands of different signatures from every genre, every sport and every era. They're in the business to collect fees so of course they're going to claim they can authenticate anyone and everyone's signature. Unfortunately, that's literally impossible no matter how many so-called "experts" they have. These companies rarely, if ever, return an autographed item with a refund and an admission that they have no idea whether it's real or not.

When you submit an autograph for third party authentication, what you are paying for is at best an informed opinion, and at worst an educated guess. No matter what these companies claim, there is no scientific means of determining whether an autograph is real or not just by examining it.
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