Autograph collectors know that third party authentication is only as good as the experience, knowledge and integrity of the person doing the authenticating. Over the years, PSA/DNA has worked diligently to put together a true dream team of the world's foremost authentication experts to render opinions on autographs, game-used memorabilia and other collectible items.
In keeping with that tradition, the company recently added Kevin Keating to their expert lineup to serve as a consultant authenticator for baseball autographs. Sports Market Report recently sat down with Keating and began our meeting by asking the question most people first ask when they encounter a serious autograph collector - what is the person's personal favorite piece?
"When most people ask that question they don't distinguish between the collector's most valuable piece and their favorite piece," said Keating. "In my case, my favorite pieces are the ones people have given to me and, in most cases, those things are not going to command a high price."
To prove his point, Keating reveals that the one piece in his collection that unequivocally rates as his most favorite is a small scrap of paper that holds the squiggly signature of the Cy Young winning Hall of Famer Warren Spahn for whom Keating worked as a player memorabilia agent. "That is without a doubt my favorite item because Spahn was like a father to me," said Keating. "We were very close, and I'm still close with his family."
Keating, who over the years had Spahn sign numerous items, said that the reason he has such great affection for the simple little signature is because of the memory it holds. "I had plans to get together with Warren at his home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma in early December of 2003," said Keating. "He called and asked me when I planned on coming out and when I told him he asked if I could make it out any sooner. I said that I probably could and asked if there was a problem. He told me that if I waited until December he might not be here. So, I rescheduled my trip and ended up spending the last two nights of his life with him."
On Thursday evening, November 20, Keating spent the entire night with Spahn. "Warren and I stayed up late and it was almost like he knew he didn't have much time left," Keating recalled. "I sat with him till he fell asleep around 4:30 in the morning."
The following day, Keating was preparing to leave Spahn's home for the Hall of Famer's ranch where he planned to go hunting with Spahn's son Greg. "As I was getting ready to leave for the ranch, his nurse asked to take a picture of me and Warren. It was not really something I had thought of because I had so many photos of us together. So, without giving it much thought, I posed with Warren and it turned out to be the very last photo ever taken of him. He had a massive stroke the next night and died the following Monday - November 24. On that last night we spent together, we were sitting at a table and I asked him how his autograph was doing these days and he said 'oh not bad.' He then scribbled his signature on a scrap of paper, which turned out to be the last autograph he would ever sign. That photo and signature are my two favorite things."
When asked about his formative years, Kevin Keating has quite a story to tell. "I grew up all over," he began. "When I was a kid, we lived in Niigata, Japan for two years. I went to an all Japanese school in second and third grade so I was fluent in Japanese before I was fluent in English. When I came back to the United States, we moved to Illinois. All my peers could, of course, write in English, but I couldn't, so I had to teach myself how to write in English. I was 10-years old at the time and that was when I was introduced to baseball. That was 1969, the epic year when the Cubs faced off against the Mets. Everyone thought the Cubs would win it all that year and then the Mets dashed those hopes by coming out of nowhere. I didn't realize it at the time but, when I look back, I realize what an epic season that really was. Back then, as a kid, I just figured every season was like that. Now I know better but, when it was happening, I had a front row seat to the drama because we lived in a suburb of Chicago so I was right there for the exhilaration, and the agony of defeat. From then on, I was in love with baseball and hooked for life."
Keating believes collectors have some undefined and yet recessive gene. "When it is set off, we really can't control ourselves," he added with a laugh saying that he was bit by the collectors bug as a young boy. "For me, it started further back than I can even remember," said Keating. "As a kid, I collected rocks and fossils and coins. So, when I discovered baseball, the easiest thing to collect was baseball cards. That's when I began collecting cards."
The collecting of autographs came later that year when Keating had his first up close and personal experience with a Major League player. "My first autograph was from a catcher for the Chicago Cubs named Randy Hundley," said Keating. "He was appearing at the store across the street from where we lived. My mother accompanied me and we waited in line for more than two hours before having a chance to meet him and get his autograph."
That first autograph triggered the collecting gene within Keating. "When you own an autograph, you own a moment of that person's life," he said. "Whether it's an autograph, you get yourself or if it's one you purchase, when you have a person's autograph, you have a physical connection to that person. For me, that is what makes autograph collecting unique."
After Randy Hundley provided Keating with his first autograph, young Kevin was obsessed with adding more and more signatures to his collection. Then, when he was 14-years old, a defining moment occurred in his life. "By that time, I had already been chasing autographs at the hotels of Chicago for years," said Keating. "Then, one day, when I was in eighth grade, I was ditching school because the New York Mets were in town. I was at their hotel trying to get autographs when a then-fledgling writer for the Chicago Sun Times by the name of Bob Greene noticed me. He came over and introduced himself and asked me if he could interview me for an article in the paper. So he interviewed me and then sent a photographer over to get a photo of me getting Jim Fregosi's autograph. The next day, my parents were horrified when they picked up the paper and saw page 14 which was devoted to Greene's column with the title "Waiting For a Sign" which was all about Kevin Keating from Algonquin Middle School.
Explaining that everyone in Chicago read the Sun Times, Keating said that fact became more than apparent when he got to school that morning. "As soon as I got to school, I was called into the vice principal's office," said Keating. "He was very angry, or at least he projected that he was, and he threatened to suspend me from school. He said he would, however, let it go if I would promise not to ditch school anymore. I only had three weeks of eighth grade left before moving on to high school so that was a promise I could easily make. So, I made the promise and he told me to get out of his office. As I was walking out, he said 'Hey Kevin...one more thing.' He then asked me if I had ever gotten Yogi Berra's autograph. It turned out that Berra had been his favorite player. He started to muse about his memories of watching Berra play for the Yankees when he was a boy. Then he caught himself and told me to get on my way. I think that was his way of letting me know he had to play his role in disciplining me but that also that he understood."
Keating said that incident, in its own strange way, affirmed for him that what he was doing was pretty cool. "Up until that day, I knew I loved baseball and collecting autographs because it was the way of pursuing and having contact with the people I idolized," he said. "But I never really knew if it was something I would continue to do or just outgrow. My friends knew I was doing this, and I was unique because none of them were doing anything like that. I was never concerned about being like everyone else, when you are that age most people are not comfortable being an oddball. The Bob Greene article changed that for me. It affirmed to me and to others that what I was doing had significance. If that article had not been written, I honestly don't know if I would have continued to collect, but I did and, by the time I got out of high school, I had collected over 10,000 autographs."
After graduating from Harry D. Jacobs High School in 1977, Keating enlisted in the United States Army and later attended the United States Military Academy at West Point where he graduated in the top 25 percent of class with a 4.0 grade point average in his double-concentration of Chinese Language and Far East Asian studies. He then went on to serve for over six years as an Airborne Ranger Infantry Officer. "I did that until I fractured my neck," Keating said. "That was 1988 and, after I suffered the injury, I left the service."
From the time Keating graduated high school until the end of his military service, he didn't give much thought to his autograph collection but when he began what would become a successful career in business management, he began longing to return to collecting. "When I was in school and the service, I had not collected any autographs because I simply didn't have the time," he recalled. "I was reintroduced to autograph collecting when I left the service by a friend of mine who introduced me to collecting magazines and the Universal Autograph Collectors Club."
Keating said that he was quite surprised to see how the hobby of autograph collecting had dramatically changed during the time he was away from it. "When I got back into collecting, I realized it had gone from being a relatively small hobby to being a highly organized and efficient functioning business enterprise. There was buying and selling in an established market and there were multiple ways to buy and sell. That was the first time in my life that I had some disposable income to throw at autographs so I started responding to ads and buying things from reputable dealers. It was then that I quickly realized that I could do that myself. So, I started to advertise and buy collections - keeping what I wanted and selling the rest. "That's how I started, and before I knew it the selling started to grow."
During that time, Keating also started to reconnect with a lot of Major League players he had communicated with when he was young. "By then, I wasn't just a kid asking for their autograph," Keating said. "I was a West Point graduate and a former Army officer. Those credentials were very meaningful to a lot of the old timers and it opened a lot of doors for me. I realized that if I made friends with one player, it would open the door for me to make friends with other players because within the baseball world most people are connected in one way or another."
Kevin went on to say that one relationship did in fact lead to another and, before he knew it, he was doing work with a lot of players who would ask him to help them out with one thing or another. "It finally became so overwhelming I had to leave my day job and became a full-time memorabilia dealer and authenticator," he said.
Establishing Quality Autographs and Memorabilia of Virginia, Inc in 1992, Keating's company is today one of the nation's largest and most respected buyers and sellers of vintage sports autographs and sports memorabilia. Their inventory consists of material that meets the needs of everyone from the beginning collector to highly seasoned professionals. The company prides itself in carrying an extremely wide inventory of rare sports autographs with emphasis on Baseball Hall of Famers
As the owner of the company, Keating is nationally recognized as an expert in the field of autograph authentication, with a specialty in vintage baseball signatures. His services have been sought by numerous high end collectors; players; celebrities; the National Sports Gallery and even the FBI who had him testify as their expert witness in a major forgery trial. In 1999, he coauthored "The Negro Leagues Autograph Guide" (Landmark Books), and he has published many articles on autographs and authentication. Keating has also been tapped by a variety of national and local newspapers and television and radio shows to discuss baseball autographs. Despite his heavy work schedule, Keating also made time to earn his Master's Degree in International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins University in 2002.
When it comes to the business of authenticating autographs, Keating said it's important to know that all autograph authenticators are not created equally. "If you go out and run 50 miles a day, it doesn't mean you will become an Olympic sprinter, "he said. "My point is that just because you do the same thing an Olympic qualifier does, it doesn't mean you will achieve the same skill level. It's the same thing with autograph authentication. Some people have an aptitude for it and some people don't. There is a lot of skill involved along with the experience that goes into it. There is little doubt in my mind that my training in Japanese and Chinese writing and committing the different forms and structures of writing to memory helped me develop my skills. I clearly had an ability to do that well and, while doing it, I believe I also utilized and developed a part of my brain that I still use for authentication and signature analysis. I have also been told over the years by many people that I have a photographic memory. I don't believe that because I don't think anyone has a photographic memory, but I do believe I have a much better memory than the average person."
When it comes to authenticating, Keating said there is one thing every authenticator should be willing to admit. "All authenticators should be willing to say that, in some instances, they just don't know if something is authentic or not," said Keating. "To a large extent, that should be the starting point with doing any authentication. There's a great line from one of Clint Eastwood's movies where Clint's character says 'A man's got to know his limitations.' As soon as you start thinking you know more than you do, or if you are not willing to admit that you don't know everything you need to know, that's when you start making errors. To be a good authenticator, you must know your limitations and grow from there."
Keating said that collectors should also be aware that just as good authenticators are always getting better at what they do, the bad guys are doing the same. "I am always learning and so are the forgers," said Keating. "PSA and other authenticators are the goalies and the forgers are constantly out there trying to put a slap shot past them. The authenticator's job is to stop them and, if you do let one get past you and make a mistake, you should take responsibility for it as soon as possible. The true experts - the really good authenticators - they recognize that authenticating is difficult and PSA has some of the best in the business. I think Steve Grad is the best overall authenticator in the business today. He has a global knowledge of autographs. He has a template of information in his head that goes beyond one genre. Some authenticators are good in specific areas; Steve is good in multiple areas."
Keating said he is proud to be working with professionals such as Grad at PSA. "There is no doubting the fact that third party authenticating has made it possible for people to buy with confidence," said Keating. "There is also no doubting the fact that the proliferation of auction houses would absolutely not be possible if it weren't for a company like PSA. They have enabled them to be in business. They can lean on a company like PSA so they can filter out the bad items.
They can sell with confidence and establish a clean reputation. PSA has undoubtedly made it much more difficult for forgers to operate successfully. PSA is a filter system that keeps the bad stuff out of the hobby."
Asked where he sees the hobby going over the next few years Keating said he doesn't have a good answer. "With the economy so uncertain, it will certainly have an impact on the hobby and business of autograph collecting," said Keating. "But it goes back to that collector's gene - I think collectors will always want to collect and baseball is still the National Pastime. It is the granddaddy of all the sports memorabilia collected. I believe that the hobby will remain healthy and I always tell people to collect what you love and to diligently research the people you buy from so you can trust them. One good rule of thumb for anyone who collects is that when given the choice between buying one thing that is old and rare and buying ten contemporary items of which there are many, take your money and buy the old and rare piece."
While Keating said that collectors should first and foremost buy what they love, he also is a great believer that high quality autographs are in fact a good investment. "I do recommend in investing in autographs," said Keating. "But I also caution people to be prudent and not put 100 percent of their portfolio into sports memorabilia and autographs. If you put your money in investment grade material, I believe you will do well. And remember - when it comes to autographs, the best quality is what you want in your portfolio. That said, no collector should ever overlook the fact that you should love what you buy because, through the duration that you own an item, you should enjoy owning it."
While the business end of autograph collecting has become his livelihood, Keating said he still enjoys collecting as a hobby as well. While he primarily collects baseball autographs his interests have spilled over into other things. "The collector gene just won't go away," he said with a laugh. "So, while I primarily collect baseball autographs, I also have some football stuff and a few other things from other sports. I have also picked up a few things over the years that have grabbed my attention such as some Picasso prints and some material signed by luminaries outside of the sports arena. But my first love will always be baseball."
Along with collecting autographs, Keating does charity work for the American Heart Association and is in his 28th year as a "Compassion" foster parent for overseas children. He also said he and his wife, Kaeli, love to travel and have been to China; Hong Kong; Australia; New Zealand; Japan; Thailand; Korea; Egypt; Costa Rica; Puerto Rico; Saint Lucia; Grenadines; France; Mexico; Canada, and all 50 of the United States. "I also like to write," said Keating. "I am doing a lot of writing these days. I have three books coming out next year but I don't want to talk about them at the moment. I also love to read, work out and spend time with my wife."
If you would like further information on Kevin Keating you can contact him at: P.O Box 25274, Alexandria, VA 22313-5274, Phone: (703) 519-9881 or by e-mail at [email protected].