By Charles Kaufman
An autograph collector is calling with a problem.
He's purchased, at auction, a baseball purportedly signed by Walter Johnson. The auction company is really not known for selling vintage items. Of course, the item comes with a letter of authenticity from a relatively new authenticator. Just to make sure, the collector sent the ball to another authenticator, who soon declares the signature bogus. Ouch! The collector suddenly no longer wants the ball and immediately goes back to the auction house for a refund.
They tell him the authenticator who rejected the item doesn't know what he's talking about and that item is good.
Perplexed, the caller asks, "Can you recommend another authenticator?"
Welcome to the authentication battle, a major part of the overall autograph collecting war. The world of authenticating vintage signatures is like dashing through a mine field. The only thing that's certain is the risk that the collector is running. Oh, and that there are a number of awfully good forgers.
Hence, in looking for an authenticator, one should look for someone who has substantial experience in looking at the signatures of vintage athletes, someone with at least a handful of credible references. An experienced authenticator has seen a wide range of autograph samples over the years. He is critical, diligent and skeptical. Chances are he rejects far more items than he passes.
Poor forgery attempts will be quickly identifiable. An authenticator experienced with sports also will know about the objects that are being signed. How often, for example, has he discovered that a ball could not have been created while the signer was living? Get it? It's impossible that that signature would be valid.
Many are the dealers who are amazed by the resurrection of such players as Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Walter Johnson, Roberto Clemente and many others. Sadly, other unsuspecting collectors buy into a well-crafted story about an autographed item, which leads us to the following good advice:
• Educate yourself. Keep your eyes open. If the price tag of an autograph is too good to be true, then the item is likely bogus. No one is slashing the prices of authentic Babe Ruth signatures because they don't have to.
• Pay attention to provenance. Evaluate and investigate as much as possible the origination of the piece. "I found it in grandpa's attic" is just not good enough. If the story is vague, stay away from the piece. Continue your search.
• Be patient. Collecting autographs should be a deliberate, lifetime pursuit. Take your time. Too often, collections are often built on impulse buying. Autographed sports memorabilia are not penny stocks or crap tables. If you are prepared to invest large dollars in a piece, make sure to invest the time to find out all you can about it. Better that your collection has a gaping hole in it than a faked item that cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars.
• Look for dealers who will issue lifetime guarantees. If the item is real and you no longer want it, a dealer should be glad to take it back at the purchase price because it's likely worth more now than what you paid for it. Stay away from auctions that do not have adequate return policies.
• Exercise extreme caution when buying on the Internet. Cyberspace is a wonderful medium for buying valid, authentically obtained items, such as those from Upper Deck Authenticated, Steiner Sports, Total Sports Concepts, PSA/DNA and various show promoters or dealers who can prove the purchase of items at shows. The Internet, however, also leaves the collector vulnerable to fraudulent participants. And there are many such perpetrators.
• Finally, review points 1 through 5.
Overall, in making an investment in an autographed piece of sports memorabilia, you are ultimately taking a leap of faith that someone has performed due diligence, and that the piece you own is real because of the evidence you've assembled . . . and, well, you believe it is real.
Some Pairs Riper Than Others
Couples splitting is generally the stuff of grocery tabloids.
For autograph collectors, though, splits have a definite effect on market demand. Remember how hot Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway were in the mid-90s? Collectors were bullish that the Magic pair would defeat the Bulls' Jordan and Pippen. It never happened. In fact, the Magic couldn't even get past the Houston Rockets. And off into another galaxy went Shaq.
Today's new hot couple is Shaq and Kobe. And they're hot in Hollywood no less. Both are hot commodities on the court and in the autographed collectibles market. Unlike Shaq and Penny, Shaq and Kobe share the bond of a championship ring and, as everyone knows, the marriage on Phil Jackson's team is less than blissful.
Interest in Shaq-signed Orlando Magic items, meanwhile, has given way to Shaq-signed Laker gear. Only the hard-core Shaq collector will want items that chronicle his complete career. When it comes to team-specific items, collecting fans want something signed from championship teams. In sports, rings make the man. They often determine the autographs that fans want.
That brings us to baseball. With the departure of Alex Rodriguez from the Mariners, it's proper to reflect on the A-Rod/Junior Griffey pair.
Ty Moore of All Star Autographs and Collectibles in Kirkland, Wash., has collected autographed items from both players. He watched A-rod and Junior build their stats and bond with Seattle. Their greatness has made the demand for their autograph equally great. With the departure of both players from the Mariners, there's been a bit of a noticeable shift in demand.
"As far as Griffey goes, he has still maintained pretty good value," Moore said. "It's hard to call on A-rod. He was with the Mariners for only five years. He will play for many years to come, at least 10 years in Texas." Well, barring work stoppages in that time.
Moore acknowledged that both players prefer sending their signed and game-used items to the marketplace through distributors versus sitting at shows. That could all change in retirement, but that's quite a number of years off, especially for A-Rod, who's just 25 years old, for crying out loud.
"A-Rod is very aware of the memorabilia marketplace and he manages it through his manager," Moore said. "He didn't do it much during the first couple of years, but then he started marking home run bats and signing a variety of items regularly. I still think that when the collector considers where A-Rod fits in the history of the game, the stuff early in his career will be important."
During the winter, Rodriguez did a huge signing for distributors, who promptly did a huge markup on the product. Single-signed baseballs, available for roughly $50 or $60, were being offered for nearly $150. "Someone is taking massive advantage of the market," Moore said.
The supply for Griffey items has been steady, Moore added. Mariners items are still desireable because he spent such a significant part of his career in Seattle. Cincinnati fans obviously like his signature on National League balls and Cincinnati gear. "If I were to graph it, it didn't jump, it didn't slump," Moore said. "it's remained steady." In Moore's shop, Griffey-signed baseballs have remained in the $70 range.
The price is double that in Cincinnati and even higher through Upper Deck Authenticated. Most of Griffey's signatures these days are coming through UDA, though he recently signed some balls for Steiner Sports and PSA/DNA.
Adam Wolter of Sports Investments, Inc. in Cincinnati said single-signed Griffey balls in his shop sell as well as items signed by the Big Red Machine. "Part of the reason for the price increase is that when he came to Cincinnati he would not sign," Wolter said. "We did get some autographs through autograph hounds, but generally everyone was having major problems. Word got out nationally and his prices went up. Before he was with the Reds, we were selling Griffey for $85."
Wolter's store also carries Griffey-signed Mariners jerseys. They are going nowhere fast, though customers come in and ask whether the value for a signed Mariners jersey is greater than a Reds jersey? "What they want to hear is that the Mariners is more valuable than the Reds because he had so many great years there," Wolter said, "but who knows?"
Charles Kaufman, autograph columnist for the Sports Market Report, is also editor of Sweet Spot magazine, a bimonthly publication devoted to vintage and autographed sports memorabilia, and www.sweetspotnews.com.
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