PSA/DNA Expert Profile
Meet Kevin Keating
One of the Most Respected Men in the Hobby
Joining the PSA/DNA staff, Kevin Keating brings over 45 years of collecting experience and two decades of knowledge as a dealer and authenticator
Since his time with PSA and PSA/DNA, the company's president, Joe Orlando, has worked diligently to assemble a team of the world's foremost authentication and grading experts. In keeping with that tradition, the company recently called on Kevin Keating to serve as a full-time autograph authenticator.
Keating, who established Quality Autographs and Memorabilia of Virginia, Inc. in 1992, carved out his place in the hobby as one of the nation's most respected dealers of vintage sports autographs and sports memorabilia. Recognized as an expert in the field of autograph authentication, Keating's services have been sought by numerous high-end collectors, players, celebrities, the National Sports Gallery and even the FBI, who employed him as an expert and government witness in Operation Bullpen. 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 autographs.
"There aren't too many people in the hobby that can match the experience that Kevin brings to the table," Orlando said. "Kevin has been dealing in autographs for decades and a significant portion of his business was dedicated to extremely high-end material. It takes a special kind of person to do that, successfully, for a long period of time. You not only have to possess the specialized knowledge, but you need the confidence to go with it. You are the one that has to be willing to put your own money on the line when you are involved in buying and selling that caliber of autographs. It is very different from acquiring autographs in person, as a collector or a seller. You must be decisive, which is an important attribute of any credible expert. Every time you review an item and offer an opinion, you're rendering a decision."
Sports Market Report recently caught up with Keating to talk about his unique background and his passion and knowledge of autographs. We began our conversation by asking him to provide some insight into his early years.
Kevin Keating (KK): When I was young, we lived in many places including Niigata, Japan, where I attended an all-Japanese school in second and third grades. I became fluent in both written and spoken Japanese language at that level. We returned to the U.S. in 1968, to Evanston, Illinois, where I had to catch up with my peers in some areas. For instance, I only knew how to print, so I had to teach myself how to write in cursive.
Sports Market Report (SMR): Were you a baseball fan as a kid?
KK: Yes, when I became older. I was 10 years old and baseball then became a part of my life. That was 1969, the year the Chicago Cubs faced off against the New York Mets. Everyone thought the Cubs would win it all that year, and then the "Miracle Mets" came out of nowhere to dash those hopes. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was an epic season. I just thought every baseball season was like that. From then on, I was in love with baseball and hooked for life.
SMR: Did you collect anything as a kid?
KK: I collected all sorts of things, including baseball cards. I began collecting autographs during that 1969 season. It all started when Cubs catcher Randy Hundley made an appearance at a store near our home. My mother accompanied me and we waited in line for more than two hours before getting a chance to meet him and get his autograph. That really got me hooked. After meeting Randy Hundley, I was obsessed with getting more signatures and starting a collection.
Later, when I was 14 years old, I experienced a defining moment in my life. By that time, I had already been chasing autographs at Chicago hotels for years. Then, one day, when I was in eighth grade, I was ditching school because the Mets were in town. I was at their hotel trying to get autographs when a then-fledgling writer for the Chicago Sun-Times named Bob Greene noticed me.
He came over, introduced himself and, once he found out I was playing hooky to collect autographs, asked me if he could interview me for an article in the paper. I said, "Sure." So he interviewed me and then sent a photographer over to take a photo of me getting Jim Fregosi's autograph. The photo appeared in the paper the next day, along with Greene's article entitled, "Waiting for a Sign," which was all about "Kevin Keating from Algonquin Middle School ... "
My parents were horrified. Everyone in our area read the Chicago Sun-Times, which was something I learned when I got to school that morning and was called into the vice principal's office. He was very angry - or at least he projected that he was - and he threatened to suspend me from school. He said he would let it go, however, if I would promise never to ditch school there again. I had only three weeks of eighth grade left before moving on to high school, so that was a promise I could easily make and keep.
And once I agreed, he told me to get out of his office. But as I was walking out, he said "Hey Kevin ... one more thing." He then asked if I managed to get Yogi Berra's autograph - the Mets' manager. It turned out that Berra had been his favorite player. He started to muse about his boyhood memories of watching Berra play for the Yankees. 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 and discipline me, but that he also understood and empathized with my collecting passion.
SMR: You mentioned you were about to enter high school when that incident took place.
KK: Yes. I went to Harry D. Jacobs High School, and Greene's article gave me affirmation that what I was doing - collecting autographs - was pretty cool. Up until that day, I knew that I loved both baseball and collecting autographs because it was a way to have contact with the people I idolized. But I never really knew if it was something I would continue to do or just outgrow.
None of my friends collected autographs yet, and they didn't know what to make of the practice. But Greene's article affirmed to me and to others that what I was doing had significance. If that article had not been written, I 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 more than 10,000 autographs.
SMR: Tell us about your path after high school.
KK: After graduating in 1977, I enlisted in the United States Army and later attended the United States Military Academy. West Point did not have academic majors at the time, so I double-concentrated in Chinese Language and Far East Asian studies. I landed on the Dean's List five semesters and finished number one in my class in Chinese. When I graduated in 1982, I received my commission as a second lieutenant in the Infantry. And after graduating from Airborne and Ranger schools, I served in the Army until I left in 1988 after suffering a neck fracture. I then took a job with a pharmaceutical company.
SMR: Did you continue to collect during this time of your life?
KK: I had not actively collected since high school until 1988 when a friend and fellow collector introduced me to the Sport Collectors Digest, which in turn helped pull me back into the hobby I loved. I was surprised to learn that the autograph collecting hobby had dramatically changed. 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 also the first time in my life that I had some disposable income to buy autographs, too, so I started responding to ads and buying things from reputable dealers. It was then that I quickly realized I could do that myself - sell autographs. So I started to advertise to buy collections - keeping what I wanted and selling the rest. That's how I started my foray into becoming a dealer, and before I knew it, the selling started to grow.
SMR: And so you lived the dream - turning your passion into a career.
KK: I did, and during that time, I started to reconnect with some Major League players I had communicated with when I was younger. By then, however, I wasn't just a kid asking for their autograph. 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 also found that once I made friends with one player it often led to friendships with other players - because within the baseball world, most people are connected in one way or another. I began doing work with players who would ask me to help them out with one thing or another. By 1999 it finally became overwhelming. That's when I left my day job and became a full-time memorabilia dealer and authenticator.
SMR: Let's talk about the art and science of authentication.
KK: When it comes to the business of authenticating autographs, it's important to know that all autograph authenticators are not created equal. Experience is critical, but not an end in itself. A person must have an aptitude for it as well. And being good at it involves both skill and experience. I have no doubt that my background in written Japanese and Chinese languages, which required the memorization of many different characters, helped me develop my authentication skills. I clearly had an ability to do that well, and while doing it, I believe I also utilized and further developed a part of my brain that I still use for authentication and signature analysis.
I have been told over the years that I have a photographic memory. I don't believe that. I don't know of anyone who has a true, photographic memory, but I am a visual person with strong recall ability for things I have seen. There is also one thing authenticators should be willing to admit: that in some instances, they may not know if something is or is not authentic. To a large extent, that should be the starting point when performing any sort of authentication.
There's a great line in Clint Eastwood's movie, Magnum Force, when Clint's character - Detective Harry Callahan - says: "A man's got to know his limitations." That's definitely true for authentication. As soon as you start thinking you know more than you do, or if you are not willing to admit when you don't know something, you're doomed to make mistakes. To be a good authenticator, you must know your limitations and grow from there. Collectors should also be aware that just as good authenticators work at improving their knowledge and skills, so too are the bad guys trying to improve their forgeries.
SMR: What are your thoughts now about joining the PSA/DNA team full time?
KK: I'm very excited and proud to be a part of this world-class company and team. PSA/DNA is the goalie, and the forgers are constantly out there trying to get a slap shot past us into the net. Our job is to stop them. PSA/DNA has made it possible for collectors to buy with confidence.
PSA/DNA also plays a critical role for auction companies, too, by examining their ongoing consignments to screen out questionable material. And that enables those companies to sell their offerings with confidence, and their bidders to buy autographs with confidence.
PSA/DNA has undoubtedly made it much more difficult for forgers to operate successfully. I'm excited to bring my skills and experience to the company. My experience is heaviest in baseball, but I'm also knowledgeable about golf, tennis, Olympics, basketball, football - all sports. And I am also comfortable with Civil War, military and presidential material.
SMR: Kevin, tell us a bit about where you see the autograph collecting hobby headed in the future.
KK: I think collectors will always want to collect, and baseball is still the National Pastime. It is the granddaddy of all the sports memorabilia. The hobby remains healthy. Autographs can be a good investment, too. But foremost, collectors should buy what they love, and love what they buy. The hobby will always remain strong and vibrant as long as passionate collectors who love what they are doing are engaged. It has evolved and will continue to do so.
SMR: It is obvious to anyone who spends any time with you how passionate you are about the hobby and your own collection. Do you own anything that you consider to be your favorite piece?
KK: I have been asked that a lot. And while I own many things of greater value, my favorite items are the ones that mean the most to me. In most cases, they are things that were given to me, and some have little or no monetary value.
My very favorite items relate to Warren Spahn. Warren was a close friend. One night in early November 2003, he called me and asked when I was coming out for my next visit. When I told him it was in early December, he asked if I could make it any sooner. When I asked him why, he told me his health was failing and he wasn't sure if he'd be around in December. So I rescheduled the dates to arrive on Wednesday, November 19 and depart two days later on Friday.
We stayed up visiting practically all night on Thursday, and at one point I asked him, "Hey Spahnnie, how does your autograph look these days?" He said, "Oh, not bad." He then scribbled his signature on a scrap of paper to show me, and handed it to me. Before I left the next day, his day nurse suggested we take a photo together and then snapped one of us just before I had to leave. Warren passed away three days later.
As it turned out, both that photo and that autograph were his last. And because of what they represent and mean to me, they are the two items I prize most in my collection. Both are framed together and hang in my office where I can look at them every day.
SMR: You deal with autograph collectors of every level on a daily basis and have for many years. Can you tell us what it is that makes some people so passionate about obtaining another person's signature?
KK: I have always believed that collectors have some undefined gene. I know that was the case with me. And once it's triggered, it is difficult to control. The collectors bug got a hold of me as a young boy, long before I got my first autograph. As a kid, I collected rocks, fossils, stamps and coins. And once I fell in love with baseball, the easiest thing to collect were baseball cards, so that's what I did until I learned how to collect baseball autographs.
And unlike cards, an autograph provides an actual link to that person, because when you own an autograph, you own a moment of that person's life. Whether it's an autograph you get yourself or one you purchase, a person's autograph is a physical connection to that person. For me, that is what makes autograph collecting both unique and special.