Autograph Authenicators Rely on Experience, Exemplars

Some familiar hobby names discussed their trade at the PCCE show.

They all started young, but collecting autographs has never gotten old for Jimmy Spence, Kevin Keating, Ron Gordon and Rich Albersheim.

All four have stayed with their hobby long enough to turn their passion into a business. The three were on the Autograph Authenticity panel discussion at last week’s Premier Collectible Conference and Exhibition in Chicago, discussing hot button issues in the industry and why they feel qualified to render opinions on autographs dating back decades.

Virginia-based Keating, owner of Quality Autographs, got his first signature from 1969 Cubs’ catcher Randy Hundley at a local Sears store while growing up in Chicago. He believes autographs fall into five categories: signatures that are actually witnessed, autographs strongly believed to be good based on personal experience such as a second-hand witness, those which require study, obvious forgeries and those which are physically impossible to be considered real, such as the use of a Sharpie on vintage signatures.

The furor over Operation Bullpen, which shut down a major forgery ring in the 1990s, has led to a demand for third party authentication services. A positive opinion can result in a hefty premium for signed items.

The demand for some kind of certificate to present to a buyer has led some companies and dealers utilize the services of ‘forensic examiners’ whose work often comes at a discounted rate but within the hobby, their efforts are often called into question. The autograph specialists on the panel believe their accumulated knowledge and experience wins out over the skills of those trained in handwriting processes. Keating, who served as an FBI consultant during an investigation into a well-known sports autograph forgery case in Las Vegas, thinks some of the FEs of misrepresent themselves as experts in the field of authentication simply for marketing purposes.

"A lot of them have taken their credentials and created a business," Keating stated. "Maybe they had a career, have retired and are looking for something to do. They’ve squandered their integrity for the money. It’s a problem that’s rampant in our industry."

"The certificate they have is nice but there is nothing like the repitition those of us who’ve been involved in the hobby for a long time have seen," Gordon said. "Their work is more mechanical."

Comparing autographs to those already believed to be real has become a staple for autograph authenticators with legal documents or hand-written letters topping New Mexico resident Gordon’s list of the best exemplars.

New Jersey-based Spence and New Mexico resident Gordon both helped found the autograph authentication division at PSA/DNA during the 1990s. The two have long saved known authentic autographs as personal reference points and compared notes when they first began with the company. Spence said he started at PSA/DNA with "two plastic tubs of three ring binders" before internet technology made it possible to put his exemplars on a laptop computer. He now has 250,000 exemplars in a database including, he says, images of 2500 Babe Ruth autographs.

"I’m a little obsessive," he said. "I even keep trainers and batboys for when we’re asked to examine team-signed items. I’m constantly cropping those images, training myself on what to look for. The exposure I have to these things is incredible and its the database that helps determine the likelihood of whether a signature is real."

"We’re constantly building files," Gordon said. "And we built them long before we even knew what the word ‘exemplar’ meant."

"All of them have made mistakes somewhere along the line," said Mastro Auctions President Doug Allen of the hobby’s authenticators. "But they are trying to do a good job."

The autograph specialists say it’s important to not only keep exemplars on file, but to keep them in chronological order. Signatures can change markedly over a person’s life.

"If you study Mickey Mantle, he had at least five or six different periods in his life where his signature changed slightly," Albersheim explained.

One question directed at the panel centered on why autograph authenticators don’t use scientific testing on the ink used to write an autograph. The general concensus was that such a move could be destructive to the item with removal of a tiny piece of the signed item typically required.

With all of their experience and the power to affect the selling prices of many potentially rare and valuable autographs, authenticators like Spence admit it’s still just an opinion, albeit an educated one.

"At the end of the day you may like me or you might hate me. I just want you to respect me."