Autographs: Proving Authenticity

Sometimes the best advice when it comes to buying autographs isn’t a big bank account.

It’s a big storehouse of know-how.

by Brian Kathenes

The phrase "Guaranteed Genuine and Authentic" can be very misleading in today’s autograph market. That phrase and others like it are thrown around in the autograph market like a Frisbee in the park. What does it mean? Perhaps we should look at what authentication really is.

Webster’s defines "authenticate" as; "to prove the authenticity of". The key word is PROVE. The authenticator must be able to verify that an item is authentic. Autographs must be proven authentic, not assumed to be real until proven otherwise. As mentioned in previous articles, the item in question must be considered non-genuine, and the authenticator must find reasons why it is authentic.

Authentication is a scholarly opinion based on careful study, research, and intuitive knowledge acquired from first hand experience. Too many times I have seen ‘dealers’ and collectors selling autographs and guaranteeing authenticity without knowing the first thing about the item they claim is genuine. Authentication is not a deductive process. "Well, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be good!" is the battle cry of the ignorant seller, and it is heard all too often in our field.

When purchasing autographs from anyone, make sure you know who you are dealing with. Check to see if there is a guarantee of authenticity, then confirm that the person making the guarantee can back it up. Determine what the basis is for the authentication. A guarantee is only as good as the person or company that backs it up. If they are out of business next week, you could be ‘stuck’. Ascertain the limitations and conditions of the guarantee, if one is stated. What experience do they have? What formal training have they taken? Don’t let them lead you to believe that there is no place to learn. That is simply not true. There are many programs and college level courses available. It takes time, money, effort, and a serious commitment to be knowledgeable in autographs. Many people do not want to make that commitment, but still want to sell autographs.

Membership in an autograph organization or in some appraisal societies does not mean someone is qualified in any topic or subject. Some people make the implication that being a member of an organization makes them an expert. This is another fallacy. Membership, in most organizations, is open to anybody. In addition, anyone can publish a catalog or advertise in a magazine and know nothing about autographs.

If you purchase autographed material at auction, look over the terms and conditions in the catalog. Read ALL the terms and ask questions. What you may find could surprise you. Many auction companies do not guarantee the authenticity of any item sold. In many cases, material is sold "AS IS" with no guarantee of any kind. This is a fairly common practice in the industry. You should be aware of the terms of sale before you wave your number at the auctioneer. You could be the owner of a non-genuine autograph and have no recourse.

There are a number of qualified autograph dealers, auction houses and collectors that provide very professional services, but there are many more that lack any qualification to make claims on authenticity, provenance, or title. To be a good autograph detective, you must be knowledgeable in more than just autographs. You must know the market, the buyers, the sellers, and the ethical and shady business practices in the field. With the increase in popularity of autographed material, you can bet that more people will become sellers of autographs. Most of them will not make the commitment to educate themselves. That puts a heavy burden on the collector. If you ask the right questions, you will be able to differentiate between the sellers who ‘know their stuff’ and those who don’t.

Brian Kathenes is a published author and the Managing Partner of National Appraisal Consultants, a full service personal property valuation firm.

He is past Chairman of the New York Winter Antique Show Vetting Committee on Autographs, Manuscripts & Rare Books, and works regularly with Lee and Leslie Keno and Cash in the Attic ‘s Tim Luke.

Mr. Kathenes has presented seminars for over 472,000 participants and clients including the International Society of Appraisers ISA CAPP Course and Appraisal Techniques and Practical Information for Archivists and Librarians from the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

He offers a special antiques and collecitibles free report : "How To be Your Own Appraiser," which can be found at

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