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Guide to Authenticating Pre-War Baseball Cards

Ever wonder how experts can tell a real T206 Wagner from a counterfeit?

Ever wonder how to tell a real T206 Wagner from a counterfeit?

Several years ago I wrote a short paperback book called ‘Judging the Authenticity of Early Baseball Cards.” It covers the basics of authenticating and forgery detecting Pre-War cards, including T206s, Old Judges, Allen & Ginters and all the rest.   You can view/download for free the guide in pdf ebook form here.

As the book is about eight years old, I re-read it see if any corrections were in order. The cards themselves have always been old, even eight years ago, so there’s no change on that front. However, there are two changes due to recent changes in the hobby.

Judging the Authenticity of Early Baseball Cards cover

Judging the Authenticity of Early Baseball Cards cover

The first is the book lists Global Authentication (GAI) as a reputable grader and many believe that company has fallen by the proverbial wayside.

The other is that the book recommends avoiding private eBay auctions. In the ‘old days’ a bidder could see all the other bidder ids, and auctioneers would usually only hide the bidder ids for nefarious purposes– to hide shill bidding, the seller was selling fakes or otherwise was a scammer and didn’t want bidders warned. The problem is a couple of years after the book came out eBay made all auctions essentially ‘private’.

For those considering downloading the book for free or purchasing a print copy on eBay, the following are five authenticity tips straight from the book:

Notice how the white uniform and border blend together on this authentic 1915 Cracker Jack?

Notice how the white uniform and border blend together on this authentic 1915 Cracker Jack. You can’t tell where the white of the uniform ends and the border begins.

1) The original 1914-15 Cracker Jack cards have no white ink. The white on the cards is created by the absence of ink on the light-colored card stock. In other words, the white borders is the color of card stock surface.

If the Cracker Jack player picture has a large white section of his uniform that directly touches the border, there should little or no difference in tone between the border white and the white of the uniform.

On many fakes, the border is distinctly different from the white in the player image.

Notice this reprint the borders are so much whiter than the touching white of Ty Cobb's uniform.  You can clearly see where the uniform ends and the border begins.  A dead giveaway that the card is a reprint.

Notice that on this reprint the borders are so much whiter than the touching white of Ty Cobb’s uniform? You can clearly see where the uniform ends and the border begins. A dead giveaway that the card is a reprint.

2) If a seller is offering a rare baseball card with obviously scissors clipped corners that he describes as “natural corner wear,” there’s a more than probable chance you’re looking at a fake.

'Natural corner wear'?!?  I think not.

‘Natural corner wear’?!? I think not.

With homemade fakes, one of the harder things to do is to mimic natural corner rounding. The forger often clips the corners at a straight angle, then roughs them up a bit. In many cases, the corners remain obviously hand cut.

Of course genuine cards can have clipped corners (the pictured card is authentic, and is only shown as a card with obviously clipped corners), but anyone experienced with cards can tell the difference between clipping and natural wear. Even if the there is the odd chance the card for sale is real, why would you choose to make an expensive online purchase from a seller who can’t even identify obvious trimming? Shouldn’t you be buying from the seller who can tell the difference?

Authentic and perfectly round Colgan Chips cards.  Homemade fakes often have a funky cut.

Authentic and perfectly round Colgan Chips cards. Homemade fakes often have a funky cut.

3) Die cut cards are hard to counterfeit due to the non-rectangular shapes. Some old cards were factory cut into non-rectangular shapes. The 1909-11 Colgan’s Chips are round disks, the 1913 Our National Game and Polo Grounds are playing cards with rounded corners, the 1888 Scrapps Die-Cuts have an intricate die cut design.

Try cutting this die-cut shape with your paper cutter and you'll learn why counterfeiters stay away from duplicating this 1800s card.

Try cutting this die-cut shape with your paper-cutter and you’ll learn why counterfeiters stay away from duplicating this 1800s card.

These cards are hard to counterfeit well, because the unusual shapes are hard to cut. Homemade Colgan’s Chips are often easily identified by the obviously uneven sciccors cut. Homemade and factory reprints of the National Game and Polo Grounds cards are identified because the corners are cut differently. Try cutting your own Scrapps Die Cut reprint on your paper-cutter or with sciccors. In short, the different or amateur cut of these cards is often a giveaway that they are fakes.

The original 1911 T205s have genuine metal borders than have dulled and sometimes flaked with time.

The original 1911 T205s have genuine metal borders that have dulled and sometimes flaked with time.

4) The popular T205 ‘Gold Border‘ cards have edges covered in genuine metal that are easy to identify as genuine. A plethora of tiny copper flecks of metal were glued to the borders right after the cards were printed. The ancient process of gluing metal specs, dust or leaf to the surface documents and furniture is called gilding.

The T205 cards’ metal originally had a ‘bright new penny’ color, but by now has aged and tarnished, with a dark rusty-brown and sometimes even green-tinged qualities (copper can turn greenish as it tarnishes). It isn’t shiny and smooth but roughish, including to the feel. If you close your eyes run your finger tip along the front of the card, you can feel where the matte textured metal borders start.

A quick examination of the metal borders and its consistency will quickly identify most T205s as real or reprint. Some reprints may have metal borders, but they are smoother and brighter than the original borders. Almost all home computer reprints have no metal and are just digital duplication. It would be too difficult and time-consuming to actually gild the cards, and, even if the basement counterfeiters tried, it would likely look horrible. In all the cases, the difference between the authentic and reprint borders is clear upon close examination.

As with all cards issues, before buying expensive raw Hall of Famers and rare variations it is best to buy a low-grade common or three to see (and feel) for yourself. In person examination is always the best classroom.

5) Holding a card’s surface at an angle to the light will reveal many hidden alterations. Otherwise genuine cards sometimes have ink, paint, glue, paper and erasure marks added to make them into rare counterfeits or make them look better. The notoriously condition sensitive black borders of the 1971 Topps Baseball cards are often touched up with a black felt tip pen.

When looked at straight on, and especially when the card is in a penny sleeve or plastic holder, alterations to the surface can go unnoticed. However, when examining the surface gloss of a holder free card at a sharp angle, added paint, ink and erasure marks can suddenly stand out like a sore thumb. This is the main reason why experienced collectors and dealers remove raw cards from penny sleeves to examine them.

When viewed at an angle to a light, the added ink on a counterfeit 1990 Topps 'No Name of Front' Frank Thomas card is obvious.  When viewed head on and in a holder, the alteration was hidden.

When viewed at an angle to a light, the added ink on a counterfeit 1990 Topps ‘No Name of Front’ Frank Thomas card is obvious. When viewed head on and in a holder, the alteration was hidden.

For many more tips, check out the book.  You can purchase some of my books here.

* * * *

Final Note: This year’s National Convention
I will be at the 2014 National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland. My first trip to Cleveland. I will be at booth 1820 selling (or hoping to sell) a photography book, examining and authenticating photos in person and related items and helping out a sports memorabilia dealer (Belltown Vintage Cards, the renter of the booth). Feel free to stop by and say hi. If you want me to examine and certify photos, you can see me there or contact me beforehand with what you will have (email [email protected]). Anyway, I’m always happy to chat. I should be wearing a badge around my neck with my name on it, so shouldn’t be too hard to identify.

Cheers.

About David Cycleback

David Cycleback is an art and artifact historian and an internationally known authentication expert. He has advised and examined material for major auction houses and institutions, and was an articles writer for the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography. Reprinted by Beijing's Three Shadows Art Center, his guides "Judging the Authenticity of Prints by the Masters" and "Judging the Authenticity of Photographs" were the first comprehensive books on the subjects published in China. You can find his books for sale on eBay here: http://bit.ly/1mixAcg. He can be reached at [email protected].

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