Grading & Authentication: Q & A With REA

It looks like an original Babe Ruth advertising poster. So does that high grade T206 Snodgrass error card. A good enough fake–and some creative writing–can make it hard for most of us to tell the difference. It’s become a major issue for auction houses and grading companies who take time to separate good from bad. In spite of those good efforts, though, altered pieces still slip through.

Rob Lifson, President of Robert Edward Auctions, took time for some questions and answers about the hot button issue of alteration and restoration.

When considering consignments, how do you examine a) baseball cards and b) advertising type pieces to see if they’ve been restored/altered?

REA: Ungraded cards often come from original sources, or old-time collections. This doesn’t mean there are no problems with these cards, but the problems are usually pretty obvious. The reasons collectors altered cards twenty-five or fifty years ago were very different than today. It wasn’t to cheat people. For example, when 16 and 18-pocket plastic pages first came out well over twenty years ago, some collectors would clip a little strip off the bottom of tobacco cards, especially when using the sixteen-pocket pages, or clip “E” cards such as E90-1 American Caramel cards, just to be able to fit the cards into the slots of the pages. Obviously, condition was not as big a deal back then. We see cards like this all the time and for us it’s pretty easy to tell. But when dealing with cards that have not figuratively or literally been in a “time capsule”, that is, when dealing with cards from the modern era of collecting, it can get a lot trickier.

Our first line of defense is our experience. I couldn’t briefly communicate what we look for in each and every set, and frankly it could be challenging to even try to articulate in words what we think is possibly evidence of a problem sometimes. How the corners of a card wear, how the edges are supposed to look, the feel of the card, the colors, the texture, the firmness…really just about every element that describes a card, which is a three-dimensional object that just happens to be very flat.

There are always going to be grading errors and there are always going to be differences of opinion regarding grading. That comes with the territory. But experience really helps. There’s a value to having seen so many cards, and having handled millions of vintage cards for literally decades before anyone ever thought to restore cards for monetary reasons. Sure, we often use tools such as black lights and magnification, and great lighting is essential. But if I had to pick one tool that serves us best, it is experience. I can set you up with all the tools, jeweler’s loupes, and the best lighting equipment in the world, but if you don’t know how to interpret the information, it’s not going to do you too much good.

It kind of reminds me of a doctor giving me scalpels and all kinds of brain surgery equipment and telling me, “OK, you’ve got the tools, and you’ve read about brains, so now go ahead and start operating.” Personally, I want the brain surgeon to do the operating. I’m not saying that detecting card alterations is as demanding as brain surgery, but I am saying there’s a lot to it, and I couldn’t possibly outline all the factors that are considered with all cards. There’s just too much information and knowledge that is put to work. And at the end of the day, on many cards, the market often says that the most important thing is whether the card is graded by one of the most respected grading services, and is encapsulated, regardless of what the card looks like. This is beginning to change, and it’s easy to see wildly varying prices on the same cards in the same grade, graded by the same company, because one card really is better than another card, even though they have the same grade.

Also, remember that for the most valuable cards, it’s pretty much standard to send them in for grading (encapsulating). But one of the contradictions about grading that is rarely pointed out is that for raw cards, all a buyer who gets cards graded wants is for the raw cards to be graded by the grading companies. If they grade, they’re happy. And there’s a presumption that if they are graded, they are unaltered. And for already graded cards, buyers naturally want cards to be accurately graded and to be unaltered.

But we’ve pointed out obviously altered encapsulated cards to collectors and what is surprising is that, so far, many just haven’t cared all that much. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to us. Yet cards that are graded by companies that are well known for encapsulating altered cards– and there are a couple with this reputation– their cards sell for a remarkable discount to the cards encapsulated by the most reputable companies. So the market obviously does care. Things are just evolving slowly. Right now the market is saying “Well, I know that some cards are obviously altered, or obviously overgraded, but since the brand of the grading company is strong, and most of their cards are accurately and properly graded, and their marketing is great, and no one else seems to care, I’ll give them a pass on my misgraded cards. I’ll pretend they’re fine.” But of course in the long run that’s just not going to cut the mustard, and it’s easy to see the market waking up to this issue.

Raw cards and graded cards are largely two different and very distinct markets with different rules. Many cards that are consigned are already encapsulated. This makes reviewing them for alterations much more difficult. It is much more common for us to be able to declare that in our opinion a card is overgraded, or to be able to point out specific flaws with a card that are present that might be inconsistent with a given encapsulated card’s assigned grade, than for us to be able to declare with certainty that an encapsulated card is definitely altered. There is no doubt that some encapsulated cards are altered. We have rejected many, but there’s just no doubt that we’ve auctioned many also.

The fact is that we do not guarantee that all cards are unaltered. Why? Because we can’t. But neither can anyone else. We all live in the same world. What we can guarantee is that Robert Edward Auctions does not alter any cards. Ever. This is really a pretty big deal to a lot of buyers and we can understand why. That’s why we make a point to identify many cards which we personally send in for grading and provide provenance information whenever we think it is appropriate. Collectors know that we don’t do anything to the cards. It’s no secret and it’s no accident that these cards often bring a premium.

With advertising pieces, restoration is usually not a big issue. Not only can we usually tell, but it’s also not a big deal with reference to value. More often than not, restoration on a display piece is an expensive process executed by a professional restoration company for a dedicated collector, who wanted the piece to look its best when hanging on the wall. When a collector like that sells, more often than not we find they actually make us aware of the restoration before we even see the item. Most true collectors of display items are OK with restoration if it enhances the display value of the item. They just want to know that it has been restored and be made aware of exactly what was done if this is possible. Who could argue with the reasonableness of that?

You wrote about a spike in the number of fake advertising pieces earlier this year. Why do you think it’s happening? Any idea what is being done to try and pass items off as "vintage" and are there certain items that show up more frequently? What should collectors look for to know a fake from the real thing?

REA: There are as many fake items being offered as ever but collectors are becoming aware of the problem, and that is a big step in the right direction. But there are always new collectors, and new victims for these scams. We’ve seen many fakes being manufactured, often with the use of computers, and sold as vintage. It’s incredible the lengths to which some of these forgers will go. Most of the reproduced items can be found in a book or auction catalog somewhere, and the forgers are making the reproductions from these illustrations. At times we’ve seen reproductions that we know have been made from fairly small book illustrations and have been blown them up to poster size. You wouldn’t think it’s possible but computers can do a lot of things these days.

We’ve also seen diecut standups, such as the Babe Ruth Kay Woody Pipe diecut advertising store display sign, and the 1941 H&B diecut store display of Joe DiMaggio reproduced. Both of those were actually reproduced from the 1999 Halper catalog. If you didn’t know what the originals look like, many collectors could be fooled, especially since standup easels have been added to the backs, making them appear to be store counter displays. The reproductions we have seen are about fifteen inches tall.

The originals of these two items are giant cardboard standup store display pieces with easel backs but are much larger than the reproductions, each standing well over twenty-five inches tall. So the originals are very different, but they are so rare, it’s not like collectors get to see them in person. Only a couple examples of each are even known to exist. The reproductions are made one at a time very carefully, and specifically to cheat collectors. I can see how they could fool someone. We’ve saved a few people from buying (and in one case from auctioning) the Kay Woody Ruth piece over the past couple years.

While there are always a few types of reproductions that are widely passed off as originals, such as Babe Ruth Candy wrappers and “Fan for a Fan” baseball fans, and even Babe Ruth rookie cards, the fact is that there are many items that crooks make and try to pass off. Even the most seasoned collector can sometimes be fooled, although when they actually get the “item,” they can often at that point be suspicious that something is not quite right.

We just got a very advanced collection in. Everything was vintage, very high quality, and really just great across the board. Except one item. It was an uncut partial sheet of 1920s strip cards that was in a large, thick plastic screwdown holder. I didn’t like the colors right away, and even in the holder I sensed that the edges were too smooth and the thickness was not right. It was strange to say, with this being one item among hundreds of outstanding items assembled by a true connoisseur, but as soon as saw it I immediately suspected that these strip cards were really some kind of modern Xerox. I called the consignor and told him about that piece before even opening the thick plastic holder to verify. I told him that my guess is that he bought this particular item on eBay. He wasn’t sure. When I opened it and was able to hold the sheet in my hand, it was painfully obvious this was a fake.

Practically every large collection we handle has a few fake items. It’s endless. Many of these items are “fantasy items,” meaning that there is no real item from which they are copied. These can be among the most dangerous, because all examples of a given fantasy item are the same. There’s no “real” example which is a little different. So we are constantly having to tell people that the “This pin certifies Babe Ruth shook my hand” metal pinback button, for example, or the “Never Forgotten Babe Ruth” pinback picturing Ruth holding three bats, are modern fantasy items. These are just a couple of examples. Pins, cards, advertising pieces, and autographs, these are all areas that have their problem items.

The best defense is doing a little homework, getting the opinion of other knowledgeable collectors if you think there might be a problem, and buying from a company or a person that you have confidence in. The problem is not getting better as far as the number of fake items being manufactured and offered, but collectors are becoming much more aware of the problem, and this greater awareness is starting to save them a lot of money.

Any idea of how many sports advertising pieces you rejected before your last auction because they were modern repros made to look old? How about restored or altered baseball cards?

REA: We’re pretty in tune with what’s real and what isn’t just from images and asking the right questions before we allow an item to be sent in, so as far as advertising pieces, this is not a big problem for us. We get calls all the time for items that we are able to determine with certainty are not real on the phone, or from scans. While we don’t actually have these items sent in to us, we do get them offered to us. It’s an almost everyday occurrence. We’re talking about hundreds of rejected fake items over the course of the year that, if they were real, would be worth a fortune.

Altered cards are a little trickier. It’s very difficult to be certain that an encapsulated card has been altered, and there can also be times when different people can have different opinions. Yet there are encapsulated cards that we reject, because we personally are not comfortable with them, and others that we reject because we are certain they are altered.

During the past year, for example, we have had two different examples of the famous T206 “Nodgrass” error card submitted for auction, each graded and encapsulated by a different company. On both of these cards I felt that I could say with certainty that they were altered, that the “S” had been removed to “transform” a common card into a rare T206 error worth thousands of dollars. On one card we were able to help the consignor get a refund from the grading company, who agreed with our assessment. The other example, which was purchased on eBay for $9,500, has just been sent back to the second grading company for review. We have no idea what their findings will be, they may have a different opinion than ours, but can only say that this particular card will not appear in an REA auction.

Sometimes these problem cards are the result of a learning curve from many years ago. The first fraudulent “Nodgrass” got graded, then the second, etc. Eventually the grading companies add to their knowledge, and adjust to deal with new types of alterations that previously didn’t exist. My guess is that both of those “Nodgrass” cards were graded long ago, and those same cards would not get graded by these same companies today. Mistakes happen. That comes with the territory and I’d encourage collectors not to overreact to an occasional grading error. The grading companies are not perfect and they don’t claim to be. Are there any problems? Is there room for improvement? Sure! But overall they do a pretty good job. That fact shouldn’t be lost.

It’s even rarer to find fake cards that have been encapsulated, because that is a very rare occurrence, but it has happened. Last auction, for example, we had a consignor send in the highest graded 1928 George Ruth Candy card. One problem. It was a fake. The card just wasn’t real. The grading company was great about it by the way. They couldn’t thank us enough for calling this to their attention, and they worked directly with the consignor to make him whole. You really couldn’t ask for more. There are other examples, and they have resulted in some very substantial refunds for consignors. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do but give them the bad news, but sometimes we’re able to help them also. Every case is a little different.