I recently ran into a familiar hobby name here in Dallas. If you’re an avid autograph collector or a hobby business person you’ve probably heard of James Spence Authentication. What many people don't know is that he has actually been active in the hobby for more than 30 years. I remember him always walking around the major New York area shows back int he 1980's and asking a lot of questions as he chatted with dealers and others involved in the industry/hobby.
When I was talking to Jimmy a couple of weeks ago, my mind drifted back to another man I met circa 1989 who was working on creating a company to sit next to a player after they signed any autograph at a show and provide on the spot documentation that the autograph was real. In 1989 I thought it was kind of a silly idea. Heck, since you bought an autograph at a show and had your ticket and maybe a photo to boot, wouldn’t it be obvious the autograph was good? Can you imagine 25 years later what a major part of the autograph show circuit that old concept has become? And I wish I remembered that man's name because he was so far ahead of his time.
I will say even in 1989 when Jimmy was in his first few years of being an active collector/dealer, even he would never have thought such a venture was possible.
He said his memories of his early days in the hobby revolved around going to sports card stores in Bogota and Cliffside Park and absorbing all he could. Eventually he evolved into autograph collecting and dealing and we would always chat whenever we ran into each other at a show. As he got more into the autograph world, he realized the world was truly a "wild, wild west" for collectors and dealers.
I remember at a major Dallas area show circa 1995, Brian Gray (now running Leaf Trading Cards) once challenged me to see which dealers at a show were selling mostly good items and which ones were mostly fake. I actually got his challenge correct and he asked how I knew without really knowing autographs. My answer was, well if you had a table with a mix of Troy Aikman, Nate Newton and Bill Bates autographs the odds were better than if the only autographed items a dealer was selling were from the likes of Emmitt Smith and Michael Jordan. If that was going on in Dallas, can you imagine what was happening at the bigger shows in the northeast or in Chicago where there were more collectors per capita?
Jimmy also would say he always felt more comfortable as a buyer when people who specialized in 1920's-30 Yankees items not only had Ruth and Gehrig but also a decent amount of autographs of people such as Tommy Henrich, Mark Koenig or other players who lived longer and signed a great deal of items.
There were few experts actually trying to authenticate autographs back then. No checks and balances; just a lot of misplaced trust. Autograph authentication may still be an inexact science and always will be. Mistakes are most certainly made,but I don’t think anyone would argue that overall, it’s a better situation than it once was.
Spence mentioned the first major auction house who used his autograph authentication service was Mastronet and he insisted before he began that he found any bad signatures those signatures would be returned. He said for whatever many in the hobby may think of Mastro, he always appreciated that Mastro was the first major auction house to use his services and not to interfere if he (Spence) thought an item was not good.
This came right about the time when he was also involved in the Barry Halper auction. The auction had the item which to him had the biggest "wow" factor: an 1894 hotel ledger with signatures of all the major leaguers, likely a one-of-a-kind item. He thought the $100K it went for was in reality a bargain because of all the early HOF signatures and other rare autographs in that book.
Spence is now the sole owner of JSA. He travels about once a month and even has branched out with his son James Spence III running a division in Florida. One never knows where the hobby will take us.