Collectors trust memorabilia authenticators and dealers to get it right.
It’s hung in the closet for years. Or packed away in a trunk. Maybe it came from someone who knew someone who knew someone else.
Skyrocketing prices for authentic jerseys and equipment in all sports have resulted in a demand from fans who want a piece of something used on the playing field. While pro leagues are now monitoring and in some cases, controlling the distribution of game used memorabilia, there is a tremendous amount of material from years past that has no league or team certification.
Pro sports memorabilia authentication was the topic of panel discussions at the recent Premier Collectible Conference in Chicago.
Mirroring the demands of a post-Operation Bullpen autograph world, the strong and sustained interest of game worn and equipment collectors has put pressure on auction companies to find a third party to put a stamp of approval on virtually everything they sell.
Milwaukee-based Memorabilia Evaluation and Research Services (MEARS) provides detailed investigative work, utilizing a variety of authentication methods before offering an opinion on whether an item is genuine. The widely respected company had been doing work for several auction firms until it recently demanded compliance with a set of strict guidelines and demanded audits of company bidding records. Only New Jersey-based Robert Edward Auctions chose to remain under contract.
The void has left the auctioneers to go in other directions. Some auction catalog descriptions now include only a reference to an "auction house letter of authenticity" but Huggins & Scott Auctions’ President Bill Huggins stated that "most people want a letter from a third party saying that ‘this item is as it’s represented’."
Several large auction companies use the services of Lou Lampson for authentication work. A long-time collector who has taken his share of online shots from some members of the game worn community and at least one other major auction house, Lampson is not lacking for work. His name appears beside hundreds of items in auction catalogs each year. Lampson admitted he authenticates a huge quantity of items–often in a short period of time.
"One of the biggest limitations I have is that when you look at 300 or 400 pieces over the course of three or four days, you’re rushing," he said. "Time is money. I’m not saying it should be that way but you just have to do the best you can under the time constraints."
Even working eighteen hours per day for four days would indicate that under such a scenario, each item is being authenticated in approximately 15 minutes.
"I couldn’t do it," said Hunt later. "Not without making a mistake or leaving a gap where there could be a mistake."
While Hunt does utilize some third party services, the company does much of its own verification and prefers to deal with items sourced directly from the sports figures or their families.
"Provenance is really underrated," he said. "The key for us is to be knowledgeable about what we’re selling and not rely on others to tell us what it is and what it isn’t," said Hunt. "The more important thing is when you are wrong, how do you deal with it? How do you learn from it? And you have to stand behind what you sell."
Lampson told the panel he is careful when dealing with players from the 1960s and 70s who want to sell their items because memories fade with time. "They have items they’re sure are game worn but more often than not it’s from a (team) reunion or wasn’t actually worn in a game."
He also believes that while collectors may want to believe that jersey styles and other equipment are always consistent, his research shows that isn’t accurate.
"In the early and mid-1960s, if you look at a Bears-Packers game, you’ll see two or three different font styles and jersey cuts worn. The number sizes have different placements and heights."
Dave Bushing, who recently stepped down as an authenticator for MEARS to focus on buying and selling for the company, said one problem with modern era uniforms is the sheer numbers of jerseys which have entered the memorabilia market. Some are real, but others are replica shirts and the addition of artificial wear such as dirt or grass stains and machine washing can make them appear to show game use. It’s a scheme that can fool even sharp eyes.
The authenicators all say they try to limit mistakes and are continually learning.
"I can’t think of one we got totally wrong," Bushing said of the authentication work he’s provided for employers. "You might miss an arm patch or number change or removal. I think over the years, I’ve looked at about 8,000 pieces and about six or seven times we’ve had to re-address something."
"I have no problem defending the authenticators," Hunt said. "Many times they’re crucified for missing a clubhouse signature on a baseball. Of course, that’s the one you hear about. You don’t hear about the twenty (non-authentic items) that were caught before they made it to the marketplace."
Vintage material, solidly sourced and photo matched if possible would seem to be a safe bet. It’s usually more difficult to pass a vintage item as authentic than something from the modern era partly because fewer such pieces are available with limited options available to those attempting to duplicate such an item. Prices may make it more tempting to take a chance on a modern piece of pro sports memorabilia, but sourcing becomes vital when copycat pieces may be involved.
"You could build a log cabin out of Reggie Jackson Adirondack bats," Bushing joked. "As a collector, I’d rather have one really good piece than ten that might be junk."