Arguably the biggest piece of hobby news this week surrounded the discovery of some T206 forgeries. In case it’s somehow eluded you, after weeding out a bad Rube Marquard autographed card, members on the Net54 vintage card forum uncovered a string of additional T206 cards that have been proven to be fakes. To date, more than a dozen have been found. Discoveries have included cards featuring Hall of Famers Elmer Flick, Home Baker, and Marquard.
Fake autographs might not typically cause this kind of uproar. After all, you can find them littered all over eBay at any given moment under the guise of ‘unknown authenticity’ and the like. However, the key here is that these cards were authenticated by well-known companies. Worse, they were discovered in a very short amount of time without too much effort. That has called into question how much background work is performed on such items. In under a week, the pre-war autograph market has gone from undeniably red hot to potentially requiring a pacemaker.
That is not to suggest the autograph hobby won’t survive. It will. If you have doubts about that, I point you in the direction of Operation Bullpen. That FBI operation involved more than 60 charges and convictions, as well as millions of dollars in forgeries. Despite that, the autograph market survived and grew to be even larger than it previously was. As recently as a week ago, common T206 autographs routinely fetched more than $1,000.
The simple fact is that collectors can’t get enough of autographs. After this bump in the road, pre-war autographs will continue to be bought and traded. However, what kind of prices they will command, at least in the short term, is entirely up in the air. But while the future of these types of early autographs is a bit murky, there are a few takeaways here.
What does it mean?
For one thing, I expect collectors to be more proactive in terms of performing their own due diligence. If we’re being honest with ourselves, that’s a good thing. As the Net54 T206 forgeries case proved, even those not in the authentication line of work can decrease the likelihood they are swindled by researching the internet to look for examples of particular cards as a point of comparison. If you find an unsigned T206 card from an auction ten years ago, you can easily determine that it couldn’t have been legitimately signed since then. T206 is a tricky issue simply because there are hundreds of examples of most cards that have been bought and sold. But careless forgers can still be caught by researching past auction sales and a thorough internet search. Sites like Worthpoint, Terapeak and PWCC’s free Marketplace Research tool are invaluable. Since most pre-War cards show wear, comparisons are easier to make.
Second, it’s possible we’ll see fewer pre-war autographs out there. This one is a little tougher to predict, of course. While some discovered will be off the market, others will be found (or at least, purportedly found). I also expect that we will see some that were once ‘untouchables’ in a private collection will suddenly become available due to the numerous questions out there. But my primary basis for suggesting we might see fewer of these is because a great many appear in auction houses.
Auction companies that previously had little reason to doubt the likes of the well-known authenticators may become more skeptical. Questions will be asked. Follow-ups will come. More follow-ups will come. Most people aren’t blaming the auction houses for selling these “authenticated” T206 cards. However, I suspect on items like this, they will be expected to do more in the future than simply go along with whatever an authenticator says.
Next, don’t believe that we’re going to have a conclusion to this mess anytime soon. When a particular forger is caught, even if he/she is able to present a clear list of what was forged, additional scrutiny of other autos will follow. The emphasis has been on T206 forgeries simply because the T206 set is so popular. But Goudeys, Play Balls, and others will be checked and, my overwhelming hunch is that more will be found. Perhaps even a lot more. One person may be responsible for several of these particular forgeries. But they’re certainly not the only one that has done this. The buyer of the original T206 cards that wound up carrying fake autographs is from the same area of Ohio where one of the largest autograph scams in eBay history was recently taken down. Even without knowing any more than that at this point, it’s disturbing.
Fourth, don’t believe for one second that even a conviction will mean the end of the forgery business. Those selling fake autographs can build a lucrative business and as long as autographs hold value, that isn’t changing. Instead, however, forgers will have to do what they’ve always done. Evolve. Instead of buying cards with easily traceable images online, I would expect they will try to find cards with less of a digital footprint — think finding raw cards at card shows or flea markets.
Finally, and as I recently wrote, even the ‘good’ autographs out there are going to take a hit because collectors will be skeptical of any pre-war autograph. Again, you can thank these T206 forgeries for that. Collectors with legitimate autographs will need to be armed with more than a certificate or letter of authenticity. Strong provenance is going to be required to justify most buyers being willing to spend thousands of dollars on an autograph.
The long-term picture for pre-war autographs is still sort of unknown. But there is no doubt that the game for collecting these types of signatures has changed.