A hand-held computer, a radio antenna and a special tag could answer your question about the authenticity of an autograph or game-used jersey.
Industry insiders and disappointed collectors may be ready to call for Operation Bullpen, Part II. Except this time, there is no guarantee the FBI can or will get involved.
A thorough search of the market can often reveal a large number of replica or fake pieces of sports memorabilia for sale or auction. The advent of eBay and other on-line selling platforms, together with an insatiable market, have made it easy to pass goods on to unsuspecting consumers, some of whom may never discover their items stand out like a bad toupee.
"As the industry has exploded, it has created a higher economic incentive for ‘grey goods’ to get into the marketplace," explained Craig Noonan, Chief Marketing Officer for Irving, Texas-based Prova, an authentication company. "Technology and expanded distribution channels have made production of counterfeit goods both easy to do and hard for consumers to identify."
Collectors or fans who buy an item may not only be getting a fake, but a fake seal of approval.
"Thanks to the powerful computing and printing technology now available, sports counterfeiting has become something of an art form," according to David Wyld, Contributing Editor for the SecureID newsletter. "In fact, the majority of fake or replica sports memorabilia distributed across the United States can be traced to a finite number of counterfeiters. However, these rogue operations supply an enormous amount of high-quality fake memorabilia. Fakes are often sold to large-scale distributors, who then supply the items – knowingly and unknowingly – to major retail outlets, other smaller distributors, or directly to the public. These distributors – and ultimately the variety of retail outlets – are cognizant of the “fuzziness” of their supply chain."
Prova, spearheaded originally by former Dallas Cowboys’ running back Emmitt Smith, is attempting to carve a major niche in the authentication business by improving the technology used in authentication procedures. Smith’s involvement not only provided the start-up company with needed capital, but links to star athletes and teams in the NFL and other professional leagues.
Keeping up with the counterfeiters, though, is a challenge.
"Ten years ago, holograms were considered to represent authenticity because they were very difficult to produce and/or copy," Noonan told SportsCollectorsDaily.com. "As technology has progressed and high quality, digital printing has become ubiquitous and cheap, holograms can be produced and applied to grey goods without any way for the consumer/collector to validate the authenticity of the hologram itself, much less the item it is applied to."
Prova uses RFID or ‘Radio Frequency Identification’ to label signed products as the real deal. The Prova system works by having a tamper-proof RFID tag applied directly on the surface of the collectible to be autographed by an athlete. Marked with the Prova logo and a printed number unique to the item, the tags contain a Texas Instruments microchip and an antenna to facilitate activation and communication.
Then, at the point of signing, the item (a ball, a jersey, a helmet, etc.) is placed within 12 inches of an antenna set up near the athlete’s hand. The Prova system records the exact time of the signature. The autographer’s secure identification code is written to the tag, recording who signed as well as when and where the signature occurred. The data is then recorded in Prova’s online registry. The cost for the identification is $10.
By accessing the item in Prova’s database via the Internet, the collector can access an item’s history and view an undeniable “chain of custody” from the creation of the autographed item to any future buyer.
"We currently only authenticate items we witness," Noonan said. "However, we are in the process of developing two new programs: A ‘licensee program’ to distribute our technology and processes to give the Prova platform broader reach in the marketplace, and secondly, a separate program that will tag "existing" collectible items designed to track history, provide market value, and record third party evaluation and ownership comments."
Prova is attempting to forge agreements with pro sports teams to authenticate and tag game-worn jerseys as well. The system will actually track the time at which the uniform is logged in and out for use in each game. Thus far, Prova has deals in place with the Cowboys and St. Louis Rams. "We give you a way to track an item’s ownership history similar to a title search on a house," Noonan said. "We’re protecting authenticity from generation to generation.”
Prova has used its technology at sports card and memorabilia shows and will provide autograph authentication for the over 60 athletes signing at the upcoming Triumph Sports Show in New Jersey May 4-6.
"Shows creat visibility, customer enthusiasm and market acceptance," Noonan said. "However, we are also working with memorabilia companies to standardize on our technology, processes, and tags to create an industry standard for both authentication and a platform for accessing information for collectors."
"Collecting has always been a ‘buyer beware’ marketplace. Therefore, the more points of verification that can be substantiated, both physical and historical, the higher the probability the item is authentic, and the higher the value an item can command. At the end of the day, information is power."
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