Memorabilia and Autographs — a how to guide on avoiding fakes, forgeries and counterfeits
You, as a novice, are looking to buy a LeBron James autographed photo for a friend, relative, son/daughter — or even yourself. You go online, began looking for photos autographed by LeBron and see two that immediately interest you. Right now, they just appear to be two photos signed by LeBron that you’ll choose between — but they’re very likely to be completely different.
The first photo you examined comes from when LeBron James walked into an office where he was contracted to sign two hundred photos for a memorabilia company, which he happily did. The second photo is from the other side of the country. Joe Schmoe is at home where he prints out a photo of LeBron James, looks up LeBron’s autograph online, grabs a marker and does his best at replicating it on the photo. The memorabilia company puts their authentically autographed photos up for sale online and Mr. Schmoe, proud of his work, decides to do the same. Now, as a novice, you are unknowingly deciding between an authentic item and a forgery — how can you make the right choice?
Unfortunately, this is the all too real problem that is harming the memorabilia industry. The ability to fraudulently create items without much difficulty and ease of access to marketplaces, that have little to no safeguards in place, has resulted in a proliferation of counterfeit items and forgeries. Once the realization of deceit occurs, victims are typically left with little recourse in dealing with the problem.
However, there are steps that can be taken, from a novice level, that can help safeguard buyers of memorabilia from falling victim to counterfeits and forgeries. The objective of this “guide” is to do just that, with the hope that the memorabilia buying experience improves for all buyers and fraud in the industry begins to disappear.
Step One: Set Aside Time
It is my recommendation that if you are considering purchasing memorabilia as a quick gift with no knowledge of the industry, it is better to go with a different type of gift. Buying memorabilia on a whim is likely to result in disappointment once the item is discovered to be fake. Although there are no official or researched numbers on what percentage of memorabilia in the open market is fake (numbers anywhere from 5% to 90% for different types of memorabilia are loosely thrown around with little backing) you must treat every purchase with the knowledge that a forgery or counterfeit is a very real possibility.
As a result, investing some time into researching the item you are after is crucial. If you plan on this being more of a one-time purchase, rather than a collecting hobby that you may get into, I recommend that you focus on researching about sourcing for the item that you are interested in. In some cases, determining the source of authentic memorabilia is rather easy. From our initial LeBron James example, an online search of “LeBron James autograph contract” quickly makes it clear that LeBron already has an agreement in place with Upper Deck (www.upperdeckstore.com) to be the official supplier of his autographs.
Determining sourcing for authentic memorabilia is typically not this easy, especially when it comes to dealing with more obscure items. Another solution is to determine sources such as established marketplaces and auction houses that deal in the same field of items and have widely held positive reputations with the public. Diligently keeping an eye on their postings may just result in you finding what you are after. Marketplaces that allow anyone to post items without any screening act as havens for peddlers of forgeries and counterfeits, and should be avoided.
If there is no luck in finding the item of interest from any of these previous tips, then I recommend that the search for the item is suspended/abandoned or steps be made towards becoming more knowledgeable about the hobby and how to carefully source from private hands.
Step Two: Joining Communities
The easiest way to learn about the memorabilia hobby and the authentication process is through the knowledge of others. As a result, I highly recommend that when wanting to become more involved in the hobby, all collectors join communities that focus on items that appeal to them. These communities are always home to knowledgeable collectors that are likely to have experienced the initial learning curve that you are going through. Although niche groups (particularly on resources such as Facebook) do exist for specific item types such as collectors of a specific band or sports team, more general communities can be found that have members with skills and experience that are more wide ranging. From personal experience, I can recommend the following as being great communities of collectors that have shared goals of maintaining positivity in the memorabilia hobby:
Live.AutographMagazine.com (all autographs)
www.Net54Baseball.com (focusing on sports cards and primarily sports autographs)
www.BlowoutForums.com (focusing on sports cards)
www.Community.CBR.com (comic books)
www.GameUsedUniverse.com (game worn/used sports items)
Real Autograph Collectors Club [Facebook] (primarily modern entertainment autographs)
Star Wars Autograph Universe [Facebook] (primarily Star Wars autographs)
As with any introduction, being polite and straightforward with intentions helps create understanding from the beginning. Please remember that these are passionate members of the hobby who have knowledge on par or exceeding that of professionals in the hobby, but are likely not being paid for it. The communities should be viewed as introductory resources to provide you with the initial knowledge you may need to begin making your own decisions and should not be abused to the point that they are continually making decisions for you.
Step Three: Learning Indicators
Once involved and active in the communities, you will begin learning indicators on how to avoid fraud in the memorabilia industry. As bureaucratic as it may sound, the memorabilia hobby should be viewed first and foremost as an industry with members whose primary goal is profit making. In a general transaction, practicing caution and skepticism towards items will only help deter the possibility of you being a victim of fraud. The following are indicators that you can expect to learn and use throughout your time in the hobby. However, it should be noted that simply knowing of them is not enough — years of practice and research in the hobby is necessary to fully begin understanding and avoiding fraud, and even then, new schemes will appear that you will need to study and understand.
The first indicator is looking at the item itself. Over time, you will develop knowledge on what characteristics to seek in an item to determine its authenticity. For example, you will begin looking at aspects of an autograph such as the flow, size, slant and pressure among other things — and you will pick up on little tricks such as the “M” in Michael Jordan’s autograph spelling out the number 23. To provide yourself with a proper basis to work from, you will need to compile a grouping of unquestionably authentic items to compare to. Unfortunately, learning and mastering this will take time and will not come overnight. Developing an eye for these tendencies is difficult but, in my opinion, is the best tool to develop to become an expert on specific items.
However, there are more basic item indicators you can look for when trying to determine authenticity. Although not a foolproof strategy, looking at the type of item is often a good area to scrutinize when suspicious. Most fraudsters will choose to put out items that have the least cost of initial investment to them. For example, on the autograph side of the memorabilia industry, fraudsters will typically forge autographs on things such index cards, photos and cards. These are items can be purchased for less than a dollar, resulting in little loss and investment for the fraudster if things go bad. Now, I’m not saying that all, or even much of these item types are not authentic, just that they should be approached with increased caution. A fraudster is unlikely to purchase a $1,000 vintage concert poster to forge a signature on, it just doesn’t make much financial sense.
Another indicator to look for are the characteristics of an item. Looking at the autograph side again, if you are in search of an 1910s-letter signed by Woodrow Wilson, you should expect paper with the correct aging and a signature done in fountain pen. Seeing an item offered as a Woodrow Wilson signed letter that consists of a bright white sheet of paper with a felt tip pen signature should immediately tell you all that you need to know about the authenticity of the item.
The old saying of “if it’s too good to be true, it likely is” should be the motto of the memorabilia hobby. Although there are deals to be found for the experienced collector and the lucky few, a low price typically correlates with questionable authenticity. Having been involved in the hobby for quite some time now, I can say without hesitation that items typically command a price close to their value. There is still a viable business to be made from purchasing an item that typically hovers around $1,000 for $800 and selling it for $1,100, but purchasing it for $100 is very unlikely to happen. Society, in terms of product offerings, has become so transparent and easy to follow that dedicated collectors will surely be able to spot a desirable item and attempt to buy it so quickly that you may not even know it was ever offered. Items that are sitting on marketplaces for $100 when an authentic comparable is known to sell for hundreds or thousands more should be a clear indicator of what the general collecting community thinks of the authenticity — if the consensus were that an underpriced item on a popular platform was authentic, it would be purchased rather quickly.
On the opposite side of this thinking, consider the fraudster’s intentions — they are looking to make the most money from their scam. As a result, you should be wary about items that are typically always in demand or are experiencing heightened popularity. For example, since the release of Bohemian Rhapsody in late 2018, a plethora of Queen and Freddie Mercury forged signatures have been released into the market to try to meet the demand of collectors and fans. As a Queen fan myself, it is sad to see dozens of alleged Freddie Mercury autographs being sold for $100, when I have numerous customers willing to pay over $1,000 for a quality Freddie Mercury autograph at a moment’s notice.
The final indicator that will be covered is the seller. Please note that this will not cover companies such as Fanatics, Panini and Upper Deck who have solidified reputations as sellers of authentic memorabilia through agreements with celebrities and a history of typically selling items that come directly from the celebrity. In terms of private sellers however, there are three different types that you are likely to encounter when searching for memorabilia:
The One-Off seller is likely to know little to nothing about memorabilia and has a random item that they are looking to sell (an item may be handed down to them or randomly obtained, among other possibilities). As a result, there are likely no signs to spot about their sales history or reputation to help with authenticity. Because of this, you will need to employ the previously mentioned indicators to help put together an opinion on authenticity.
The Casual/Collector seller is not a full-time seller, but is likely looking to move something out of their collection to obtain funds for something else or they are looking to get out of the hobby entirely. When looking at this seller’s offerings, you should typically see a theme where a specific genre, sport or person is the focus of the items they are selling. The best thing you can do with this type of seller, in addition to the indicators previously mentioned, is ask questions. What is the history of the item? Did you obtain it yourself or did you buy it from someone? If the latter, from who? Asking more questions should help you get a better understanding of the background of the item. If the background told by the seller starts having holes, then you should start being skeptical. By no means however should a good background story sell you on an item, it should only help. The item should sell itself based on its authenticity and desirability, but a background can help.
For example, you may be interested in a Big Bang Theory cast signed poster and see one available from a seller with a few TV show items listed. You first analyze the signatures and the item itself, feeling comfortable so far with what you see. The price is in around what you expected to pay, so you reach out to the seller to ask how the item was obtained. In this instance, they tell you that they themselves obtained the poster at San Diego Comic Con. Now, you go online to research and in fact, the cast of the Big Bang Theory did attend the San Diego Comic Con and did sign posters for a group of lucky fans. You also notice that the lucky fans were awarded wristbands to attend the signing — ask the seller about that. Confirmation of such details is crucial but again, I stress that the background should be secondary to the item itself. It would be very easy for a fraudster to look up this information themselves and add it to the listing of their forgery to fool unsuspecting buyers.
Finally, we come to the category of seller that I fall under: Dealer. The telltale sign of a dealer is a large wide ranging inventory. We do our best to provide as many options as possible to have as many customers as possible. Although there are dealers with specializations, you are still likely to find that most dealers have offerings that span several item types, genres and interests. In addition to the recommended practices outlined in the previous seller types, the best course of action to take when working with dealers is to do a deep dive on their history and reputation. A respecter dealer who has been in business for some time will have already developed a reputation from the memorabilia community by the time you are considering buying something from them. As a result, take some time and look them up — is there anything posted up them and their business? Go to the memorabilia communities that you should be a part of by now and ask other collectors what their feelings toward a specific dealer may be. This should all be information that you consider prior to a purchase.
As a final disclosure on sellers, I would like to add that all three types of sellers are prone to making an honest mistake. Even the most knowledgeable seller may be fooled by an item that they believe to be authentic and offer for sale. They should not be condemned for a few errors if they are willing to accept responsibility and make it right with the affected parties.
A big question that now may be asked is: what about authentication (often when talking about autographs)? That is a topic completely deserving of its own article, which can be found here. Please be sure to also read through that article to gain a deeper understanding of how to protect yourself in this hobby.
I hope this basic guide has served as a good overview on how to operate within a great hobby. As frustrating as having to deal with fraud is, the hobby continues to maintain a large group of passionate collectors that have created communities focusing on things that they love. By practicing patience and committing to learn and understand the fundamentals, the memorabilia hobby can become a source of fun for you as well.
Mike Kaminski is the founder of the Authentic Memorabilia Company, which has quickly become one of Canada’s largest providers of authentic sports, entertainment and historical memorabilia. In addition to the retail side of memorabilia, Mike hopes to use his experience in the industry to educate newcomers and help solve existing problems that collectors face. Visit www.authenticmemorabiliacompany.com to check out the Authentic Memorabilia Company’s latest offerings and to get in touch.