Memorabilia and Autographs — the authentication game

Mike Kaminski
Aug 4, 2019 · 7 min read

A certificate of authenticity is only as good as the entity that backs it up.

If you’re buying memorabilia, particularly autographed memorabilia, that should be your mantra.

Hummm… A certificate of authenticity is only as good as the entity that backs it up.

Hummm… A certificate of authenticity is only as good as the entity that backs it up.

You get the point.

This article will serve as a resource on the basics of authentication in the memorabilia industry with a focus on authentication for autographed pieces.

As a dealer, I often list an item and get asked, “does this come with a certificate of authenticity (COA) or letter of authenticity (LOA)?” The question is completely valid, but I’m quite certain that the understanding behind why a person is asking that question is often flawed. There is a notion in the memorabilia hobby that an item must be accompanied with a COA or LOA — if it does not, its fake. Unfortunately, this thinking is no longer valid in an industry that has been so overrun with fraudsters who will take any opportunity to help legitimize a forged or counterfeit item. As a result, the inclusion of a COA or LOA has become a tactic for fraudsters to scam unsuspecting buyers. Take for example the following COA that I found on eBay for a Nirvana band signed poster:

Certificate of Authenticity (COA) used to sell a Nirvana band signed poster on eBay

For some people, this would act as proof that the autograph they purchased was authentic — but, why should it? What does this COA tell you that instills any confidence into the authenticity of the item? Going through the COA quickly, we do not see any name listed that ties it back to a specific person guaranteeing the authenticity. There is no contact information with which to reach out to with any concerns or inquiries about the item. A corporate lookup of the “Collector’s Choice” name brings up four businesses in four different states, all of which appear to no longer be in business. What good could this piece of paper possibly do you? If you could prove that the poster allegedly signed by Nirvana was produced after 1994 (the year of Kurt Cobain’s death), who would you go to for compensation?

As you can probably tell, I get frustrated when the issue of COAs and LOAs comes up, but I’m hoping this article provides a better understanding on what you should expect and even demand when it comes to COAs and LOAs.

To begin, you must understand that there are different types of COAs and LOAs in the memorabilia industry that are issued by varying types of organizations and with different assurances behind them. Although there are no industry terms to differentiate them, I will define them as follows:

1. First Party

a. Direct

b. Indirect

2. Third Party

a. General

b. Specialists

c. Dealer

A First Party COA/LOA is issued by what I consider to be the actual person/entity that the memorabilia originate from (direct), or an organization that the person/entity have partnered with to distribute their memorabilia (indirect). For example, athletes often sell off the collection (autographs, uniforms, trophies, etc.) they accumulate at the time of their retirement and provide a signed COA/LOA stating that the item came from their collection — I consider this a direct first party COA/LOA. On the other hand, an athlete may choose to hand over items to a memorabilia company to sell on their behalf, or they may sign an autograph contract where they get paid X amount to sign X items that a memorabilia company will sell. Because of the relationship with the celebrity, but because there is still an intermediary between the celebrity and the buyer, I consider this an indirect first party COA/LOA. In terms of purchasing authentic items, I believe items with verifiable first party COAs to be the safest type of purchase. There is an established relationship here with proof that a celebrity sold or partnered with to sell authentic items from them. In the past year, athletes such as Kareem Abdul Jabaar and Brett Hull have sold their collections and provided signed LOAs with items. Celebrities such as Robert Englund offer the ability to purchase autographs directly from them on their website. Memorabilia companies that have a good reputation of representing the sale of celebrities’ collections or have agreements in place to sell signatures include: Fanatics, Steiner Sports, Upper Deck, Tristar and Panini.

Unfortunately, not every autograph or piece of memorabilia is able to come from these sources. Celebrities such as Kurt Cobain, Wilt Chamberlain and Lionel Messi never sold off their personal collections and celebrities such as Babe Ruth, Jennifer Lawrence and Beyoncé never agreed to any autograph contracts with a memorabilia company. The autographs and memorabilia from these celebrities typically were sourced through private hands close to the celebrity, fans or professional autograph seekers (“hounds”) — but how can you be sure they were authentic?

That’s where organizations that issue third party COAs/LOAs come into play. A Third Party COA/LOA is what I consider to be a COA/LOA that is issued by an organization that is in the business of authenticating or selling memorabilia and whose COA/LOA acts as an opinion on the authenticity of the item. Note the bolded part which is crucial — COAs/LOAs from these organizations should be treated as respect towards their ability to identify and opine on authentic memorabilia rather than full-fledged guarantees on the authenticity on an item that you should expect with a First Party COA/LOA.

These Third Party organizations are important as they help serve as experienced professionals on memorabilia that never came with First Party provenance. Within the Third Party grouping, I have further segmented them into different types of organizations. General authenticators are organizations that typically employ a larger group of people that collectively bring experience on a wide-ranging set of item types, genres, and interests. Items are sent to them by hobbyists and opinions on authenticity are rendered at a cost. Recognized organizations within this space include Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA — cards, autographs and other), Sportscard Guaranty (SGC — cards and previously autographs), Beckett (cards), Beckett Authentication Services (BAS — autographs), James Spence Authentication (JSA — autographs) and MEARS (Game Used Sports Items).

In addition to these organizations, you can find Specialists who typically focus on a small segment of memorabilia or even a specific celebrity. Due to their concentrated expertise, they are often noted as being the most trustworthy of experts for a specific type of item. They are typically available to review items at a cost just like General authenticators and issue COAs/LOAs detailing their opinions. Specialists include Phil Sears (Walt Disney autographs), Rich Consola (Elvis Presley autographs), John Taube (Game Used Baseball Items), Perry Cox (Beatles and Beach Boys), Roger Epperson (Music) and AutographCOA (Modern Entertainment).

Finally, we come to the Dealers. These are members of the industry who trade memorabilia through obtaining inventory from various sources. In some cases, Dealers choose to partner with General authenticators to authenticate the items they obtain prior to selling them, but many still choose to issue their own COAs/LOAs.

In comparison to General authenticators and Specialists, dealers are more likely to provide greater guarantees regarding the authenticity of their items. However, the assurances from organizations issuing third party COAs/LOAs vary and should always be considered prior to making a purchase. As a dealer myself, I issue holograms on items and LOAs with the purpose of identifying those items as falling under my authenticity guarantee. The full details on my authenticity guarantee can be found here, but to summarize, I offer a full refund of the purchase price of any item sold by me if it fails to pass the authentication service of any General or Specialist authenticator that I recognize.

Unfortunately, the issue still stands; how can I properly identify a meaningful COA/LOA when there are many more than the ones I have mentioned briefly? The problem of low barrier to entry makes it very easy for a fraudster to begin producing forgeries and counterfeits while simultaneously setting up a fraudulent authentication service to provide the illusion of authenticity. Just like with the steps I outlined in avoiding forged and counterfeit hobby items here, similar steps should be taken to weed out fraudulent authenticators. Taking time to research, joining communities and understanding indicators are key, and in my opinion there two key factors to look at when trying to determine the legitimacy of an authenticator: reputation and price.

Although reputation and price are related in this instance, a hobbyist should spend time considering the reputation of a specific authenticator if they have authenticated an item that they interested in. Online resources, communities and speaking to the organization itself are all steps that should be taking to gain a better understanding of how their opinions are valued in the memorabilia industry. Do keep in mind that many these authenticators have made mistakes (in some cases egregious) and they are likely to surface in your research as complaints. Although discouraging to see, these organizations are still some of the better resources to use in an industry riddled with fraud. In relation to reputation, when looking at prices reached for items, organizations whose COAs/LOAs are widely respected should command higher prices compared to items with no authentication or from unrecognized authentication organizations.

Finally, be alert — the industry is suffering from a problem where COAs and LOAs from reputable organizations are being forged and placed alongside forged and counterfeit items. The best way to counteract this problem is to reach out to the issuing organization and determine whether the COA and LOA on the item that you are interested in did in fact come from them.

I hope this article was helpful in providing a basic overview of the authentication landscape in the memorabilia industry. As always, being confident in your own abilities to make good purchases is key in the memorabilia hobby, but the additional presence of authentication can be great at ensuring peace of mind.

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.

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