The Certificate of Authenticity Misconception

The most frequent question potential customers ask me is, “Does it come with a certificate of authenticity (COA)?” or some variation. The simple answer is, of course, “yes” and that’s good enough most of the time. But I wish I could tell every one of these people, “You are asking the wrong question” and then explain why.

I’ve been providing the same COA, more or less, for 6 or 7 years. It’s not fancy, it’s not ugly, it does the job. Last month I briefly considered upgrading the COA to make it more attractive and colorful. I ultimately decided against it mainly because I can’t remember the last time a customer complained about it — so if it isn’t broken, why fix it? I also was reluctant to invest more time and energy on an area of the autograph business that is already massively overrated, overemphasized, over-EVERYTHING.

Potential customers are rightly concerned about buying a fake autograph. They believe that receiving a certificate of authenticity is their best defense. Unfortunately, the countless fraudsters selling fake autographs are aware of this common misconception, and make sure their COA looks nice . . . to go along with the bogus autograph they’re selling. Any criminal who knowingly sells fake autographs is not going to be deterred by having to include a COA.

Yes, the state of California passed Civil Code Section 1739.7 way back in the 1990s, before I even started AutographsForSale.com. The law’s intentions were good, but of course, the COA was the main point of emphasis. In my opinion, the law has had little or no effect on reducing the number of fake autographs on the market. eBay initially tried to attack the problem in the same manner, by requiring autograph sellers to state who issued the COA in their item descriptions. This also failed to do much of anything, and to eBay’s credit, their current autograph policy now states that COAs are “only as valuable as the reputation of the issuing party.”

And that’s the point right there. Potential customers should not be asking whether or not the autographed item comes with a COA. They can ask me or any legitimate or fraudulent autograph dealer the same question and the answer will almost always be “YES.”

Potential customers should be asking about the background, business practices, experience, history and reputation of the seller. I am happy to discuss all of these issues with anyone who calls or e-mails me. In fact, I enjoy it, because then I know I am talking to an educated buyer — not to mention, I enjoy talking about the autograph business and educating people about it. Unfortunately, that happens only rarely. Instead, due to the COA misconception, I get asked the same old question, over and over again.

How to Properly Display and Care for Your Autographs

In my business, there are few things sadder than seeing a valuable autographed item that’s been ruined by being displayed or stored improperly. I know, because I’ve damaged a few myself.

By far, the biggest threat to an autograph is ultraviolet light (UV). Sunlight and fluorescent lights both emit UV. You can’t see UV but you can certainly see what it does. Have you ever seen a rolled up newspaper left out on a driveway for a couple days? It’s probably turned a light shade of yellow, the edges and corners have curled and the paper has become wrinkled and maybe even a bit brittle. Now, newspapers are printed on low quality paper called newsprint because they’re not meant to be read after a week or two at the most. But the fast deterioration of newspaper shows how powerful UV can be.

Maybe you’ve been to a sports bar with autographed memorabilia displayed near exterior windows or under fluorescent lights. Chances are, whatever autographs were closest to these UV sources have faded or even almost disappeared. Needless to say, whatever value these items had has diminished tremendously. Even non-autographed paper memorabilia such as cards, magazines, photos and programs will suffer bleaching from UV.

UV is an autographed item's biggest threat

What can you do to prevent this from happening to your prized collectibles? It’s pretty simple. Keep your autographs and paper collectibles out of direct sunlight and far away from fluorescent light. Even limited exposure to direct sunlight or fluorescent light will eventually fade autographs on any items, especially those signed in black or blue ink.

Even keeping the item in an acrylic display case or framing it in glass will not protect it from UV. There are some cases with UV protection (AutographsForSale.com offers cases both with and without UV protection), and you can ask your custom framer to use UV protective glass (more expensive). But even so, no UV protection is 100% effective, and some studies have shown that UV protection is greatly overstated by the manufacturers. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to keep even UV protected items away from direct sunlight and fluorescent light.

Now, you don’t have to store your autographs and paper collectibles in a dark closet 24 hours a day. It’s OK to take them out every so often, just don’t leave them exposed to UV for extended periods of time.

The Fundamental Problem with Third Party Autograph Authentication

The autograph business is trickier than other collectibles businesses. Fake autographs are much more widespread than fake coins, comic books, sports cards, stamps or any other collectibles simply because any dishonest person can produce a forgery in a matter of seconds.

Therefore, one might think that companies dedicated to “authenticating” autographs would be beneficial to the autograph business. That’s what I thought many years ago, until I learned more about them.  All three of the major third party authentication companies (Global/GAI, JSA and PSA/DNA) have demonstrated incredible carelessness and incompetence. They also have been accused of playing favorites, they don’t know what the term “conflict of interest” means and one company has even been suspected of outright corruption by knowingly authenticating fakes.

In future posts I will detail some of the most glaring mistakes and problems with each of these companies. But for now, I want to discuss what the fundamental problem is with the very concept of third party authentication.

I’ve been actively collecting autographs for 23 years. I’ve obtained thousands of autographs in person from the celebrities themselves. Over the years I’ve also bought, sold and viewed tens of thousands of autographs. It’s my job and my business to differentiate fake autographs from real autographs and I’m pretty good at it. Yet do you know how many signatures I am able to consistently “authenticate”? Maybe two: Cal Ripken and Tiger Woods. Ripken and Tiger both have changed their autographs drastically over the years, but within the same era, their autographs are extremely consistent. Show me 10 questionable Ripken autographed items and 10 questionable Tiger autographed items and I am pretty sure I could give you a definitive real or fake answer on 9 of each. There might be one that I would be unsure about.

Cal Ripken's autograph from 1985 versus . . .

Cal Ripken's current autograph

Dan Marino is my favorite NFL player of all time, and I’ve gotten him in person several dozen times in many different situations dating back to the 1980s. But Marino’s autograph can look very different depending on when and where it was signed. I can spot obvious Marino fakes, and I can spot ones that are definitely real. But probably close to half of the questionable Marino autographs I see, I couldn’t tell you one way or the other.

I distinctly remember a TV news magazine show about fake autographs several years ago. They interviewed Marino and had him review possible fakes on eBay. He spotted many of them, but on one or two he said even he couldn’t be sure. If Dan Marino can’t give a definitive answer on the authenticity of some Dan Marino autographs, then what business does any third party authentication company have stating they can?

These companies claim to be experts in thousands of different signatures from every genre, every sport and every era. They’re in the business to collect fees so of course they’re going to claim they can authenticate anyone and everyone’s signature. Unfortunately, that’s literally impossible no matter how many so-called “experts” they have. These companies rarely, if ever, return an autographed item with a refund and an admission that they have no idea whether it’s real or not.

When you submit an autograph for third party authentication, what you are paying for is at best an informed opinion, and at worst an educated guess. No matter what these companies claim, there is no scientific means of determining whether an autograph is real or not just by examining it.

Welcome to the AutographsForSale.com blog!

Welcome to the blog of AutographsForSale.com, written by owner Theo Chen.

My goal is to inform you about my world of buying, obtaining and selling autographs. Those who know me already know I hold strong opinions about the autograph business, and I’ve never been shy about voicing them. I’m not going to hold back here. But this post is the history of AutographsForSale.com.

I got my first autograph as an 8 year old kid, from a Washington Capitals hockey player named Yvon Labre at the neighborhood mall where I grew up in Maryland. (Yes, I still have it! See below.) Little did I know then that autographs would become my livelihood decades later.

Yvon Labre autographed bumper sticker

But first I detoured into cards. I got my first baseball cards the same year I met Labre (1974). As a teen I forgot about cards, but they recaptured my attention in college and never let go. I became an active collector and started setting up tables selling at card shows. I started writing for Baseball Hobby News.

These articles caught the attention of Dr. James Beckett and before I knew it, I was driving to Dallas in 1988 to intern at Beckett Publications. I started working full time for Beckett in 1989. I worked on the editorial side and the price guide side, sometimes both. In my free time I developed a passion for collecting autographs, and began writing autograph articles for Beckett. I started selling my extra autographs on eBay in 1997. In 1998 I left Beckett to work as Autographed Product Manager for Upper Deck Authenticated.

I only worked a year at UDA, but I got a thrill developing new autographed products for Wayne Gretzky, Ken Griffey Jr. and Michael Jordan (links are to UDA products I designed and have for sale on AutographsForSale.com). I learned much about the industry and made great contacts.

In early 1999 I started looking for a better way to sell autographs. I searched for domain names, and was pleasantly surprised to find AutographsForSale.com available. I grabbed it, though I had no idea what I’d do with it. A few months later, with the dot-com boom in full swing, I felt the itch to be my own boss. I had plenty of autographs to sell, I’d been collecting for a decade. I quit UDA and worked 4 days a week for Fotoball while building AutographsForSale.com. I received my first order on Nov. 24, 1999. A couple months later, I quit Fotoball to focus on AutographsForSale.com full time.

11+ years and 9,000+ orders later, AutographsForSale.com is still owned and operated by me. My goal for AutographsForSale.com was never to make me rich, just to comfortably support me and allow me to work when I want, and not work on the rare days when I don’t feel like it. It’s done that. Over the years I’ve developed a network of companies and people that work with me, but I’ve never hired anyone and don’t plan to. Managing people isn’t something I enjoy.

I think customers appreciate knowing there’s a real person — someone who’s spent most of his adult life working with autographs — behind this website. Hopefully my blog will strengthen this connection.