The Most Undervalued Sports Autographs

Autograph values frequently don’t make sense. The autograph of today’s flavor of the month, in any sport or genre, often is temporarily “worth” many times that of established, even deceased superstars.

This post isn’t about that phenomenon. It’s about autographs of Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers that are significantly undervalued in my opinion. I’ll give you my pick in each of the four major team sports plus boxing, golf and tennis.

Baseball: Stan Musial. You think Albert Pujols is the greatest St. Louis Cardinals player ever? You’re wrong. It’s Stan (The Man) Musial. Stan put up Pujols-type numbers in the 1940s and 1950s when those gaudy hitting stats were harder to accumulate. Musial fell 25 home runs short of 500 and was overshadowed by American League superstars Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams, otherwise his autograph would be worth quite a bit more.

Basketball: Bob Cousy. If you read my post last year titled “Why Are Old Boston Celtics Autographs Hard to Sell?” you could have guessed this one. Cousy was the NBA’s first great point guard and still ranks among the top 5 at that position of all time. He helped the Celtics win 6 titles and also was the 1957 NBA MVP. Although not as notorious about refusing to sign as teammate Bill Russell, Cousy is only a little more cooperative and frequently personalizes. Yet no one wants to pay much for his autograph. My theory is that the heyday of Cousy, Russell and co. was when the NBA was almost a minor sport, and there is very little video footage to prove how great they really were.

Boxing: Larry Holmes. Clearly, Holmes ranks right up there with Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and the late Joe Frazier as the best heavyweight fighters of all time, and he was dominant in an era when boxing was truly a major sport. Yet Holmes is valued at a fraction of Ali and significantly less than Foreman and Frazier. Holmes kept fighting after his skills had declined, but so did countless champions including Ali (and the market obviously hasn’t punished him for that).

Football: Marshall Faulk. Who is the only running back in NFL history to amass 12,000 yards rushing and 6,000 yards receiving? Faulk. Who is the most reluctant signer of all modern superstar running backs? It’s Faulk again (Barry Sanders probably a close second). Yet Faulk doesn’t sell nearly as well or for as much as Sanders, Curtis Martin or LaDainian Tomlinson, and Faulk is the only one of the four who’s won a Super Bowl. Go figure.

Golf: Gary Player. Gary is one of only 5 men to have won the career Grand Slam along with Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Player’s 9 career majors is tied with Hogan for fourth behind only Jack, Tiger and Walter Hagen. Yes, Player has been a prolific signer for his entire career, but you could say the same about Phil Mickelson, Arnold Palmer and even Nicklaus to a lesser extent, and Player’s autograph is worth less than any of those 3. Not only that, but Player has all but retired from competition so good luck getting his autograph anywhere besides The Masters. The main reason seems to be that Player hails from South Africa and not the United States or Europe.

Hockey: Mike Modano. You would think that the NHL’s most prolific American-born scorer of all time would be a highly sought-after autograph. Not really. It has to be because Modano played most of his career in Dallas, not one of the NHL’s traditional markets.

Tennis: Billie Jean King. She is one of the top 5 female tennis players ever, and was a groundbreaking figure who transcended sports. King was one of the first female superstars in ANY American sport. Maybe because she didn’t have the girl next door image of Chris Evert and wasn’t quite as good as Martina Navratilova, King is valued less.

Plenty of Blame to Go Around for the Fake Autograph Market

Thousands, perhaps millions of people have been screwed by fake autograph sellers over the years. From buyers who spend their money on completely worthless signatures, to legitimate sellers like myself who have to compete with these criminals every day, all of us are victims.

I’ve been thinking about this lately and realized just how much blame there is to go around for this problem which never seems to get much better:

The forgers. Obviously, without the perpetrators themselves, this problem would not exist. These scumbags probably tell themselves that their crimes are victimless (false) and that they’ll never get caught (maybe true, maybe not).

Law enforcement agencies. Look, I get it. Fake autograph fraud isn’t as serious as terrorism or drug trafficking or bribery. But it’s still a crime and it’s a pretty big business. The FBI’s Operation Bullpen and follow-up Operation Foul Ball sting operations took place MORE THAN A DECADE AGO. Sorry, that doesn’t cut it. That sends a clear signal to forgers that the FBI doesn’t care, whether that’s true or not.

Third party authenticators. If you’ve read my blog, you know how I feel about these companies. James Spence (JSA) and PSA/DNA have good reputations that are entirely undeserved, in my opinion. Both companies are, at minimum, unacceptably sloppy and/or incompetent. Global Authenticated (GAI) is much worse — they appear to be corrupt to the core. It’s notable that the FBI didn’t bother enlisting any of these companies to assist in their investigations, which is why none of them are mentioned anywhere on their Bullpen or Foul Ball web pages. In fact, on the San Diego FBI’s Operation Bullpen page, it states, “The counterfeit market has been able to flourish because of the role played by authenticators who fraudulently (or mistakenly) certify forgeries as genuine signatures.” Third party authenticators like to claim they are part of the solution, but in fact they are part of the problem.

Marketplaces. The debut of eBay led directly to the growth of the autograph market, both legitimate and fake. eBay literally created thousands of new autograph dealers, many of whom were dishonest. It took eBay a long, long time to get a handle on this problem, and they made many missteps along the way. However, it’s clear that eBay now is very much aware and concerned about this problem and has removed countless fake autographs and fraudsters from its site. Are there still plenty of fakes on eBay? Yes, of course. But compare eBay’s aggressive actions in recent years to the blissful ignorance of Amazon, which has been notified many times about all the fakes on their site and hasn’t taken any action to the best of my knowledge. The same goes for all the smaller marketplaces.

Celebrities and their agents. If I’m a famous entertainer or sports star, I guess I have more important things to worry about than people faking my autograph. But it’s still stunning that while so many of them such as Andrew Luck care if their images are used inappropriately, they don’t seem to care that people are forging their autographs and making money selling them. Anthony Daniels, who played the droid C-3PO in all six Star Wars movies, is about the only celebrity I know who obviously DOES care. If the celebrity himself or herself is too busy, then his or her agent should consider getting involved in cracking down on forgeries.

Companies that do paid signings. When I was working for Beckett Publications about 20 years ago and still very naive and uneducated about autographs, we published a magazine about Michael Jordan and featured some items signed by him. Or so we thought. We got a call from Upper Deck Authenticated, which had an exclusive contract with MJ, complaining about us inadvertently showing fake Jordan autographs. UDA, more so than other companies that do paid signings, has been fairly aggressive about protecting their contracts by going after fakes, though not as much lately it seems. However, as far as I know, companies such as Ironclad, Mounted Memories, Steiner and TriStar Productions have done almost nothing about this problem in recent years even though they are arguably affected more than anyone. As the author of this article notes, the highly questionable Derek Jeter autographs “authenticated” by GAI are killing the market for real Jeter autographs certified by Steiner.

Customers. People who buy fake autographs and never realize it are not at fault. Your average person is fooled fairly easily and never discovers they’ve been had. However, sometimes customers who buy a fake later realize it, and often do nothing about it, or just pledge never to buy autographs ever again. That doesn’t help matters. What they should do is to file complaints with the FBI, their state’s attorney general, the Better Business Bureau and the marketplace (if applicable).

Dealers. I do my best to educate my customers on how to avoid being burned, but I know a lot of legitimate autograph dealers who don’t bother. I also know a lot of autograph dealers who rely exclusively on third party authenticators to back the authenticity of their autographs. That’s just plain irresponsible and lazy, especially considering how many mistakes these companies make. You’re the one selling the autograph, so it should be YOUR reputation that’s on the line, not some third party authentication company’s.

The problem with fake autographs will never completely go away, but it could be minimized if more people took action themselves instead of considering it to be someone else’s responsibility.

Why Amazon.com Is The Worst Place To Buy Autographs

New visitors to AutographsForSale.com may be surprised by my warnings about buying autographs from Amazon.com. After all, Amazon’s customer service is consistently ranked #1 among all shopping websites. So what’s the problem?

First, some buyers don’t understand that not every product listed on Amazon.com is sold by Amazon. Most are, but many aren’t. The ones that aren’t are sold by individuals or companies on the Amazon Marketplace, which is very similar to eBay.com. And Amazon Marketplace products are seamlessly mixed in with Amazon products — you have to really be paying attention to notice any difference.

Everyone knows that with eBay merchandise, it’s buyer beware. Ironically, eBay actually has become a safer place to buy autographs than Amazon. That’s because Amazon’s reputation makes people think that its Marketplace sellers must be screened by Amazon, or are somehow more legitimate than eBay sellers. This is completely FALSE.

Marketplace sellers are NOT screened by Amazon, and Amazon rarely if ever evaluates autographs on its site for authenticity. I am quite sure that Amazon doesn’t have a single employee who knows the first thing about autograph authenticity. In contrast, eBay has put programs, people and systems in place to evaluate questionable autographs. Not to say that all autographs on eBay are real, but countless sellers of fake autographs have been kicked off the site.

In some ways it’s actually EASIER to defraud customers on Amazon than eBay. If you buy on Amazon and have an a customer account, you can list almost anything for sale that you want, including autographs, provided that the product is already listed on Amazon.

Let’s say you see a LeBron James autographed basketball for sale on Amazon.com for $500. If you want to sell one, all you have to do is click on the “Have one to sell? Sell on Amazon” link button right underneath the “Add to Cart” and “Add to Wish List” buttons. You can then offer your basketball (whether real or not) for sale for whatever price you want, and you don’t even have to show a photo of it. All buyers see is the existing product’s photo(s).

You don’t have to be a genius to see how these “competitive listings,” as Amazon calls them, are ripe for fraud. This system may work OK for DVDs, but for autographs, it’s a disaster. I was recently interviewed by eCommerceBytes about this issue here. Now, if you DON’T see the item you want to sell listed on Amazon, all you have to do is get a Professional selling account for $39.99 per month. Then you can create and list as many new products as you want, including autographs — whether real or fake.

When asked about fraudulent sellers, Amazon always points to its A-to-z Guarantee program, which allows customers to file claims and get refunds if they are unsatisfied with what they receive. With fake autographs, the catch obviously is that for a customer to file an A-to-z claim, they have to be aware that they’ve bought a forgery.

In fact, human psychology is such that buyers of fake autographs have an incentive to disbelieve any suggestion that they’ve been taken. This especially applies when their purchase was made from a huge company like Amazon which has such a sterling worldwide reputation. And yet, I can assure you that hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars is spent every year on fake autographs on Amazon.com, probably sold by a relatively small number of crooked companies and individuals.

But don’t just take my word for it. Several veteran autograph collectors and dealers noticed numerous fake autographs on Amazon last month and posted their findings here. By the way, I had absolutely nothing to do with this, I just stumbled upon it last week.

I can only hope that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies eventually crack down on this serious criminal activity taking place on Amazon every day, because it’s hurting legitimate autograph dealers like myself and defrauding who knows how many unsuspecting customers.

What Does the Future Hold for Tebowmania?

You may have noticed that AutographsForSale.com has several Tim Tebow autographed Florida Gators items for sale, but not one Denver Broncos item. The reason is simple. I try to avoid stocking up on autographed items that have more downside than upside. I could be wrong, but I am unconvinced that Tebow will be successful in the NFL over the long haul.

For the past month, I’ve been engaged in multiple lively Tim Tebow discussions on Facebook with friends and friends of friends across the country. On one side are the Tebow “believers,” who, in my opinion, have exaggerated his rare flashes of brilliant quarterback play while downplaying his more common inept play.

It started when a Cowboys fan posted on his wall that he wished Jerry Jones would trade Tony Romo for Tebow. He was serious. As was a San Diego Chargers fan who implied that he’d rather have Tebow behind center than Philip Rivers. And both opinions were voiced BEFORE Tebow’s shining moment, leading the Broncos over the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs.

As the discussions continued, I soon realized three things. One, I was in the minority. Two, Tebow believers love citing intangibles like “inspiring” and “leader” and “winner.” (Whenever I hear those words associated with a quarterback prospect, it reminds me of the notorious blind date recommendation “she has a great personality.”) Three, saying anything negative about Tebow — even if limited to his ability, skills or performance — gets you labeled a “doubter” or a “hater.” Many Tebow supporters seem to have an issue distinguishing criticism of him as a person vs. criticism of him as a quarterback, which is after all what he’s paid to be.

I don’t hate Tebow; in fact, I deeply admire him as a person. He is an incredible role model and he has a huge heart. I’d rather see him Tebowing in the end zone after a touchdown than countless other players dancing or showboating or taunting after routine catches or tackles any day. Tebow’s effort, faith, humility and sincerity seem beyond reproach. But regarding his future as a successful NFL quarterback, I’ll admit I am a “doubter.”

All season long I said the same thing. A quarterback in the NFL has the most demanding, highest pressure job in American team sports. Look no further than the Cowboys and Chargers fans ready to discard Pro Bowlers Romo and Rivers. But the harsh reality is that Tebow is consistently struggling to complete 45% of his passes in a league where the WORST quarterbacks complete close to 55%, and the best complete over 65%. Even against the Steelers Tebow managed to complete only 10 of 21 throws. Tebow can run for a first down or even a touchdown here and there, but it won’t matter. Unless his passing improves by leaps and bounds, Tebow’s failure in the NFL is a matter of when, not if.

And yet, Tebow supporters seem to ignore this obvious reality, citing his late season six game winning streak (over mediocre teams when the Broncos defense played its best) or obsessing about his dramatic playoff win (at home against a wounded Steelers team led by a gimpy Ben Roethlisberger, missing 3 defensive starters, and helped by winning the overtime coin toss). Based on the skewed metrics Tebow supporters use to hype him, Mark Sanchez is a superstar and Joe Flacco is already a lock for the Hall of Fame.

It’s no fault of Tebow’s, but the adulation he’s received has outpaced his actual NFL accomplishments by the length of several football fields. It doesn’t help that many people of faith have decided that God is using “divine intervention” to help Tebow win. Even if that’s true, it can’t be proven, thus fueling cynicism while making Tebow supporters even less credible.

Considering how Tebow believers have prematurely projected “NFL superstar” on him, while demonstrating how thin skinned they are when his on-field performance is criticized, I wonder how negatively they’ll react if any other issue arises. Imagine if Tebow has a conflict with a coach, or some unnamed Broncos front office person questions his priorities, or if he gets benched and the cameras catch him pouting. Unless Tebow actually walks on water, these and worse scenarios are not out of the question, and the result could be a nasty fall from the lofty pedestal upon which he’s been placed.

Tebow is not the first high profile athlete to be very public about his faith. David Robinson and Kurt Warner are two fairly recent examples. They didn’t attract much controversy because their fans didn’t prematurely elevate them to “can do no wrong” stature as they have with Tebow. Robinson and Warner won professional championships, which in turn drew added attention to their faith. Tebow was one of the greatest college quarterbacks in recent history, but in the NFL he’s won ONE playoff game (Flacco has won five, while Sanchez has won four).

I think it’s great that so many people root for Tebow. He’s clearly a positive force in the NFL. But I think his fans shouldn’t be offended when he’s judged by the same standards as the other 31 starting QBs, and not build expectations for him so massive that he’s almost certain to fall short. Otherwise they may be inadvertently setting up an ugly backlash to Tebowmania. I might miss out on some sales if I’m wrong, but if I’m right I don’t want to be stuck with Tebow autographed Broncos items that I may not be able to give away in the not too distant future.

Life and Death in the Autograph Business

Perhaps the trickiest and most difficult part of being in the autograph business is dealing with the death of an athlete or celebrity whose autographs you have for sale.

When a celebrity dies, his or her autograph immediately increases in value. Sometimes by a little bit, sometimes by a whole lot, depending mostly on the celebrity’s age and sometimes the cause of death.

Especially in the internet age, the news of a celebrity death travels at the speed of light, much faster than I or any autograph dealer can increase the prices. As a result, a certain type of people — a kind term would be “opportunists,” a less kind term would be “vultures” — try to buy up the dead celebrity’s autographs at the old prices.

The first time I remember this happening was with Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died in a crash near the end of the 2001 Daytona 500 race. Within 15 minutes of the official announcement, faster than my website host could publish my price changes to the live site, I received 4 orders. Three of the 4 customers attempted to order 2 autographs. I thought about it for an hour or so and decided to cancel the orders, sending out polite explanatory e-mails. At least one of the customers got very irate, calling me greedy, and threatened to sue.

As a precaution, I got some advice from an attorney and confirmed what I suspected, which is that merely placing an order is not an enforceable contract, but legally represents nothing more than an offer to buy. As I have always prided myself on providing excellent customer service, it was not an easy decision to cancel the orders. However, it seemed to me that these customers (none of whom had every bought from me before) were taking advantage of the situation.

Eight years later, a similar thing happened with the shocking announcement that Steve McNair had been murdered. I canceled a few orders, but this time I don’t remember anyone getting terribly upset. If they had, I would have said this. I was willing to sell you his autograph all along, but you only wanted to buy it immediately after he died to get a bargain price. Which of us is really being greedy here?

Don’t Bother Sending Wayne Gretzky Autographs to PSA/DNA (or Anywhere Else)

I’d be lying if I said I was a big NHL hockey fan. My adopted city of San Diego has never had an NHL team. Even the local minor league team, the Gulls, went defunct in 2006. I did live in Dallas when the Stars moved from Minnesota, and obtained dozens of autographs in person from the Stars and visiting teams during the 1990s.

One player I never got in Dallas was Wayne Gretzky, obviously considered to be one of the best players in NHL history. I always had bad luck with him in Dallas. One year he signed for everyone, and I mean everyone, on his way to morning skate — but I was at work. On the way back, he assumed that everyone had gotten him multiple times and refused to sign despite my pleas.

But after moving to San Diego I more than made up for that bad luck. The first time I got him was at a roller hockey rink grand opening in Escondido (just north of San Diego) around 1998 or 1999. In 2000 he hosted the LAPD Golf Tournament and signed up a storm. Since then I’ve seen him at other golf tournaments and he’s been pretty good about signing at all of them. What’s interesting is how inconsistent his autograph is. In an earlier blog post I wrote about how my favorite NFL player Dan Marino’s autograph was impossible to authenticate due to inconsistency. If anything, Gretzky’s autograph is even more inconsistent than Marino’s.

On AutographsForSale.com I currently offer 46, yes 46, different Wayne Gretzky autographed items from cards to photos to magazines to pucks to jerseys, and even a glove. I am quite sure that is a much better selection than any of my competitors. A few are from Upper Deck Authenticated, one is from a paid signing by Gartlan, one is from a paid signing with Gateway cachets. The rest were obtained in person by me or someone on my behalf (most at golf tournaments, but also at the team hotel when Gretzky was coaching). None were bought on the open market. They are all 100% authentic.

Yet if you compare the signatures, there are sloppy ones, neat ones, shorthand ones and full name ones. The best ones (mostly but not all from UDA) you can read the 99 he usually writes below his signature. On the rest sometimes there is just a single 9 visible or sometimes nothing legible at all down there. Which brings me to my main point. What business does PSA/DNA have accepting money to evaluate the authenticity of a signature that differs so much, even when signed at the same event? The answer? None. (Yes, I know that I have a Gretzky autographed 1999 NHL All-Star Game ticket certified by PSA/DNA — I got that signed at the LAPD Tournament and PSA/DNA graded it for free as partial compensation for an extremely valuable unsigned ticket that they “lost.”)

With a Gretzky autograph, the difference between a PSA/DNA sticker and a UDA sticker is about the same as the NHL career point totals of Wayne (2857) and his brother Brent (4).

Gerald Ford’s Autopen Tricked PSA/DNA (and Me)

Recently I received an e-mail from someone trying to sell me a few autographs of high profile celebrities including Michael Jordan, Gerald Ford and a few others. As a rule I never buy a Michael Jordan autograph unless it’s from UDA or I personally witnessed Jordan sign it. MJ’s autograph is among the most forged in the world, and inconsistent enough to make authentication after the fact almost impossible, similar to Dan Marino (I wrote about this in detail in a previous post).

The Gerald Ford autograph, on a letter referring to the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy alone, was in thin blue marker and dated (Ford served on the Commission). The seller said he had sent this letter and a book to Ford’s library and they got them signed for him. Knowing that former presidents were notorious for using autopen machines, I was of course concerned about this possibility.

So I checked eBay for similar items. Lo and behold, there was one almost exactly like it “authenticated” by PSA/DNA. The signatures were a perfect match, indicating that both letters were signed by an autopen machine. The dates were different, but a little research determined that some autopen models are programmable. This is yet another black mark on PSA/DNA’s reputation. Isn’t the first job of an autograph authentication company to determine first of all, whether the autograph was signed by a human? Epic fail — especially since someone was fooled into paying $200 for it.

This discovery made me question the three Gerald Ford autographs that were listed for sale on my website, two on cachet envelopes and one on a golf ball. Although none of the three signatures were the same, they were very similar to the letters. Furthermore, I discovered that Ford, like many former presidents, used dozens of different autopen templates, and that some autopen models worked on three dimensional objects such as baseballs and golf balls. I immediately removed all three Ford items from my website as suspected autopen signatures. I’ll bet that 99% of Ford autographs offered on eBay and elsewhere are autopenned.

 

I sent an e-mail to my prospective seller with my findings and, no surprise, received no response. I now wonder if this person had e-mailed several autograph dealers knowing what he was peddling was of questionable authenticity. I’m glad I didn’t get burned, and I’m glad I was able to remove my questionable Ford autographs before someone bought them.

The bottom line is that former presidents and other dignitaries use autopen machines for a reason. They don’t have the time or desire to hand sign anything except the most personal correspondence. No, they obviously don’t care that these items will later be knowingly or unknowingly offered as real hand-signed autographs. If you mail an item to someone who has been known to use an autopen, that’s what you’ll get returned to you.

Many years ago, when she was still First Lady, Hillary Clinton personally appeared at a book signing for “It Takes a Village” in Dallas in which buyers met Clinton but received pre-signed books. Lo and behold, it was later discovered that none of the books were signed by Hillary, but her autopen machine. I’m not sure who made the decision to defraud buyers like that, but I consider it unacceptable. She got enough flak that on her next book tour, for “An Invitation to the White House” she personally signed the books with beautiful full name autographs.