Autograph Authentication for Sports Memorabilia Collectors
The purpose of this article is not to teach you how to do your own autograph authentication. Rather, it's meant to give a list of guidelines and resources that you can better educate yourself with. It will also help you decide the right time to get third-party autograph authentication for your items. In addition, we'll give you some common examples of problems that can occur during the autograph authentication process and offer potential solutions.
It should be stated that autograph authentication is one of the most controversial and murky aspects of collecting sports memorabilia. The methods employed are far from an exact science. Most reputable authenticators, themselves, will admit that even under the best circumstances, their findings are merely an opinion. It is not concrete proof of a genuine autograph.
Quite simply, the only way to ensure that the autographs in your collection are authentic is to acquire them in person. This process includes handing the item to the athlete, watching them sign it, and having the athlete hand the item back to you. That being said, there are probably items already in your collection that you would like to have authenticated. However, once you make that decision, be prepared for potential disappointment in the results.
The Autograph Authentication Process
There are literally dozens of autograph authentication companies in existence today. From forensic document examiners to so-called handwriting experts, to corporate institutions like PSA/DNA and others that claim to use state-of-the-art technology with fancy sounding names like Color Spectral Deconvolution or Video Spectral Comparator, the autograph authentication choices available to a collector can get confusing.
Regardless of the company, all autograph authenticators use some form of a multi-step process that includes examination and analysis of the ink and medium, object evaluation, side-by-side signature comparison, structural analysis, tagging and certifying.
All autograph authentication starts with the following examination:
This autograph authentication step is used to answer such questions as:
- Has the ink permeated into the paper or does it lay on top of the paper indicating that it may have been recently applied?
- Is the ink used in the signature consistent with those used when the autographed was supposedly signed?
Depending on what the signature is on, an entirely different set of questions must be answered. To give you an idea of the issues authenticators are dealing with at this stage, a paper document has several characteristics that must be evaluated.
- Older ink has acid and actually etches the paper over time. Is such etching present?
- Modern paper deteriorates quickly over time and becomes more brittle. Is the paper’s condition justified for the time the signature was applied?
- Brown mildew spots, called foxing, can appear on all paper. Is the ink on top of or underneath the foxing?
When the signed object is a piece of memorabilia like a ball, bat, jersey or other equipment, even more complex and time-consuming autograph authentication methods are used to properly age the item to the signature.
This step of the process most closely resembles what is often called handwriting analysis or forensic handwriting evaluation. It includes a detailed look at every nuance, component and letter in the signature. These include:
- Signature Flow
- Letter Angle
By using a verified signature or even a copy of an authentic signature, the submitted signature can be compared to the exemplar. Reputable autograph authenticators have a large exemplar library, which usually contains a wide-range of samples to call upon for easy reference.
Following the examination, the remaining steps in the autograph authentication process include:
Once the authentication process is complete and passed, the item is tagged. This is typically done with some form of a tamper-resistant, foil hologram label that also has a serial number. The number is then recorded in a database for future identification.
In addition to the item itself being tagged, a corresponding document, called a Letter of Authenticity (LOA), is issued with a matching serial number. It often comes with a matching tamper-resistant tag as well.
Specialized Autograph Authentication Tools
Some companies use more advanced techniques during the examination stage of the authentication process. This may include:
Color Spectral Deconvolution
This is a process that uses a advanced color algorithm in 3D space to separate or remove color components. It is most often used on documents to help separate the signature from the object background color, allowing for a more detailed analysis.
Video Spectral Comparator Analysis
This hi-tech piece of equipment can be used to examine documents and autographs using sophisticated color and infrared imaging, magnification, coaxial lighting, and side lighting on-screen. It can be used to detect erasures, reveal masked and obliterated signatures, as well as differences in ink types.
Autograph Authentication Companies
As previously mentioned, there are a range of companies to choose from. A simple online search will reveal many that fall outside of what the hobby has established as reputable. In reality, even these companies have been known to make their share of mistakes given the nature of the authentication as just an opinion in the first place. Couple this with the fact that autograph authentication is a for-profit business and you can imagine the potential issue that may result.
That being said, here is a list of the most recognized autograph authentication companies in the hobby today:
- Professional Sports Authenticator PSA/DNA
- James Spence Authentication JSA
- Autograph Certification Experts ACE
Autograph Authentication Pitfalls
One of the most troubling things collectors encounter from time-to-time is when they submit an autograph for authentication that they have acquired in person, only to have it rejected by the authenticating company. What recourse do you have as a collector if this happens? Unfortunately the answer is, very little.
As frustrating as this can be, your only options are to submit the item to another authenticator or simply be satisfied in knowing for yourself that it is genuine. While this may help when the item resides in your own collection, it certainly will make it difficult to sell the item in the future without a reputable LOA.
Earlier we alluded to the fact that there are many pitfalls to the autograph authentication business. Unfortunately, they will likely continue to be part of autograph collecting and authentication. As a result, many spirited debates and differences of opinions have spawned some truly insightful information. Before deciding to spend money on autograph authentication, we encourage you to do your own research. Not simply on the authenticator side of the equation but the detractor side as well. Here are a few resources worth reading before spending your money for an authenticator’s opinion:
In-Person Autographs and Authentication
If getting your own autographs authenticated isn’t a top priority but purchasing them from a reliable source is, there are a handful of reliable event organizers and dealers whose Certificates of Authenticity (COA) have proven to be trustworthy over the years.
Some of these companies oversee regular autograph signing sessions or major shows throughout the year. They issue their own COAs that go with an item. Not only has the item been signed by an athlete, but witnessed by a company official as well. Below is a list of these of companies:
Autograph collecting is a fun and exciting hobby. It can also be time-consuming and expensive. Before investing in autograph authentication, educate yourself. Decide how you want to get your autographs. If you choose to get them authenticated, be prepared for the results, good or bad.
Related Topics: How To: Autographs