The Problem With Autograph Authentication

By Adam McFarland, Founder of SportsLizard on September 2, 2005

As recently as 1997, the FBI estimated that between 50% and 90% of all collectibles in the marketplace are not authentic. Everyone that cares about the hobby agrees that something must be done. And most think that autograph authentication - paying a third party company to certify that an autograph is real - is a logical solution that benefits everyone involved and eliminates counterfeiting.

Last month, we featured a story by a small business owner (and friend of mine) who would strongly disagree with that statement . He sold a Michael Vick autographed mini helmet on eBay. The buyer sent it to be authenticated by PSA/DNA and, upon not receiving authentication, demanded a refund. My friend stood his ground and denied this request.

In my opinion this was the right move - the autograph is real and he cannot set the precedent of letting PSA/DNA dictate his sales. No business owner wants to have to make a decision that will result in an unsatisfied customer, but what was he supposed to do? Give the customer a refund on a perfectly good item because it's another company's opinion that the item is fake? That would be even worse for his reputation than an unsatisfied customer! It seems that as collectors we have given authentication companies far too much control over the hobby.

Autograph Authentication Kills Small Businesses

Consider my friends business for a second - either he himself or one of his associates obtains each and every autograph that he sells in person. He produces a certificate of authenticity that states the date and location of the signing. In today's industry, this simply isn't good enough. How is an entrepreneur who wants to form a legitimate autograph business supposed to start out? PSA/DNA is making it virtually impossible for these businesses to get their foot off the ground. When they do start to establish their business, one false positive can ruin their reputation. My friend will have no way of knowing how bad his name has been ruined by this customer who thinks he purchased a fake item.

Autograph Authentication Gives PSA, Steiner Sports, and Upper Deck Too Much Control

I certainly hope that it is not PSA's intention to crush small businesses, but the fact that they have the power to do so disturbs me a great deal. Everyone should realize that all PSA is doing is giving their OPINION as to the validity of the autograph. PSA states this on their website in the FAQ section http://www.psadna.com/faq.chtml :

Q: Do you guarantee that the autographs you certify are genuine and those you do not are fake?
A: No. We do not guarantee autographs under the Vintage Certified program. By using this program, you are paying for the opinion of the top experts in the world, using state-of-the-art examination tools and techniques.

The problem with this is that most people don't treat it like an opinion. For one reason or another people are mislead to treat it like it is fact. And by doing this they give PSA power that they shouldn't have. Their findings are treated as definitive - if PSA says it's real then it is real. If PSA says it's fake then it is fake. It behooves them as a business to scare consumers into believing in their service. We have to ask ourselves the question: is this good for our hobby?

Autograph Authentication Means Higher Prices for Collectors

Along the same lines, exclusive autograph companies like Steiner Sports and Upper Deck benefit by scaring collectors. By making collectors think that everything that is not exclusive to them is not real, collectors are scared into paying outrageously high prices for their memorabilia and taught that anything reasonably priced is fake. This is just simply not true.

So What Should You Do?

My Recommendation - get your autographs yourself. It will give you the most satisfaction and there will never be a question of authenticity. However, if you must purchase an autograph, research the signature you are looking for, research the company you are buying from, and find a seller that you trust is selling you something authentic. If in doing this you decide to pay PSA/DNA for their opinion, keep in mind that is what you are getting - an opinion.


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