I can tell you with my decades of experience in this industry and having researched and examined millions of autographs, the greatest majority of autographs you are going to consider purchasing are going to be fake. The FBI documented that their estimation is around 80% of online autographs are fake. I can tell you with the premium names, especially in rock and roll music autographs, the % of forgeries out there is much higher. While sports stars like Derek Jeter or even retired stars like Michael Jordan are doing large paid autograph signings, rock stars and celebrities are not. That means there is a huge demand for these autographs with a very limited supply and as such, forgers flock to that scenario. If you want to build a solid collection you should always look at autographs with the assumption that they are likely forgeries. If you go into a purchasing mode with this attitude, you are going to save yourself a LOT of money and hardship in the long run. You need to find evidence in the auction details that prove to you that the autograph is real.
One of the biggest mistakes new collectors and even veterans are making is not reading the full auction description and/or title. If the title has “RP” or “reprint” or “preprint” or anything similar, move on. These are not authentic autographs. They are reproductions and often times even reproductions of fake autographs. Sellers in recent years found a loophole to peddle their forgeries. They realized that if they take fake autographs and make copies and sell them as non-authentic reprint/preprint autographs that they would be less likely to get arrested for forging autographs. As such, the entire market is flooded with these reprints for around $10 from A-Z and unsuspecting buyers are purchasing these autographs thinking they are real and thinking they are getting a bargain when in reality they are buying $10 for photo paper. Worse than that, many once finding they are not real are reselling them as authentic so it’s imperative that even after you purchase an autograph you inspect it in person. There are several magazines, posters, books, and other types of publications that issue covers with facsimile autographs (not authentic reproductions).
Additionally many collectors of Through The Mail (TTM) autographs are sent preprint autographs from celebrities and knowingly or unknowingly sell them as authentic. Studio Fan Mail is a huge supplier of these items and again, these types of autographs have no place in this hobby in regards to value so avoid them. The other serious concern about TTM autographs is secretarial autographs. These are autographs obtained through writing to a celebrity and they have their secretary ease the burden by signing stacks of autographs for them and sending them out to requests. Some of the most famous being Al Pacino and John Travolta, there are 1000s of others. There’s no way for you as a novice collector to know the difference between a secretarial autograph and a real one unless you research online examples so again, simply assume the autograph is fake because a secretarial autograph is worth the same as a forged autograph which is $0.
Over the past few years the economy has really taken its toll on charity fundraising and as such, charity organizations have been trying every angle to raise much needed funds for their cause. One of these techniques they have been using has been consigning items, specifically autograph consignments. Consignment items are items provided from a wholesale vendor who offers them at a discount and the charity simply buys them cheap or gets an agreed upon consignment price and marks them up to generate income for the charity. There was a time where you could go to a charity auction and find autographs and they would be guaranteed authentic because the charity did the due diligence to seek out and secure these autographs from the celebrity via way of agents or direct contacts. That same statement is almost the complete opposite now. BUYER BEWARE! The greatest majority of those autograph consignment vendors are suspected forgers. Steve Cyrkin, owner/editor of Autograph magazine stated that up until he found AutographPros.com, all the other autograph consignment operations that dealt with charities were all involved in forgeries. Even after Steve went on the offensive to help educate charities he was met with an alarming resistance. Despite nearly proving these consignments were forgeries he found some of the charities continued to take the consignment items anyhow. I can tell you right now that one of the largest autographed guitar and music memorabilia charity autograph consignor is peddling what I feel 100% forgeries and they are doing so on a very large scale so again, don’t just assume because it’s at a charity auction that it’s real.
No matter where you are buying you should always ask when the autograph was obtained, where it was obtained, and how many they got. Sellers may give excuses that will prevent them from giving this type of information but it will create a dialogue for you to go off of. If they peddle you a bunch of nonsense that sounds fishy that will definitely help you make your decision on a purchase. If you are at a charity auction, ask who secured the autograph and how. If you are on ebay.com or a similar individual seller auction site, ask them before bidding and if they are hesitant to divulge that information, ask if they can give it to you if you win the auction. In most cases sellers like myself do not want to publicly display in-person signing dates/locations. To do so could give information to forgers to copy but also give accurate information to our competitors so they will then know where to go to get autographs. Lastly it could tip off some of the security both with the celebrities and at the hotels or venues and the last thing any smart seller would want to do would be to jeopardize their ability to get more autographs. My company, Autograph Pros, offers to include that information documented on the Certificate Of Authenticity. In some cases we will highlight it in our description but more times than not we try to keep that information privy to only successful buyers. If the seller states they have purchased the item from known reputable dealers, be super cautious. In most cases these items are forgeries bought at a low cost and marked up for profits. Good autographs don’t come cheap anymore because the reality is it’s a lot harder to get a good name to sign and more importantly to sign enough autographs to make the hours/days of waiting worthwhile.
I’ve been selling autographs for decades and only once or twice have I ever been asked about who could vouch for my autographs or who else was there when the item I was offering for sale was signed. This is a serious misstep by collectors. There are only a handful of us at any given autograph location and we all know each other. If Paul McCartney pulls out the pen in NY, I know about it and I know who got him and who didn’t, what he signed, how many, etc. This isn’t top secret information but it is information that only in-person autograph collectors and dealers know. If a seller is stating that they obtained Paul McCartney autographs at a certain location you should then be asking what other dealers/collectors where there to confirm this. If they say none then run. It’s almost never going to be a 1 on 1 with Paul. He’s too big a target. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely instances of 1 on 1 autographs but far and few between for the bigger names. The reality is that this type of questioning is beneficial for a few reasons. One is that it will give you solid provenance confirmation by confirming from anyone else who was there. Two it gives you additional names of in-person collectors for you to consider buying from but most importantly it’s a question that a forger can’t answer. They will never tell you another in-person dealer’s name because they don’t want in-person dealers knowing their own name. The more exposure to them the more likely they will become a target of an investigation so they will not have an answer to this question. If they claim they did a paid signing ask for a copy of the receipt or documentation of the contract for the autograph signing. Ask to see the video footage of the signing or photos of the exact items signed. If you are paying for a signing wouldn’t you videotape each and every autograph being signed knowing that adds huge value to the autographs? Wouldn’t you take photos with the star and photograph each item as it’s signed? Of course you would and you’re not even a professional autograph dealer. This is the least you’d expect so demand it or assume the worst here. Paid signings for anyone other than sports stars are almost non-existent.
There was a time when “Proof” in the title of an auction meant something. It meant the seller had a photograph taken at the time of the signing to add to the provenance and add value and reliability to the sale. Now it’s imperative you take the photos for what they are worth. If a seller has a photo in one of the auction listings of the celebrity signing and it doesn’t show that exact item being signed, make sure you visit all the other items they are offering. If NONE of the photos show any of the exact items they are selling, I’d use extreme caution. You see, forgers are now paying paparazzi and autograph collectors for their photo proof. They use these photos showing stars signing autographs to peddle their fake autographs. You need to find what is known as “Exact Proof” or “Flawless Proof” which is a photo of the star signing the exact item to where you can see part of the signature while it’s being signed or a photo of the person with the star holding up the signed item. These 2 types of things are what you should absolutely expect to find from any reputable seller. Again, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to have this for every item but at the same time it’s IMPOSSIBLE that the seller has none of these if they have several photos of items being signed. Ask the seller to provide exact photo proof on any items they have for sale and see their response. In order to combat the downtrend of photo proof not being as reliable as it once was, all the top autograph dealers are now offering video footage of their items being signed leaving absolutely no doubt to the buyers. At www.autographpros.com you can find 100s of items with exact video proof showing the exact products being signed.
You’ll often here that a COA is only worth the paper it’s printed on but I disagree. There are some COAs that are certainly of value and ones you should look for. First would be a Certificate Of Authenticity from a UACC Registered Dealer. The UACC (Universal Autograph Collectors Club) is a non-profit organization that was created to better the hobby and educate collectors and dealers alike. Having a UACC COA is not what we are talking about here. Anyone can join the UACC but a UACC REGISTERED DEALER is a completely different level of membership. You must be vetted in the hobby, known to only sell authentic autographs, required to abide by a Strict Code Of Ethics, and held to the highest standards. With less than 300 in the entire world, the UACC Registered Dealer organization is the most sought after certification you can find. As such, a UACC Registered Dealer COA adds value and reliability to any autograph. Other COAs that are of value would be from the top auction houses. R&R Enterprise, Heritage Auctions, or American Memorabilia are a few of the great ones out there. These auctioneers have in-house autograph experts that will review each auction lot they offer. As an important side note: AVOID APPRAISALS and FORENSIC DOCUMENT EXAMINER certifications. There are major forgery scams going on right now involving both so if you see either of these 2 offerings in an auction simply move on. It’s a tell-tale sign of danger.
If you are new to buying autographs at auctions my suggestion would be to ONLY buy autographs that are accompanied by Third Party Authentication. The top autograph authenticators include PSA/DNA, James Spence Authentication (JSA), Roger Epperson (REAL), and AutographPros.com . These authenticators have experts in the field of identifying authentic autographs and offer paid services to issue a COA for each item they inspect. PSA and JSA will offer a variety of autograph authentication while REAL specializes in music only and AutographPros.com focuses only in Music and Celebrity autographs but only those who they themselves have experience of obtaining in-person. These added certifications will likely ensure you to achieve maximum resale value down the road while also protecting you from being ripped off while building your collection.
If you are at any type of auction where they have multiple autographs you should always look at ALL they have to offer. If they have full band autographs on every item with multiple colored paint pen signatures and no smudges and every signature signed in the perfect spot, having each item in gem mint condition, that’s a little concerning. Again, focusing more on music autographs and celebrity signed items, these stars aren’t doing huge public or private signings and as such, collectors and dealers are left to fend on the streets while stars come and go during publicity promotional tours, etc. There are mobs of people trying to use their smart phones to take photos and video, everyone trying to clamor for autographs, and some band members just don’t sign or are hit/miss. If the auctioneer or seller has everything perfect, it’s not a good sign. You should expect to have AC/DC guitars missing Phil Rudd or Phish guitars missing Jon Fishman and you shouldn’t expect to see Led Zeppelin full signed anything. Big names = Big Risk. If a seller has all the top celebrities or bands autographs, they had better also have all the top proof and Third Party Authentication. If they have Madonna, The Stones, Bob Dylan, etc. with no PSA, JSA, REAL, or AP COAs then simply move on.
Autograph collecting and investing is an incredible adventure but there’s definitely a lot to learn. Most importantly would be where to find authentic signature examples and then how to use that information. AutographPros.com is one website where you will find 1000s of in-person signature examples but just because you know that doesn’t mean you will know what to do with that information. You have to understand the logic behind authenticating autographs and for that, you need a LOT of experience. You need to study SEVERAL examples from various situations to get a full spectrum of an autograph’s intricacies. Ultimately we don’t really recommend this until you’ve held a dozen or so in-person autographs from an individual to get you that required experience. What we do recommend is pay for any of the quick opinion services out there. Right now I know AutographPros.com and PSA both offer a quick opinion for around $10. This is a priceless service as it allows you the privilege of expert research and opinion and each then offers a discount should you decide to upgrade the authentication to a full COA from them.
If you are like the 1000s of others getting into autograph buying as an investment, we have some great advice for you. First, avoid sports like the plague. If you ever followed baseball cards you’ll know that in the 80s even K-Mart came out with baseball cards. The market became saturated with baseball cards from all types of vendors and as such, it’s finally ok to put the baseball cards in your bicycle spokes (if they are from the 80s), because most of those cards are worthless. The same thing has happened to sports autographs. Steiner Sports, Upper Deck Authenticated, and some of the major autograph show organizations are flooding the market with autographed bats, jerseys, footballs, baseballs, etc from paid signings with these sports stars. In any business it’s all about supply and demand. Is it great to have a Muhammad Ali autographed boxing glove or Mickey Mantle autographed baseball cap? Of course it is, but even my 12 year old nephew could take 5 minutes with a Google search and find 1000s of authentic ones to buy. Let’s see him or even you try to find a full band Rolling Stones guitar or an authentic Paul McCartney autographed LP. The results are going to be far less and you have to realize, it’s only a matter of time when the FBI performs a major sting operation on all these fake autographed guitar dealers out there. There are several HUGE players in the forged autographed guitar industry and it’s only a matter of time before the wall comes crashing down and when it does, the public will once again be awakened to the fact of just how few authentic autographed guitars and high end music memorabilia there is out there. Just like when Operation Bullpen (major FBI sting on sports autograph forgeries) happened, the authentic autographs that were out there shot up in value.
If you bought a Rolling Stones full band signed guitar a few years ago you could find them for $1500-$2500. Now they are in the $5000-$10000 range. The same can be said for autographed guitars from B.B. King, Paul McCartney autographs, and countless others. Music memorabilia is continuing to rise. Just like everyone has a favorite sports team and player, everyone has a favorite band or musician. The key is to not get caught up in the hype of any new, up and coming star. Don’t go spending your bankroll on Justin Bieber autographs. You may be in for a rude awakening when in 5 years him and Miley Cyrus are struggling to fill the smallest of venues. Focus on rock solid names like the Stones, Beatles, Dylan, Madonna, etc.
Without trying to sound morbid, the reality is that everyone dies and in the autograph business, when someone passes away, literally overnight the autograph triples in value. While autographed guitars for Michael Jackson were going for $500-$800, overnight due to his unfortunate passing they were flying off the shelves at $2,000 - 3,000 each! One thing to be very cognoscente of is the fact that autographs seem to always go up unless someone pulls an “OJ” or “Michael Vick” and even then, the public is pretty forgiving. When purchasing a BAND SIGNED item, you increase your profitability because once one member passes, it’s impossible to get a full band again so even the lesser known members of the band will add immediate increases in value. With each passing brings a huge demand from fans and collectors who want to add those autographs immediately to their collection.
There are 1000s and 1000s of autographed items auctioned every day. Do NOT get caught up in over bidding on something. We strongly suggest using SNIPE programs for online auctions. This allows you to enter a flat bid that will be placed at the very last moments of the auction. This allows you to give yourself an educated pricing on the item and not exceed that by getting caught up in the auction fever. It’s very exciting to bid live on an item but also can entice you to go above your limits. If you are at a live auction or have no way to set a snipe, be sure you research average pricing on similar items and remember, almost nothing is ultra-rare these days. You can likely find another if you wait and look long enough so price out what you think you should be spending, write it down, and do not exceed that price.
In the end, we suggest you only seek out the best of the best. Find the top premium autographed pieces with Third Party Authentication or exact video proof, all with perfect signatures, and make sure you store them where they aren’t hit by direct sunlight and out of greasy fingers reach. There’s a multibillion dollar industry that has been growing exponentially over the years but a fool and his money are still soon departed. Use your smarts, ask lots of questions, and don’t be in any hurry. This business isn’t going anywhere.
Michael Kasmar is an expert authenticator, autograph appraiser, and veteran in the hobby of autograph collecting, buying, and selling.
Visit www.AutographPros.com for in-person examples of authentic autographs and call TOLL FREE at 1-866-544-PROS (7767) for more information on some incredible autographs to invest in for 2011.