There have been countless write-ups and articles about what to look for when it comes to buying autographs. Most have the same information such as "if it's too good to be true it probably is," and recommend comparing the autograph to known exemplars, secretarials, autopens and other references.
Instead of discussing the technical aspects of authentication, I want to focus on autograph dealers. What to look for in a dealer’s presentation, reputation and behavior that may be a red flag that something isn't right. Hopefully this will give you the insight you need to avoid a costly, painful experience.
The signs below are mostly from personal experiences over my 30 years of collecting. Although a particular behavioral element may not always indicate dishonest intentions, there have been countless scenarios in my long collecting life that such behaviors have been consistent with suspicious autograph sellers. As you read through these warning signs, you will realize most of these signs apply to any genre of collecting, whether it be comic books, baseball cards or $50 million fine art.
1) Always look for patterns, whether you are shopping on eBay, a website, or in an autograph gallery. These patterns may be from a fishy similarity in the configuration of the autographs, the type of pen used, the medium used, to most of classic and vintage autographs not being inscribed to someone, or, especially telling, a hard to believe supply.
Ten years ago when forgers were even more prolific on eBay than they are today, you could often look at their other items for sale and notice a fishy similarity to their autographs. Eventually, it would become clear the same person was likely manufacturing most or all of them.
Many suspect dealers have an abundant supply of highly scarce items. For example, one website that sells autographed movie posters always have plenty of Godfather signed posters, even including Marlon Brando's autograph. Those aren't only scarce, a genuine Brando-signed Godfather poster has never appeared in the market. If one ever does it will sell for many thousands of dollars, not $399 like this particular site sells them for. And there are many websites like that one.
2) The seller does not issue a COA and claims they are worthless. What he is really saying is that if you ever request a refund because the autograph is deemed a fake there will be no documented guarantee and hence no recourse for you to get a refund.
3) The seller’s inventory is unnatural. An inventory of genuine autographs will usually have a dramatic diversity. Not just photos and signed pieces of paper, but mediums that are highly unlikely to be forged, including personal checks, contracts, letters (especially on celebrity stationery), official documents like presidential appointments, etc.
Unless they sell mostly autographs from the last 25 years or so, when their inventory contains mostly glossy photos or autographs signed on plain slips of paper, in books or programs, and most items are not inscribed, a red flag should go way up.
One popular tactic for sellers of vintage autograph forgeries is to buy old books and tear out the blank pages and use fountain pens to forge the signatures to give them a vintage appearance. But most of the time newly applied fountain pen ink has a very distinctive, unnatural look to it. Quite different from ink that has aged over a 50 year period. Study the example below:
In this image you see a PSA/DNA Certified genuine Frank Sinatra at the top and a blatant forgery on the bottom. Note the ink of the forgery. It has an unnatural, freshly signed look to it with no aging at all. In addition, the signature was obviously traced from the Frank Sinatra signature study. You can see where the forger is tracing slowly at the beginning so the ink is applied heavily in the first few letters. The natural characteristics of each letter are also missing, particularly how Sinatra uniquely made his "a" with an underlying loop. Also, look at how unnatural the "Fr" connection is in the Frank forgery. Like most forgers, this one doesn't risk adding more evidence of his handiwork by adding an inscription. Sinatra usually added an inscription to in-person autograph requests, as did other major stars like John Wayne, Judy Garland and Marlon Brando.
After you've compared hundreds of genuine and fake examples the signs of a forgery become blatant. Look closely again at the one above and you'll begin to see many more flaws than you did before.
4) Very little or none of the seller’s inventory has been authenticated by a reputable third-party authentication service like JSA or PSA/DNA. For obvious reasons, suspicious sellers have an aversion to reputable independent authentication. Most will try to convince you that industry-recognized third-party authentication services are not credible. What they are really saying is, “I don’t want anyone to have the power to reveal my autographs are fake.”
As a matter of fact, you will probably hear the typical autograph forgery seller malign ANY institution that has been specifically established to educate or protect collectors. Such institutions include the UACC (the largest oldest autograph collecting organization - since 1965), and independent third-party authentication services like JSA and PSA/DNA or recognized specialist authenticators. Why? Because such independent analysis can expose fraudulent autograph sellers.
I need to note that there are exceptions. Many historic autograph dealers rarely use third-party authenticators, and some of dealers in entertainment autographs don't use them that much, but virtually all will give you a refund under the terms of their guarantee if the autograph fails an authenticator respected by the industry.
5) They don't have autographs for sale on eBay. Most legitimate dealers also sell on eBay. Ask the seller if you can check out their eBay autographs for sale if you're not dealing with them there. Most legitimate autograph dealers, even if they have a gallery, store or a website, also have an eBay account. You can see what they currently have for sale there, and autographs they sold or listings that ended in the recent past.
If a seller can't show you his eBay account, there is a possibility that the seller has been banned by eBay for selling forgeries, or for other fraudulent activity. This does not help identify someone who is still selling fakes on eBay, but is another check and balance. Unfortunately, eBay is flooded with non-genuine autographs and is a high-risk place to buy autographs, because many sellers are inexperienced and/or anonymous. They may be unknown in the autograph community or have burned their reputation in it. Forget about any long term guarantee of authenticity if your autograph fails JSA or PSA/DNA after any return privilege.
6) Prices are unrealistically low. There is a website that sells such rare (but actually forged) items like Boris Karloff autographed Frankenstein photos for about $500, and John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland signed 8x10 photos for $299. The market will not allow this to happen.
If a genuine signed Frankenstein photo appears for sale it will sell for no less than $5,000. Even on the extremely rare chance an unknowledgeable seller offered one for such a low cost, it would not last a day. An experienced collector would buy it immediately. Likewise, if a genuine signed John Wayne, Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland photo was being offered for $299, it would be purchased immediately. However, this particular seller seems to have an unlimited supply.
7) No provenance or evidence of purchase. Suspect sellers, particularly forgers, will have no valid proof of purchase for items on their websites. Ask where they acquired it and for proof. Certainly they must have receipts for some of their items. Few dealers are going to reveal what they paid for an item, and may not want to share their source, but any reputable dealer will have receipts for items they have purchased other than the specific items you are interested in buying. An unethical dealer engaged in selling autograph forgeries will probably not have real provenance or proof of purchase for items you sample from their inventory. Why? Because their items were never purchased or were bought from a source of forgeries for pennies on the dollar.
RED FLAG: It is common for sellers of autograph forgeries to consistently claim their autograph inventory was acquired from a deceased source, since such a claim cannot be verified.
8) Most suspect sellers have no credible affiliations with industry-recognized organizations. A credible affiliation is an organization that holds their members accountable. If you are a member of the UACC Registered Dealer Program and they find that you are knowing selling fake autographs, you will be banned. It's the same for a regular UACC members, but it's much less common for them to find out if someone's selling forgeries.
If the UACC bans you for selling forgeries, you will likely land on the UACC Hall of Shame list. Organizations which do not hold members accountable, even credible organizations like the Manuscript Society or Better Business Bureau, should not be any indication that the dealer is reputable. The only criteria to maintain membership is paying the membership fee (what does the BBB know about autographs?).
And as mentioned before, ask the seller if they are a member of an organization like the UACC and listen for their reaction. Is it hostile? Listen to their rationale for why they are not a member. Look for the typical behavior of someone engaged in illicit activity. Keep in mind, though, some fraudsters are very slick and polished.
Now is the UACC perfect in weeding out ALL questionable sellers? No, because they are human and nothing in life is 100%. But they are the best autograph-related organization that I know of that does take action against members that they find selling forgeries. You can go to UACC.ORG to see the directory of active UACC Registered Dealers.
9) Images of autographs they're selling aren't big enough to get a close look. They may not have images at all. A HUGE red flag is a seller of elaborately framed memorabilia, but no close-up images of the actual autograph. This is one way for suspect dealers to avoid the close scrutiny of their autographs by experienced eyes.
There is an uncanny, familiar behavior when a suspect seller is called out or questioned about their autographs. Since a seller of autograph forgeries can't honestly defend their products, the result is often vehement, personal attacks against those who question them.
10) Ask for a rare item you do not see offered for sale. For example, a "Rat Pack” signed photo, a George Reeves as Superman signed photo, a Marilyn Monroe signed photo or an Abraham Lincoln signature. If the dealer can get such a rare autograph quickly, it's probably being made to order. Although a dealer in historical autographs can probably get Lincoln fairly quickly.
And run, don't walk, away from any dealers who says they can get you anything you want.
11) Ask the seller if they will refund your money in full if it fails to pass PSA/DNA or JSA—BEFORE you buy. Get it in writing. Don’t assume the dealer’s COA or guarantee means anything and will be honored after you buy. Unscrupulous dealers know the cost for a customer to sue them for a refund on a fake autograph is rarely worth it, so they will not honor their guarantee.
Whenever possible, ask a reputable dealer or experienced collector for an opinion on the autograph you're considering, and even better, other autographs the seller is offering. If it's an autograph being auctioned, you can ask PSA/DNA for a Quick Opinion. It's only $10 for autographs on eBay and $15 for auctions off of eBay.
If the dealer displays a hostile reaction to opinions from other dealers or authentication services, such defensive behavior (in my own personal experience) often signals a dealer with something to hide.
12) The dealer has no real testimonials on their website or through a reputable independent review service (such as one approved by Google). Some websites post fake testimonials which usually have some initials and very generic info like a state. Happy customers leave real testimonials in their real names.
NOTE: Be wary of many of today's complaint websites like RipoffReport.com and PissedConsumer.com. They are mostly used by malicious competitors and sellers of forgeries to damage the reputation of reputable dealers and members of the autograph field.
One of the best ways to find out about the reputation of a dealer is to ask other collectors and professionals in active autograph forums and communities like Autograph Live and on Facebook and eBay.
Now I realize that there are reputable dealers who may fail one of the above tests. For example, an opinion from one dealer may tick off another reputable dealer and result in a hostile reaction. The point is to look for a pattern of behavior. A blatantly dishonest dealer will surely fail several of the above tests. Also, opinions of authentication services continue to be an endless debate in the collecting community.
Disclaimer: The above is based on my personal experiences, and are not intended for any specific person or dealer. Also, these steps are not "set in stone". For example, some dealers do not accept 3rd party authentication. That in and of itself does NOT always mean the dealer is dishonest and/or selling forgeries.
The same goes for any of the steps above, they do not constitute an affirmation of guilt if a dealer does not follow one of them. The purpose of these guidelines is to make you aware of potential risks when deciding to buy autographs based on observations I have experienced over the past 35 years that have raised a "red flag" . And most, if not all of the time a suspicious autograph seller will have more than one conflict within these guidelines/examples..
The point is to look for a pattern of behavior. Also, opinions of authentication services continue to be an endless debate in the collecting community. However, there is no one that loathes the 3rd party authentication services more than the “forgery industry”, for obvious reasons. At the same time, the sometimes volatile competence of 3rd party authenticators is a legitimate debate that will live on, hopefully for the betterment of the industry. The industry wide “forgery containment” value of 3rd party authentication on the other hand, is undeniable.
Finally, every genre of collecting or investment has risks (none more than the stock market!). But what is more exciting than owning a genuine historical artifact right from the hand of Abraham Lincoln, JFK, Babe Ruth, John Wayne...or any other major cultural icon?
Visit our website, www.cvtreasures.com, for an amazing selection of Historical Memorabilia including Rare Autographs, Autographed Sports Memorabilia, Historical Photos, Documents, Original Vintage Movie & Circus Posters, Artifacts and Antique Fine Art.