The one on the left is worth $500.00!  The one on the right is a worthless forgery-DON’T GO IT ALONE!

Authentication (Don’t be fooled by forgeries)

The only way to know for sure that an autograph is authentic is to get it signed yourself. Since this is not always practical, you must look to the best alternatives. This becomes especially tough in terms of sports memorabilia, considering that it is the source of the most prevalent and ubiquitous array of fake items that you will find in collectibles. The fake or forged sports memorabilia signatures fall into two basic categories, that being malicious and non-malicious.

Malicious Autographs

This category is easy. Someone practiced a particular athletes signature for so long and on so many surfaces that they were able to replicate it and pass it on to unsuspecting buyers. Some are bad at it, but others are very skilled. Among the most forged autographs in the hobby would be Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. Some are so patently bad that a routine review of certified exemplars of the signatures will reveal their obviously fraudulent nature (see below regarding comparison of exemplars). However, some are so expertly done that even the best of the experts can sometimes differ. I once had a Joe DiMaggio ball that was rejected by Jimmy Spence (James Spence Authentication – JSA) during an onsite visit. I would have bet my life it was a good DiMaggio, as I had bought and sold many of them over the years. I expressed that sentiment to Jimmy, and he looked at me and said, “Brian, these guys are artists.”  This makes “going it alone” treacherous, yes, even for me!

Non-malicious Autographs

Before collecting autographs became a business, fans used to collect them for their own enjoyment. Many still do. Around the 150th anniversary of baseball arrived, there was a resulting heightened interest in the history of the game. As a consequence, athletes began getting inundated with autograph requests, both through their teams and directly to their homes. Throughout history it was not unusual for those close to the athlete to respond and sometimes actually sign for the individual. One example would be the clubhouse signature. This usually stemmed from a baseball left around a locker room for players to sign and send off to someone who had made the request, usually someone familiar with the team like an executive or advertisers. Many of the athletes would sign these balls, but others would either directly or by acquiescence have the item signed by a bat boy or someone else affiliated with the team. For example, many of the New York Yankees team signed baseballs from the late 1950’s into the 1960’s often have clubhouse signatures of Mickey Mantle. The other non malicious signatures are secretarial. This would usually be an office secretary or a close family member. Wives and secretaries very often responded to fan mail and became very adept at signing the athletes name. They weren’t trying to “cheat” anyone, but simply wanted to avoid requests to go unresponded to and were thus, “non-malicious”. It is not unusual for an expert to look at a signed item, declare it a non-malicious forgery, and actually know who (wife, daughter, secretary, etc) signed it.

So What Is The Collector To Do?

First, buy from quality sources that stand behind the authenticity. Most reputable sellers will give some reasonable period of time to inspect the item and return it unconditionally. Some offer longer guarantees. Of course any guarantee is only as good as the reliability of the person or company giving it. It is also advisable to either buy items that have been previously reviewed and authenticated or to have the items authenticated yourself. The former may be more financially appealing, in that the authentication costs have already been absorbed. Someone who does not have a regular relationship with an authentication company may pay significantly more than one who has developed a long relationship. It can cost upwards of $150.00 to have Letters of Authenticity issued on certain items.

The primary reliable sources for sports collecting authentication would be the aforementioned James Spence Authentication (JSA) and PSA/DNA. The experts who work in these companies have collected and reviewed literally thousands exemplars for every athlete in all areas of sports and during differing eras of the athletes life. The authentication comes in three basic forms. The premiere level of authentication is the full Letter of Authenticity (LOA). This means that it has been fully examined by the professional and signed off on by members of the staff. The letter comes with a corresponding numbered sticker. This number will match the number on the LOA and will be affixed directly to the item or onto the letter itself, depending on the type of item being authenticated. This letter will bear an actual photographic image. This is the most expensive level of authentication and required for higher value autographs or multiple signed items. Also be wary of auction house letters of authenticity. An auction house letter of authenticity begins as a reputable piece of documentation. Authentication companies such as JSA or PSA/DNA will review an auction house lot. The lot may contain numerous items within it. Rather than give an individual stickers and certificate of authenticity to each item, they may issue a letter of authenticity that covers the entire lot.

The problem with this is that since there is no sticker on individual items with corresponding numbers or photo, making it easy for someone who may be unscrupulous to provide me an auction house letter (and sometimes only a photocopy of it) with an item as its provenance. The next level would be the Basic Certification or certificate of authentication (COA). The COA is a card with a number and will have a tamper-proof sticker on the item with a corresponding number that matches the one on the (COA). For smaller flat items such as checks, cut signatures, small photographs, 3 x 5 cards, etc., can be placed in an acrylic protective case and will bear the authenticity label from the company. This permanently authenticates the item and also protects it from being damaged for the long term.

The third method is offered by JSA and is a non-numbered stamp of approval (SOA). This is for items of lower value, the size of an 8 X 10 or smaller. These items receive the same scrutiny as the other methods and represents an economical way to have an item authenticated. Both JSA ( and PSA/DNA ( off website access to put in your item number and assure that it is registered in their database. While there is an objective standard applied to reviewing items and giving the authenticity approval, it is the next best thing to getting it signed yourself. Other reliable sources of sports memorabilia will be from companies that are in the business of having items signed for them under contract with athletes. The most prominent would be Upper Deck Authenticated (UDA) and Steiner. There are countless other companies and dealers that purport to provide COA’s, but be very careful as a piece of paper is no guarantee that the item had been actually examined by an expert.

What Should You Look Out For?

Do some investigation yourself. If you are looking into buying an item from the internet or from a local dealer, beyond looking at the quality and reputation of the dealer, do some investigation of your own. E-Bay is a wonderful resource for finding examples of signatures of sports figures. Review those which have already been certified and compare it with the one you are contemplating buying. While you may lack the level expertise of a professional to know the signatures, it would give some advantage in trying to determine the genuineness of the item. 20th Century Baseball has worked with PSA/DNA and enjoys a long standing relationship JSA. Most everything we sell has passed the scrutiny of one or both of these companies. Nevertheless, with every item purchased, it can be returned within 3 months of the sell with no questions asked…. Yes, even for “buyer’s remorse”. Just bring the item back in the same condition and with proof of purchase and we will gladly refund the full purchase price or exchange the item for another – your choice!

The best defense is to follow these instructions and common sense in approaching adding items to your collection. Please contact 20th Century Baseball if you need more help in this area.