Autographs at REA or any other auction: Is Authenticity Guaranteed?

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

In a word, the answer is “No.”

What? What do you mean authenticity of autographs is not guaranteed?

What about autographs with third party authentication? What does Third Party authentication mean? Isn’t that supposed to be an absolute 100% guarantee of authenticity for now and forever? If it’s not, what good is it?

Some collectors don’t like the idea of third party authentication - they just don’t believe in it. We’re not sure what they suggest as an alternative other than being or becoming experts themselves, (assuming time, ability, and desire would permit), but that is the point of view of some people, and they are entitled to it. Others have confidence in some authenticators, but not others. Fortunately, there is room for all points of view.

At REA, we utilize the services of James Spence Authentications (JSA) to review all signed items. We think very highly of their service. This doesn’t mean that all other autograph authentication services are not good. This is what we have chosen to do because we believe that JSA offers the best authentication service in the business. That doesn’t mean that they are perfect, that they have never made a mistake, or that their opinion could not change on a given item. Some other services and individuals may be very good at providing authentication services. We find that almost 100% of the time (not 100%, but almost 100%) that if a signed item is consigned to REA with a letter from certain companies (such as PSA) or certain individuals, that JSA has the same opinion. We also find that when items are consigned with letters from certain other individuals and companies, approximately 100% of the time JSA is not OK with these items. Obviously, this is not a coincidence. Statistically, that would be impossible. When a signed item is consigned that is already accompanied by a letter of authenticity, the item and letter are separated by us before being presented to JSA for review. At REA, JSA has no idea if an item has previously been reviewed by any other service before being presented with the item authentication review. We have even had cases (very rare, but it has happened) when JSA has told us they are not comfortable writing a letter on an item previously authenticated by JSA. This is very rare but knowledge increases over time, and opinions can sometimes change over time.

One thing we cannot do, and no else can do either, is guarantee the authenticity of any signature we did not see signed ourselves. What we can guarantee is this: that for every REA auction we have an authentication process that we make very clear, and that we follow this process. This process can change over the years. What we did in 1997 is a little different than what we did in 2007; authenticators change, some have even passed away, but we define what the process is, and follow through with that process for better or worse. In the current auction, each and every signed item was presented for review to James Spence Authentication. This process occurred over the entire year. Most items are reviewed two times, and in many cases items have been reviewed three times. Many items are rejected. In fact, literally hundreds of items were rejected by JSA and returned to would-be consignors which, if authentic, would have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (that is not a misprint). It is possible that there were a few items that were rejected by JSA that were in fact authentic. We like to remind people that if in 1927 Babe Ruth were signing an autograph, and someone bumped into him while he was signing and because of this his signature was severely affected and ruined, the resulting signature would not look like other Ruth signatures, even though it is real, and JSA would not write a letter on that particular signature in 2008. It is also possible that JSA (or any authenticator) could render a positive opinion on a signature and be incorrect. No one claims otherwise. That comes with the territory of signature authentication and collecting. Even if JSA (or any authenticator) were to be correct well over 99% of the time, it would not be perfect. Remember: All vintage signatures have one thing in common. We weren’t there when they were signed. That’s just a fact. All we can do is have a process we think is the best and stay true to it. At REA, we do not deviate from this process.

What if a collector does not have confidence in JSA’s opinion, but has confidence in the opinion of another service or individual? We are always happy to go out of our way to work with any authenticator a buyer wants to review any item. We encourage it. If a buyer does not have confidence in any authentication service or any individual to provide authentication on signed items, then it stands to reason that person definitely should not be buying any signed items. Similarly, if a baseball card collector felt he could not tell if an old baseball card was authentic or not authentic, and believed that no one else could make this distinction either, that person should not be buying old baseball cards.

The bottom line is that neither REA or any other auction house or any dealer or any collector can truly “guarantee” that a given autograph is authentic. It can even be difficult to prove with certainty that an autograph is not authentic. Occasionally a signed item can be determined to be not authentic with 100% certainty simply due to a common sense fact (such as a ball that was made in 1950 is “signed” by a ballplayer that died in 1940). Many factors go into the opinions of authenticators, including comparison with  exemplars and experience. Sometimes provenance can reflect positively or negatively. If a rare autograph can be traced directly to an unimpeachable source or originates directly from the family of the signer, that is naturally very positive. The flip side is also true: If a seller of a rare autograph claims to have family provenance but evidence suggests that it is not true, and when further questioned the seller pleads “The Fifth,” that is naturally a “red flag”.   

We can’t guarantee what any other authenticator would say about any given signed item, and we also can’t provide a warranty on an opinion, but we can guarantee that when preparing the auction, we presented every signed item to JSA for authentication, and only those items approved by James Spence Authentication are presented in the auction. We don’t play what we call the “mix ‘n match” game with authenticated items. Items that were approved by other authenticators, but not by JSA, were rejected and returned to the consignors. Many of these rejected items have been offered at other auction venues.

So where does that leave the collector? Does third party authentication have any value?  We think it does, but every collector has to decide for themselves. With some types of signed items, like most checks, for example, the opinion of a third party often has little extra value to collectors, because by nature they are always authentic. But when dealing with some other types of items, like rare cut signatures with no provenance, the buyer is really putting his confidence totally in the hands of the authenticator (or relying on his own expertise or the expertise of his chosen authenticator).

When we hear anyone say they do not believe in the value of any third party authentication, that collectors should only purchase from dealers who “guarantee their items for life,” we do have to wonder how it comes to be that an item is later deemed to be worthy of a refund because of this, because such a determination, by definition, itself must rely on the opinion of a third party. We don’t know how to “guarantee” the authenticity of signatures we have not seen signed ourselves, and no one else can either. We all live in the same world. There is no authenticator alive (or in the past) that has not made a mistake at some time or another, sometimes even a stupid sloppy mistake, like authenticating a preprinted or autopen signature in error. We have seen collectors point to obvious mistakes by third-party authenticators as evidence that none of their opinions have value. We don’t think that is fair but we respect that everyone is entitled to their opinion. We are writers at REA, and we would hate to be judged solely by an occasional typo or text of a rare description that has errors. So what is Third Party authentication when it is true that no authenticator is going to be correct 100% of the time? At REA, it is this: we have chosen what we believe to be the best authentication firm in the world for the type of signed items we offer at auction; we can guarantee that when these signed items were processed for auction, they were carefully examined and deemed in the opinion of JSA to be authentic; and we can guarantee that JSA provided a letter for each lot. That’s what it means. Nothing more. Nothing less.

It is important for collectors to understand what they are bidding on, what guarantees are provided (at REA and elsewhere) and not be under any false impression. Sometimes we are asked, “What if PSA does not like this item, but JSA does? Can I return it?” and we have to answer “No. But you have two options: if you only want to buy signed items authenticated by PSA, why not buy items that have already been authenticated by PSA? Or, we will be happy to work with you with any arrangements you want to allow you to have PSA, or any authenticator of your choice, review any item in the auction for you. This can be done by reviewing photos online, reviewing items in person, or we can even make special arrangements (with expenses paid by you) to send items out. That way you can know what any authenticator of your choice has to say about any item. But we cannot predict what they are going to say about any given item or make any guarantees. That would be impossible, and if we had to do that, then we just could not sell autographed items.”

Important note: This essay has not been written in response to any autograph authentication issue with any item at REA, but these are thoughts that we think have merit, are worth articulating, and that we have not seen presented in this form elsewhere.


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