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Hopefully, your sports memorabilia collectable will come from a legitimate dealer like Steiner or Upper Deck. These companies sign exclusive contracts with athletes and diligently document signing sessions to prove authenticity. But what if you’re at a flee market and a little white haired lady is offering a crazy deal on an old yellow photo that happens to be signed by Sugar Ray Leonard. Is she senile? Or is she running a racket? These tips on checking out autographs might not help you get a 100% positive ID, but memorize them and you should be savvy enough to weed out the obvious frauds.
1. Beware of the Autopen.
Autopen is the name of the machine brand. It uses a pre-programmed pattern matrix—a real, sample signature—to uses a mechanical arm with a writing implement to sign hundreds or even thousands of items. It’s usually used for glossy publicity photos or letters and it is compatible with any type of pen. Some athletes will switch pen types mid-way through a run to make the signatures look more unique. Look closely at the letters. If the signature looks “wobbly,” like the writing surface was vibrating, it was probably made by an autopen. Also, the machine often starts and stops abruptly. Sign your own name and notice how the signature trails off. Autopen signatures are prone to ending in dots or just breaking off, like the pen was pressed down or just abruptly lifted off the page. Also, no two autographs are ever exactly the same. The odds are slim that you’ll have a chance to compare, but if your local flee market dealer has two Jordan photos hanging on the wrack and the signatures are identical in every stroke, the odds are they’re both fake.
2. Crude Rubber Stamps
These are usually pretty easy to catch. Rubber stamps are relatively obsolete these days, but they were prevalent up through the 1970’s. Look for clotted or “pooled-up” ink. Also, telltale bleeding and smudging often occurs, especially if it was stamped quickly.
Preprints are also easy to catch. Make the dealer let you see the item and hold it up to the light. “Preprint” is just a fancy way to say, “color copy” or “color print-out.” The signature will be flat, and will appear “part” of the photo, rather than layered on top of it. If it’s a glossy picture, it will be layered under the gloss. Preprints are getting more sophisticated though, so look out.
4. Outright forgeries
These are the most difficult to detect. People spend years becoming experts on one athletes signature. Before dropping any significant amounts of cash on an undocumented autograph, you owe it to yourself to check it against an authentic signature. People never sign the same, but they will usually be relatively consistent. If Mark McGwire always gets carried away with his G’s, it’s pretty suspicious if he manages to control that loop. Also, look and for small dots in the middle of the autograph, as if someone tracing it had stopped in the middle. Check for anachronisms. A letter signed by Babe Ruth in 1950 won’t be printed on laser paper. Sounds obvious to us, but you’d be surprised.
If you’re shopping on auction sites like ebay, you’ve got to be especially careful of these kinds of frauds. Since you won’t have the item in hand or the dealer in front of you when you’re shopping online, you’ll have to rely on other methods to screen sellers.
Look at the kind of feedback they’ve gotten. If a seller’s feedback is below 98 percent, or they have a lot of comments that have been mutually withdrawn, this is probably someone you don’t want to do business with. Run a quick Google search of the seller’s screenname and see what comes up. If they’ve been selling for a while, there’s going to be something on the Internet (good or bad) about them.
If you do decide to buy on ebay, make sure you’re buying a piece that comes with a certificate of authenticity. Do your research and find out everything you can about the company that issued the COA. A major red flag would be if you couldn’t find anything about this company on the Internet. You should also find out where the piece was signed (a private in-house signing? A major appearance?) and see if you can get proof of the signing . If there’s a photo of the athlete signing your item, make sure that a. it is in fact the item you purchased and b. that you’re not looking at a stock photo. Many times, companies keep electronic records of the merchandise they sell and, if you have the serial number, you can contact the company and have them pull up the record. This is the best way to ensure you’ve gotten your money’s worth.
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It is important to educate yourself when buying sports memorabilia online. Fake certificates of authenticity are an easy way for unscrupulous sellers to make some easy money. Unfortunately, when someone sells a forged signed Rays baseball or a fake signed Cowboys jersey, these people are polluting the entire sports memorabilia market. This has been an issue within the industry for years, prompting leading memorabilia retailers to partner with sports governing bodies to oversee and authenticate memorabilia. Buying an authentic signed Deion Sanders jersey from a retailer may not be the same as walking out of the ballpark with Yogi Berra baseball, but unfortunately those days may be drawing to a close. Especially if you are looking at sports memorabilia collecting as an investment rather than a hobby, it's definitely best to get any items you personally obtain authenticated to establish potential resale value. This is true of all sports, whether you're dealing with memorabilia from a hot NBA team like authentic Miami heat jerseys, or memorabilia from one of the slightly more esoteric sports like a signed Mia Hamm soccer ball. But with the right attention to authenticity, collecing sports collectibles can still be both fun and a smart investment!
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