This article is directed at any signature collector or someone wishing to simply buy an autographed copy of any item from a book, painting, historical object, photo, or anything hand-signed. As part of the incentive to buy, you probably will be offered a COA or Certificate of Authenticity or LOA, letter of Authenticity. It a document that states that the item is genuine. In other words, it was hand-signed. It could be a baseball signed by Mickey Mantles or a record autographed by Elvis Presley. Without one, you just have a signed item. But with it, you now have a signed item and a piece of paper. Now, don’t you feel better? You don’t?
There’s a reason. Suppose you just spent $500 to buy a John Wayne autographed photo on eBay. The dealer or seller explains they get their autographs from other reputable dealers and they issued the COA’s. Let’s say it came from Honest-To-Goodness Collectibles of El Paso, Texas. They have a post office box for an address. The COA says that they guarantee that the photo is hand-signed and genuine for life. Sounds pretty good, right? Wrong! Let’s look at that again. A P.O. Box is really no address at all. And they say it was hand-signed, but by who? John Wayne or the storeowner? Finally, a lifetime guarantee is referring to whose lifetime? And what if you find out it’s a fake? Who are you going to call? Autograph-busters?
See my point. This pretty piece of paper that can be created in seconds on any computer is a security blanket with lots of loopholes. As someone who has been taken advantage of in the past, let me explain the facts of life for any collector of autographs. This is a true example. I bought a signed item a while ago with a COA. After doing some of my own online investigation, I became convinced that the signature was a fake. I called up the company that issued the COA and this is what transpired.
Me: The signature is a fake and I want my money back.
Them: Can you prove it?
Me: Yes, I have an opinion from a reputable forensic group.
Them: Is it in writing?
Them: Is it from one of our recognized experts?
Me: You mean you have your own list of experts?
Them: Yes, and it has to be from one of ours. It has to be in writing and it must state that they are hundred percent sure it is not real and that they would be able to state that fact in a court of law.
Me: No one would do that. No one could be positive of anything unless they personally saw it signed.
Them: Exactly. So, unless you have conclusive proof that it wasn’t signed by the celebrity in question, we do not have to do anything. And have a nice day.
That was the conversation. I imagine that any other company that issues COAs would take the same approach. You must be able to prove beyond any doubt that the signature is fake. Yet no one can guarantee an autograph is real unless it was witnessed in person. So the burden of proof is lifted from the COA issuer and placed squarely on the buyer’s shoulders. The same is true for a painting by Picasso or an original phonograph built by Thomas Edison. The guarantee of authenticity is only as good as the reputation of the seller or original issuer. That doesn’t mean that all COA’s are worthless, but it’s rather like the US dollar. When it was backed by gold, it was solid. Now that it’s backed by a promise from the Federal Reserve, its worth is now based on the financial condition of the US. And that could be good or lousy, at any given moment.
So, a word to the wise: do your own homework on the item and signature first. Then make sure the item is priced fairly. For instance, an original Neil Armstrong moonwalker signature for twenty bucks is an obvious fake considering his signature can be worth thousands. Then, assume the COA is entirely worthless, regardless of who it’s from, because even the “experts” make mistakes all the time, both for and against autographs. Then buy it because it’s great to own and not as an investment. Because, down the road, you may discover it’s not what it seems to be and that will be a rather sad day for you. But it’s also a fact of life in the autograph game. I hope this helps and happy collecting!