Autograph fraud is the biggest threat facing the memorabilia industry today, and is on the increase. During the FBI ‘Operation Bullpen’ (check it on Google) in the USA, twenty six arrests were made and a staggering $10,000,000 worth of forged memorabilia and $500,000 in cash was seized. Some of the dealers involved were also selling their wares to UK based dealers, who in turn were then offering them via High Street shops to unsuspecting buyers. As a result of the US raids, a number of UK shops and dealers either closed or disappeared! However, some simply started creating their own ‘authentic signed memorabilia’ and offering it via various internet auctions.
Imagine spending good money on a signed photograph of your favourite star, only to find out the autograph is fake and worth no more than the paper it is printed on.
As internet auction sites do nothing to verify the authenticity of items on their site, rogue sellers can sell their wares completely un-checked. Many have high feedback ratings, giving buyers confidence in them, but this only indicates good customer service, as the unwitting customers are not autograph experts so are unable to tell that what they have bought are fake.
So how can I be sure that what I am buying is authentic? Well, firstly there are many good sellers on internet auctions, they are not all bad, and most will also sell at various events around the country, and most UK dealers know one another, so if one says, ‘I have been doing this for 15 years, then simply ask around, and you will soon find out if he is telling the truth!
Here are some pointers when buying...
- When looking for authentic signed items, we recommend that you always search out established dealers that are well known within the business, and not just known for selling on eBay! There are a number of associations or clubs that dealers can join, but AFTAL is the only one that has a strict initial vetting procedure, an online complaints form, a compulsory full day autograph course for all new dealer members, an email newsletter to ensure that its members are aware of any new forgers etc, and a complete list of its dealers with contact details on the website.
Any dealer who is serious about autographs will have taken the time and effort to become a full member of one of the more well known autograph associations who have their dealer members listed on their websites. It is our opinion that you should be very cautious about dealing with anyone who is not prepared to both join and stand by one of these associations' rules and regulations. But beware! We have seen a number of shady dealers who have even gone as far as creating their own associations in an effort to create a cloak of respectability for their fakes and forgeries!
- Look out for dealers who state on their website or listings 'I buy my stock from UACC or AFTAL dealers' whilst not themselves being members of either! These dealers should raise a question mark (have they been refused membership, do they indeed buy from who they say!), and anyway, surely you can do the same without their extra mark up?
- Don't accept a COA as absolute proof that an item is authentic. A COA is only as good as the person who issued it. Louise Marney, Graeme Walker, Faisal Medani, Gary Hayes, and Anthony Shields all issued impressive looking COA's often with holograms etc, but all sold fakes by the thousand and have since been sentenced for their crimes by one court or another. Always remember that an item is either genuine or not, and no amount of COA's or similar will ever make a fake item genuine.
- A COA should always include the dealer's full name and contact details, as well as membership numbers of any associations they are members of, without this the COA is worthless, and always check the membership of any dealer if he says he is a member of some association or the other. Never assume that what they are saying is a fact! AFTAL, PADA and the UACC Registered Dealer programme are the only associations with any kind of vetting procedure etc, and all have a full dealer member list on their websites.
- Don't ask the dealer questions such as 'is this genuine' if he is a good dealer, then you must take that as read, but if he is a faker, then he will always simply tell you what you want to hear anyway, so the question proves rather pointless. 'When was this item signed' for the same reason this is another bad question. Some dealers can tell you where or when an item was signed, as they may have obtained it themselves in person, but the same could not be said of say a Charles Dickens or Charlie Chaplin signature. Being able to talk to the dealer is important, so look for a phone number and ask them about the size of the photo or other relevant questions. This will enable you to get a much better 'feel' for the dealer, as most dealers have a passion for autographs, and will enjoy talking about the hobby with you.
- If you are building a collection, then try and learn more about autographs and collecting. There are dozens of books available, some good some not so good. The bible for prices is the 'Sanders Price Guide' available via Amazon. Other good books are 'Advanced Autograph Collecting' by Mark Allen Baker, and the 'Guinness Book of World Autographs' by Ray Rawlins. Both of these cover most areas and between them contain thousands of reference signatures. These books are both out of print, but are sometimes available via some autograph dealers.
AFTAL are also now able to offer day courses for dealers and soon for collectors as well. There are also many websites and forums for autograph collecting, and there is also a magazine ‘Autograph Collector’ but this is only available from the USA via subscription, but is well worth it.
In short, do your homework before buying any signed item, and if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is!