AAU’s Max: Unbiased science the way to go

BY ROCKY LANDSVERK

This week the series continues with another of the autograph authenticators who are not longtime autograph dealers, but who say they came to become an autograph expert through training and education.

Drew Max, who along with partner Marc Goldman owns and runs Authentic Autographs Unlimited, says his scientific background and unbiased business model make him a great choice for autograph collectors who need a second (or third-party) opinion.
 
There will likely be a follow-up question process at the end of these interviews, which are going to take months to complete. If you have questions that weren’t answered, please e-mail them to me at rocky.landsverk @fwpubs.com.

Most of these questions came from readers and will be asked of every authenticator. Thanks to all who have participated in the questioning process; please continue to aid the series with your involvement.

SCD: Tell us about yourself and your background.
Drew Max: I’m a forensic document examiner by profession. I’ve been doing this approximately 20 years; over 10 years full time. I’m court-qualified both here in Nevada and Southern California. I’ve completed a couple of apprenticeship programs. I’m also the official forensic document examiner for the North Las Vegas Police Department.

SCD: How did you become a forensic document examiner?
DM: A lot of people make a lot of claims. A lot of time they make claims based on a short period of time that they studied a book or went to a course, which is good for beginning, but let’s face it, you can’t be making claims that you’ve got years of experience and have gone to court, and are respected by the DA’s office. These things take years. There’s no college degree with regards to this particular area.
It comes from a formal apprenticeship program. I’ve done two of those, and they last a few years each. Mine was with Howard Doulder, who spent 18 years with the Treasury Department. He passed away just a couple years ago. There are certain procedures that you have to do to become qualified to testify in court.

SCD: What do you authenticate? Do you concentrate on a certain area? And what are the costs?
DM: We examine sports memorabilia, celebrities, and we do quite a bit of historical documents. And we do a lot of legal documents.
The client always pays shipping and insurance. Costs can vary widely, from $10-$20 to a few hundred dollars, depending on how much work is involved. We don’t do game-used jerseys, only autographs. We have a lot of this kind of information on our Web site: www.aaunlimited.com.

SCD: Many collectors believe it’s important to have a formal education in order to be a qualified authenticator? Do you concur that authenticators need a formal education, and what is the extent of yours?
DM: I absolutely believe you should. I graduated as a history major, and I believe that’s important to get off the ground floor. You can’t start to be a forensic document examiner until you have a college degree. You’ve got to watch people making a big to-do about short-term classes and those sorts of things (calling that a formal education).

SCD: Does it concern you when dealers cite their history and experience in the hobby as their training?
DM: It does. Everybody has a right to do their business, but I have a problem when they’re buying and selling and authenticating.

SCD: How much of your job is an art (experience) vs. a science (training)?
DM: Almost all of it is scientific. You follow scientific methodology. Certainly the more experience you have, the more it helps, but clearly the abundance of it is science. We try to reach objective conclusions where you’re not going with your heart, you hope it’s good, or you want to sell it. Those are things I don’t have to deal with because I don’t buy and sell (collectibles).

SCD: How important is provenance in your analysis? Can it be a deciding factor?
DM: You consider all evidence, but you really can’t consider provenance. It really comes down to hearsay. You really have to only consider the evidence that’s on the item. I understand that people want to put provenance to it. We always have a good laugh when we get a good provenance story that comes through when it clearly doesn’t match the forensic evidence.

SCD: Do you utilize a team, a second or third opinion if you need it?
DM: When Howard was alive, he’d do some work with me, but we always did it independently. In this field, you’re not allowed to team up with other people, that’s collusion in the legal world. Every examiner needs to look at it independently. You can discuss it after the fact.

SCD: What’s your stance on the verbiage, an authentication vs. a professional opinion? What does it say on your COA?
DM: It’s a professional opinion. It’s objective, without conflict of interest, because we don’t buy or sell and we use scientific methodology. Every piece is different; some have more evidence to look at than others. In general, ours are “professional opinion” COAs.

SCD: What are the initial steps if somebody calls and said they think the item is different than you assessed?
DM: It’s actually very rare when a situation like that does happen. We’re willing to do full reports on any piece, if people want specifics, and I don’t mean what appear to be specifics but are really just the same thing written over and over again. Some authenticators do that. We put down details so they can study the item more themselves.

SCD: Have you ever had something that you’d clearly gotten wrong? What happens in that situation?
DM: The first couple years we were doing this, our library wasn’t what it is today, and there were a couple pieces or so where we got further information later on. There was a Marilyn Monroe piece, one of the known samples (exemplars) that we used came from her estate and we found out later on that it had been touched up. We bought the item in that case. But that happens very rarely.

SCD: You’ve said you don’t buy and sell in the field. What’s your feeling on those authenticators who do?
DM: We believe it is a conflict of interest. If somebody wants to do that, it’s a free country, but if you were buying your fiancé a diamond ring, would you take your appraisal from the person you’re buying it from? No, you want something independently done. I think that’s the way it should be in this profession. It’s the way the business world works in other areas.

SCD: Have you seen specific instances where you believe something “became real” because somebody had a financial interest in the authentication?
DM: I remember one instance when an authenticator criticized something for looking too new, the ink was too fresh, and then six months later, I saw him selling a Babe Ruth ball that was in better condition for over $50,000. It makes you wonder. The conflict of interest thing is always precarious.

SCD: If you don’t have the exemplars, do you turn down the revenue, or do you try to find the exemplars?
DM: We certainly try to find the exemplars, but you can’t authenticate every autograph. If we don’t have enough known samples that we feel comfortable with, then we write a short note stating that we don’t have known exemplars (and there is no authentication fee).

SCD: Similar question for “common” players, a typical ballplayer, or an entertainer. Do you have an exemplar library that allows you to authenticate them?
DM: At this point, our library has gotten substantial. You can’t do everybody. The common players are the hardest to find; they haven’t been in the league that long. In general, they’re also less forged. But if your library is big enough, you should be able to do a lot of players’ autographs, especially baseball.

SCD: How long do you spend per item?
DM: That can vary quite a bit, from 15 minutes to hours. If you have a vintage piece or a historical document, it’s going to take much longer. You have a lot more evidence to go over, especially if the signature appears to be authentic. The higher the quality, the more time it takes. It’s easier and you can spend less time on something that is clearly a poor forgery.

SCD: Do you see every item that gets a COA?
DM: You have to see all of them. Every piece has to stand on its own. We don’t buy lots where people will take a chance that they’re all good; we do one piece at a time.

SCD: Do you have a history in the hobby and an exposure to a lot of great collections that gives you a history and experience in the hobby?
DM: Over the years, our exemplar library has gotten very fat. We have, on certain individuals like Babe Ruth, an incredible timeline on certain signatures throughout his life. Your signature when you’re younger is different than when you’re older, so that’s just one reason why you have to have a large library.

SCD: Does the existence of clubhouse signatures make the entire ball a forgery? What do you do when there are 10 signatures on a ball and two of them are clubhouse signatures?
DM: I don’t believe the whole ball is a forgery. What we do, if there are 20-25 signatures on a ball, I only authenticate the signatures that I know are authentic. I’m not going to judge anything that I don’t have samples on, or that could be a clubhouse signature.

SCD: So that COA becomes a long and detailed list?
DM: That’s right, you stick with the top names and the players you have samples on, and avoid problems.

SCD: Which of the other authenticators in the industry would you trust? Which ones would you work with?
DM: I’ve never really met any of them and I’d rather not comment on how much I respect any of them. There are certainly some very good ones out there, and there are very poor ones.

SCD: Donald Frangipani mentioned you by name in a recent interview, saying he would work with you, presumably because you’re a forensic document examiner.
DM: I don’t know who he is. I wouldn’t work with anybody else. That would be going into collusion. And just because somebody has some forensic document credentials doesn’t mean they’re always accurate. It’s always better if you work by yourself.

SCD: That seems to be one of your calling cards – that you’re not in the “old boys network.”
DM: Especially in this day and age, it’s hard to really trust anybody, unless you’ve done business with them for years and years. We’ve taken away the conflicts of interest to people can trust us.

SCD: Many collectors believe an item will be graded higher or approved based on the fact that a well-known person or a high-dollar client submitted an item, and conversely believe they’ve had items suffer because they’re not that big client. Does that happen in the hobby and have you seen it happen with your service.
DM: It definitely happens in the hobby, you can clearly see where certain people are given a lot of confidence. We don’t do that; each item must stand on its own. That’s why Marc, my partner, does all of the front office work, to make sure that I feel I’m always objective. I don’t even know who sent it to us until after I’ve finished it. You want to deal with the evidence and not the politics. That’s one reason you don’t see me at a lot of shows. I have to take each item objectively and one at a time.

SCD: What’s your advice to the person who’s caught between dueling authenticators, somebody says it’s good and somebody says it isn’t?
DM: I certainly have a lot of empathy for collectors who have that problem. We’re willing to write full reports with a lot of detail – a lot of authenticators won’t do that – that’s why we stand behind ours. It’s a sad situation when a collector gets two opinions because they don’t know what to do, but it comes down to the reputation of the examiner and their honesty.

SCD: Given how much the authenticators disagree, doesn’t that invalidate the entire process? Is this an impossible task? Why should we trust any of this?
DM: I’ve been sent, over the years, thousands of pieces to be examined. There are going to be instances when people disagree. It really doesn’t happen as much as some people think it happens. It probably happens a lot between certain individuals who don’t like each other, but it really shouldn’t happen that often. In legal cases, it’s very rare that I would have to go into court and go up against another examiner. You’re not supposed to be disagreeing a lot. It should be a rarity.
All of the (authentications) that everybody agrees on, there’s no chatter about that. The ones that get debated get the press.

SCD: What’s your opinion of assessing the value of an item and then charging for authentication services based on that value, vs. charging based on the time it takes to evaluate the item?
DM: You certainly can’t abuse the situation (regarding value of the item); it comes down to the time you spend and how much risk there is in doing a certain piece. You can’t set a percentage vs. a retail value. It comes down to your time.
You’re going to charge more if you’ve got a piece that’s going to take more work. If you’ve got vintage paper to look at, the type of writing instrument, the type of ink, maybe the type of photograph, was it possible for them to sign during that time period, do you have samples from that time period to compare them against? If something’s going to take more time, you’re going to charge more.

SCD: Have you ever been fooled by a group of forgeries, figured out later you had been wrong?
DM: In the first couple years, when our library wasn’t what it is today, yes, like on that Marilyn Monroe piece that I mentioned. You’ve got to be very careful about the known samples that you’re going to use. Obviously certain individuals are more forged than others.

SCD: How long can it take for the authenticators to be able to tell there’s a new batch or type of forgery out?
DM: That depends on how good they are, like the Marino situation, he was very skilled. Everybody knew him as an artist before he became famous as a forger. He was very well-skilled. Most forgers are not that skilled and they make quite a lot of mistakes. They may think they’re skilled, but a lot of problems come out with the authentic samples.
SCD: Did the Marino family fakes “catch” you?
DM: We spoke to Tim Fitzsimmons of the FBI and he said that most of the major authenticators did authenticate some pieces. But we were actually invited by him and the FBI to go to San Diego and their big warehouse to photograph all of the things from the big bust, and we didn’t see anything that we had passed with our certificate when we were there.

SCD: So you were able to photograph all of those fake-autograph exemplars?
DM: Yeah, it was great. It was very nice that the FBI was able to help our library like that.

SCD: What enables you to tell if an autograph is secretarial, or an autopen?
DM: Secretarials are forgeries, but not to the letter of the law because when they were first distributed, they weren’t sold, so no crime was committed. It was designed to give the celebrity time to do what they do. But the secretarial (autograph) is still a forgery. You have to have a lot of samples to know (that it’s secretarial), but most of the time, you’re basing it on the authentic signature, you don’t really know it’s secretarial, you only know it’s not from the star.
With regard to autopens, it takes a lot of time to get enough samples of each autopen that is used. Autopens aren’t much of a problem in sports; it’s more of a problem in historical or presidential. There are certain things to look for: No two signatures can ever be 100 percent the same. You will see blunt endings quite a bit, where the ink stops. And you’ll see mild corrugation to the ink line, a small shakiness to the ink line. These are things that tell you it’s an autopen.

SCD: Would you be willing to prove your findings in court, if a dispute came to that?
DM: Absolutely. I’ve been court-qualified many times. We’re more than willing to do that.

SCD: Are COAs meaningless if they have disclaimers on them that shed the authenticator of responsibility if the evaluation turns out to be wrong?
DM: We don’t put any disclaimers on our certificate. We state it as a professional opinion. We don’t put disclaimers on it because we’re willing to go to court to back it up.

SCD: Do you have an insurance policy regarding your authentications? Somebody told me you have a Lloyd’s of London insurance policy.
DM: Yes, we’ve had one for almost 10 years. It’s an errors and omissions policy. It’s only for me, for the authenticator. But the good news is we haven’t had to use it yet.

SCD: What’s your advice to a collector who has a forgery or counterfeit?
DM: If you know you’ve gotten stung, and you know where the individual is, contact the FBI, they’re all over this industry now. They’re really listening.
I also tell people to be conservative and really be sure that you have confidence that the piece is good.

SCD: Would you ever conduct an authentication without exemplars?
DM: No. You’d be counting on your total memory. You can’t do it by memory. I always pull out the known samples, the known exemplars.

SCD: Would you authenticate something just from a scan?
DM: No, I wouldn’t do that. It leaves the door open for too many problems, too many possibilities with things being changed with the scans (with computers). When you go to court, you can never give a qualified opinion unless you have examined all original documents. That’s for a very good reason.

SCD: Many collectors believe that some autograph analysts are too strict, they don’t allow for enough leeway. They have good exemplars but they don’t allow enough deviation from the exemplars. What’s your opinion of that statement?
DM: You can get somebody signing an autograph while they’re taking steps forward, people yelling around them, getting slapped on the back.
But what it comes down to is to authenticate something, it has to be “authenticate-able.” It may be authentic, but you can’t give it a certificate if it’s not authenticate-able. If he was slapped on the shoulder and the pen went flying, you know it’s good, but I can’t give you a certificate for it.

SCD: You have a yes and no answer for submissions; is there a COA that says maybe?
DM: We only give a certificate of authenticity if we believe it’s authentic, and then we have certain levels of rejection letters that we supply. If it’s absolutely a forgery, we’ll say so. If it has most of the evidence of a forgery, we have that type of certificate. If it has a high probability of problems, you can get that level. We have four different levels of rejection.

SCD: Are you still affiliated with the Field of Dreams stores?
DM: We still work for Field of Dreams. We’re their official authenticator for deceased players. So we’re still doing work for them.

SCD: Do you have any more comments?
DM: Marc and I have been in this industry for quite a while now, and we’re not going anywhere, we’re going to stick out because we think we’ve got a service that the other authenticators don’t have. We’re going to be around for a long time.

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