Houston’s service targets dealers, volume

This authentication series is designed to interview those who are paid to give their opinion on the legitimacy of autographs. Jim Houston of onlinecoa.com was added to the list when we learned his company not only offers the on-site certification, but also offers dealers with large volumes of unauthenticated autographs, onlinecoa.com will provide the typical authentication (professional opinion) service provided by the others in this series.

It’s important to clarify that the typical collector will not have access to onlinecoa.com’s autograph authentication service. They’re included in this series because you will see items authenticated by onlinecoa.com on the secondary market. And the point of this series was to interview people who have elevated themselves to providing a service that requires extensive expertise — the authentication of autographs.

As always, the best way to react to anything said here is with a letter to the editor.

SCD: First tell us about your history in the hobby.

Jim Houston: I was the batboy for the Pittsburgh Pirates for a few games back in 1972, and as I entered into my teens, I was called upon by several people to analyze Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell autographs, and signatures of other ballplayers from that era. I began collecting about that same time, when I was about 12 years old. I became a sports memorabilia dealer in the early ’90s, starting off with bulletin boards on the Internet. I was one of the first people in the industry to have a Web site. I was buying a lot of material that I knew was good, from other dealers. I had been doing that for a long time, and slowly, over time, some of those dealers went out of business and my business grew. I bought a lot of those guys out, and while I was confident those autographs were legitimate, the COAs were from defunct companies. It was awkward for me and my customers. It was the awkwardness of that situation that made me realize that the paper COA and that paradigm had to change, and I had an idea on how to do that. At that same time, I stopped selling autographs and began certifying. I was trying some of those authentication techniques on my Web site, like videotaping the session. SCD: As a dealer did you have a brick-and-mortar store?

JH: No, it was a Web-based business, Black & Gold Autographed Sports Memorabilia, that I advertised in SCD. SCD: So when did you start your first Web sites, as a dealer and as an authenticator?

JH: I started my first Web site in late 1994; before that, I was on bulletin boards. I had that Web site technology available to me, because I was surrounded with it where I worked. I was selling autographed baseball cards on the bulletin boards; that’s how I started. We put together that Web site, and I was buying product from Stan’s, Mounted Memories, Upper Deck, plus a lot of dealers that have closed shop. I had that Web site until 1999; I closed Black & Gold in 1999 and I opened onlinecoa.com then. I sold the www.bgasm.com Web site to what is now B&G Autographed Sports Memorabilia. They continued to do sports memorabilia using that name; they changed the company name, but the domain and the Web site still exist today. SCD: There are two aspects to the onlinecoa.com authentication business — the part where you go to a signing and act as witness, and the part where you give your opinion on previously signed autographs, the latter being the subject of this interview series. Tell us about how this works. The giving your opinion portion of the business doesn’t seem to be the prominent part of the business or the Web site.

JH: No, it isn’t. That’s intentional. It’s something we do for dealers. I’ll be the first one to tell you that there are better people at authenticating vintage autographs than me. I am ultra-conservative; I’m not going to authenticate something unless I am absolutely sure of it. There is too much risk there. When I use the term certify, that’s the word we use when we see the autograph getting signed. I use the word authenticate when we’re analyzing an autograph that we didn’t witness. SCD: With regard to authenticating, then, what are the services available? Do you try to do bulk/dealer orders only, and what are the prices and what are they based on?

JH: We certify autographs at shows and private signings we’ve been asked to attend; that’s about 98 percent of our business. For dealers with large inventories — I’m talking about at least 200-300 pieces — we offer a professional opinion on autographs not signed in our presence. SCD: Do those authenticated items get stickered and numbered and cataloged on the site, just like the certified autographs?

JH: Absolutely. (Houston showed SCD an example of an authenticated Dan Marino autograph on the Web site.) We did do Dan Marino signings in the past, and we’ve certified them. Not only do we analyze the autograph the dealer has, but we try to do the best we can to show why we believe that autograph is authentic. We do that with six or seven known-good examples; it’s easy to compare then. SCD: If you’ve got dealers with 200 items, how important is provenance? Do they need an explanation of how they got 200 items, or 50 Dan Marino items?

JH: Absolutely. Often they’ll tell me that they acquired them from either excess from a signing, or another dealer who bought a large portion to get a lower per-unit price. SCD: Give me a breakdown of your products and services, with costs and shipping, etc. JH: We provide the service of certifying autographs at private or public signing events; we travel to shows or meet directly with dealers. That service fee is $2.50-$5 and includes digital videos of the athlete signing that day, along with a digital photograph of every item we certify.

We also offer an authentication to dealers who have several hundred items, and the cost of that service is from $2-$5 depending the number of autographs. We try to do this for as low a price as we can offer, but we have to travel there and we have other costs, and the time. So we ask them to have at least 200-300 pieces, and we ask them to rent a conference room at a hotel, and that’s how we meet them. They rent the room and lay it out for us, and we sticker everything and take a picture of everything. That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad; we photograph it then, and analyze it later, when we have all of the data together. SCD: I would imagine you get “tested” now and then by dealers who have quantity and they can’t get the mainstream authenticators to approve it. Do you find yourself being tested?

JH: I’m not going to be tested because I’m ultra-conservative. I’m going to freely refer someone to Richard Simon if I’m not comfortable doing it. I’ll just say, “I don’t have examples of this autograph, I’m out of my comfort zone. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but I will refer you to Richard Simon.” I have the utmost respect for him. I dealt with him when I was a dealer, and he knows vintage probably better than anyone and I recognize that. I’m going to do the obvious things. If it’s not, it’s awkward and I’m out of it. That’s why I respect those vintage autograph authenticators. They’re the guys willing to stick their necks out for the tough ones. It’s not necessarily just sports that the company will authenticate. We’re starting to get into astronauts and some political people. But once it’s out there, once I’m 100 percent confident that it’s good, it’s out there on the Web site. It’s out there for everybody to see. SCD: Many collectors believe it’s important to have a formal education in authentication processes to be an authenticator. Do you concur with that, and what is your level of education or training in this field?

JH: I’m a firm believer in formal education, but I also believe that the term “qualified authenticator” is somewhat subjective. There’s no one out there who can categorically qualify anyone in this field. As far as I’m concerned, this technology is still emerging. I have no formal education related to autograph or signature verifications; rather, I’ve spent most of my life collecting autographs and studying them. The training I’ve acquired has been through personal studying of autographs, coupled with the arts and science that I learned in school. SCD: How much is authentication an art and based on experience, and how much is a science, based on training and scientific methods?

JH: It’s all my opinion, but most of what I do is based on experience. There is some level of science and data on difficult items — signatures signed during a certain period in time, in some cases researching rosters. But something like a team-signed baseball or football takes an enormous amount of effort and research, and we don’t generally do team-signed things. There will inevitably be things on there that we can’t match up and we’re not sure. So we generally stay away from team-signed things. SCD: If a dealer who has 300 items uses your authentication service, is it to get your authentication COA and backing, or is to get your online system, or a little of both?

JH: It’s a little bit of both. Having a third-party authenticator come in adds some sort of legitimacy to what the dealer is doing. Most people are trying to do the right thing, and there’s not a whole lot of options for an authenticity process. SCD: What percentage of your authentication or opinion winds up being subjective (how it looks) vs. objective (like it’s signed on an item that was produced after their death)?

JH: Any time an item is being examined by any autograph authenticator who didn’t see that signature being signed, it’s going to be objective. Regardless of the experience or education of the guy authenticating the item, if that signature was signed outside of his presence, you wind up with a subjective opinion. To answer the question specifically, I’d suggest that 75-80 percent of my estimate is made immediately, based on precisely what the signature looks like. Sometimes it’s a no-brainer, those are the ones we like to get, but the other 20-25 percent of items sent in that are require more research, I generally stay away from and I won’t do them. It’s not that I’m afraid, or uncertain of my skill set, it’s really the downside of certifying something that’s questionable. The risk is just too great. I put it online for everybody to see, and they will throw stones at it, and I can’t afford for that to happen. So I’m going to play the game conservatively because I don’t need the money that badly because most of the company’s revenue is from the on-site certification business. SCD: How important is provenance in the authentication process?

JH: If you can prove it, substantiate the history, yes, that has a great deal of importance, but it shouldn’t overrule the analysis; you still have to do your work. If somebody comes up to me with a baseball signed by Bob Horner and an autograph ticket, that’s great, but you can’t get lazy in this business. There’s simply too much risk to do a bad job in this business. So I listen to provenance, I look at it, but it doesn’t drive my decision. SCD: Do you use a team, get a second or third opinion, for authenticating?

JH: We’ll pass on it; we’re ultra-conservative, so we’re not going to certify any type of signature that could any way be criticized by anybody else in this field. We don’t feel comfortable authenticating items we don’t have a large database of examples for. I might “second” something that has already been approved by somebody else, but I’m not going to be the first guy to do it. SCD: Is there another authenticator on your team? JH: I’m the guy; I’m the one with my name out there. My name is on the authentications. SCD: Does your COA term your authentications an authentication or a professional opinion?

JH: We use the term professional opinion. SCD: What is your policy if something is disputed; what is your initial reaction to the dispute? Do you have them send it back?

JH: My first response would be shock. We’ve got a policy on it; we’ve never had to implement it, no one’s challenged it. We are going to have to be notified in writing by a reputable autograph expert or company, detailing the mistake or mistakes we made with one of our authentications. If our error is obvious after that, our policy is to note that anomaly in the textual description that we have on the Web site describing that item. We’ll also attempt to contact the owner of that item and inform them. But again, so far we haven’t had to implement that policy. SCD: What would happen if you did make a mistake? Would you buy it back?

JH: No, I’m not going to buy it back. If this was to happen to us, we’d acknowledge the error by changing the textual description of the item on the Web site, clearly indicating we made a mistake. We’d refund the money spent on the authentication. But we’re not an insurance company. We form opinions based on comparative analysis of known-good examples and analysis of the item we’re looking at. If we make a mistake, we’ll work with the owner and any insurance companies that they have in order to clear up the problem the best we can. We’re not going to shy away from it, but we don’t insure it, we form an opinion. SCD: Do you buy and sell in the field in which you authenticate? What’s your response to those who say an authenticator should never be financially interested in the field in which they work?

JH: No, I used to. Personally, I think it’s a conflict of interest for any autograph authenticator or certifier to have any type of financial interest in the items signed. That’s why we’re a true third-party company; in order to have that claim, we can’t have any financial interest in the items being signed. My response to those who sell autographs that they certify is that there isn’t anything wrong with that necessarily, it’s just awkward. I’m not saying it’s wrong. Richard Simon can do it; there are exceptions. I’m glad I don’t have to do that. SCD: Are there names on your COAs of people who didn’t see the item, and similarly if your name is on the COA, did you always see that item?

JH: In every certification or authentication that we do, we list the people who attended or witnessed the event. The information is unique on every item; there is someone responsible for every item. It is not just a generic group of people; it is the people who were at that show, and in the case of authentications, it’s my name. SCD: If you don’t have the resources or exemplars, do you just say “no”? Are there areas outside of your expertise that you turn down the opportunity to authenticate?

JH: Because we’re ultra-conservative when it comes to authentication, if the item has been previously authenticated and found to be fake by another authenticator, we’re not going to touch it. We generally stay away from team-signed items and vintage autographs. If we can’t find examples of good signatures for comparison purposes, we’re not going to do it. SCD: Do you provide authentications for common players, the non-stars? Do you have the quantity and quality of exemplars to do the lower-level, non-stars? JH: Generally, we only do autograph authentications for the star players or entertainers. We certify any autograph signed in our presence; we only authenticate autographs if we have known-good examples. SCD: When you authenticate a huge collection, large volumes, do you authenticate every item?

JH: We look at every item and we photograph every signature. We do large amounts at a time to be efficient, but we take a picture with every autograph, and we put a sticker on every item. We take a picture of that autograph with a card that has a number on it, as well. The sticker might be on the back of the item, like on the back of the 8-by-10, so we use the card for that and take a picture of the card with the item. SCD: Do you have a history in the hobby and an exposure to major collections that aids in your ability to be an expert?

JH: I’ve been involved in the autograph business for over 20 years. At one time I had more than 20 Roberto Clemente autographs. I used to authenticate Clemente for my friends and relatives long before this business was a business. SCD: Which of the other authenticators do you trust?

JH: I’ve had experience with Richard. I met Jimmy Spence. I’ve met the PSA guys and the Global guys. I haven’t met the CM Certified guys. I’ve met most of the people in this business, and it’s a big sandbox. I don’t have anything bad to say about any of them. We’re all trying to do something that’s good for the industry. Their hearts are in the right place and I respect that. I send people to Richard because I have a track record with Richard; I’ve only met the others. SCD: Many collectors believe an item will sometimes be graded higher depending upon who submitted it. For instance, they believe a high-dollar client can get a different or better grade. Does that happen in the hobby, and why couldn’t it happen with your service?

JH: This is the best question out of the whole list. I’ve heard that this happens, but you hear a lot of things in this business. I’ve heard a company certified an item one day and found it to be fake the next. These stories could be folklore or true, I don’t know. Reputation is important, but we’re unbiased, it can’t happen with us because once we say it’s OK and put it on our Web site, it’s there for the whole world to see. The bottom line is we don’t care about anything but the autograph. If we put the autograph on our Web site, we’re saying it’s legitimate. The only reputation we’re concerned about is ours. SCD: What’s your advice to the collector who’s caught between dueling authenticators — somebody says it’s real and somebody says it isn’t?

JH: I don’t know that I have any advice. When it happens at all, there’s a question about the authenticity of the signature. I don’t care if 10 companies certify an item to be authentic. If any one of them find the item to be fake, we’re out. Coming to us after you’ve brought it to two or three guys, and one of them says it was bad, you’re going to get nowhere with us. Our policy is to not get involved with that type of dispute. We’re not going to challenge anybody else’s decisions. It’s situations like those that have caused many people in this business to second guess the overall value of having items authenticated in the first place. We might second a good opinion, but we’re not going to certify a previously turned-down item. It’s bad for business and we stay away from awkward situations. SCD: Does it hurt the hobby that the authenticators seem to fight so much?

JH: When you’ve got that kind of finger pointing going around, no one wins. I think it’s going away and getting better, but when everybody came into this, there were so many autographs out there — and no traceability, no stickers — it was just someone’s opinion. Over time, you’re going to see less and less of that. There is traceability and accountability with signatures signed in the on-site certification era. SCD: How will the industry look 20 years from now regarding authentication?

JH: Twenty years from now, this industry will have separated out all of the bad companies and they’ll be gone. There should never be a monopoly on the authentication side, but in order to grow and grow right, there needs to be four or five choices for the customer. Putting your own company sticker on there is good, but in my opinion, it’s better to have a third-party company do that for you. SCD: Would you be willing to go to court to back up an item?

JH: Absolutely, but it would be unnecessary and overkill. If a person went to court, all he’d have to do is hand the judge an onlinecoa.com number and password, and the judge could look at the item on his computer and find out what an unbiased third party thought of the item. SCD: What about the items that you authenticated, your opinion is on the item, not the certification service?

JH: Yeah, I would if somebody was willing to pay my way to go to court. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, but I would enjoy the opportunity to go out and defend myself. SCD: Don’t the disclaimers on a typical COA render them meaningless? If push came to shove, can’t the authenticators just wash their hands of the situation because of the language on the COA?

JH: I tend to agree with that line of thinking; it is just an opinion. But we provide visual evidence to show how or why we came to that conclusion, so it’s not just a piece of paper. We try to actually show you why we reached our conclusion. But basically, whoever formed that question is right, it’s just an opinion. SCD: Do you have an insurance policy?

JH: We’re a third-party authentication service; we’re not an insurance provider. Insurance should be left to the owner of the item. That’s a different business, a different service. I provide an opinion and an insurance company provides monetary relief if something should happen to that item. SCD: What’s your advice to the collector when they bring a fake autograph to you? JH: I’ve been at shows where people have brought things to me and I’ll tell them, “I wouldn’t buy it.” If they haven’t bought it, I tell them not to buy it. If they already own it, I’d tell them to go to the FBI. SCD: Who are the most forged signatures, the toughest to authenticate?

JH: I think it’s the ones that are signed for free (at a ballpark or in public). They’re signed on the run. Free autographs are often sloppily signed, shortened, initials, less than a full signature. To be more specific, I think the most forged signature is Joe DiMaggio. That’s a big, big mess. I don’t have a Joe DiMaggio autograph in my collection because I don’t trust any of them. SCD: What sorts of scientific methods do you use? Do you have a laboratory?

JH: No. We mostly use comparisons of known-good signatures. If the signature requires the type of scrutiny required in your question, we’re not going to do it. I’ll refer them to Richard. SCD: From where do you get your exemplars to say they’re real. Are your exemplars out of a book or signed in front of you?

JH: Most of them are signed in front of us. The other examples we use are digital, closeup photos of autographs previously authenticated by other authentication companies like PSA/DNA, Steiner, Upper Deck. We use a lot of the signed cards that have come out on trading cards, with an embedded autograph. I trust the card companies, that they’re putting out a legitimate product. SCD: How positive are you that your exemplars are 100 percent real?

JH: I’m 100 percent certain or I wouldn’t use them. SCD: Would you ever conduct an authentication without an exemplar?

JH: No. SCD: Do you ever authenticate or deem something likely fake from a scan only?

JH: No, I’m not going to do that. SCD: Are you a member of the UACC or the IACC/DA or the Manuscript Society or a similar group?

JH: No, anybody can join those groups. In my opinion, there’s no real prestige associated with it, it’s just a fun way for them to collect money and put a badge on myself that doesn’t have whole lot of meaning. SCD: To summarize, you’re a niche service, in terms of authentications, you’re for dealers, bulk quantities and very traceable product.

JH: I’m in that comfort zone; if I’m not comfortable, I’m not going to do it. Once you’ve publically been wrong with an authentication or certification, it’s hard to recover from that. Right now, I’ve got a spotless record, and I would like to keep it that way.

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