Stephen Koschal is a longtime hobbyist who specializes in presidential and historical autographs, but his Professional Autograph Authenticators Services is involved in sports enough for Koschal to be a more-than-worthy candidate for the Authenticating the Authenticators series.
Koschal has been outspoken through the years and, as you’ll see, he didn’t hold back here. This interview will run in two parts. Feedback should be directed as a letter to the editor; followup questions can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, but wait until after next week’s issue before doing that.
SCD: First tell us about your history in the hobby. Were you a collector, and were you a dealer?
Stephen Koschal: My history in the hobby is I started collecting autographs in the early ’60s, possibly even the late ’50s, I can’t remember. I studied autographs, read everything there was to read, and decided to turn dealer in 1967. Back then, I was dealing in vintage literary, as I had access to a lot of old bookstores in the New York City/Pennsylvania /New Jersey area. So it was vintage literary, and I found a specialty in U.S. presidents/historical.
SCD: So you’ve been a dealer a long time.
SK: Before a lot of these newcomers were born.
SCD: Take us from the ’60s to today.
SK: After I turned dealer, there was very little information shared by the leaders of the industry. The leaders, the old-timers, kept a lot of information to themselves. I remember one dealer telling me, “You know, I’ve worked 30-40 years building up this knowledge, I’m not going to give it away, just like your doctor wouldn’t give it away. You have to make an office visit and pay for that information.” There was very little sharing. So I decided to start building an autograph reference library of all the things I could ever find written about autographs. Some say I have the largest autograph reference library in the world. I have books dating back to the 1830s on autograph collecting. A lot of this information was old, and I decided I wanted to start writing signature studies, to share the information that I found in my travels, going to monthly auctions, and handling millions of pieces of paper a year. I started writing articles, and I’ve gotten published more than 200 articles in trade magazines. I’ve just come out with a third book on autographs, and I’m working on a fourth that will come out in June of next year. The first book was in 1982, on collecting books and pamphlets signed by the presidents of the United States. That’s 1982 — that’s a while back! The latest one just came out and has received some very good reviews, it’s about collecting Executive Mansion, White House and the “White House Cards,” signed by presidents and first ladies of the United States. Presidential signatures is probably the most popular area of collecting, outside of sports, and in the last several years, a lot of the major dealers in sports have turned to the “regular” autograph trade, they’ve gotten into the trade of presidents. You’ll see documents from the presidents at the National (Sports Collectors Convention), and letters by literary figures and art and everything else. The new book, co-authored with Lynne E. Keyes, due out in June, will be on presidential doodles and sketches, and the title will be How Do You Doodle, Mr. President? So, one of my main purposes has always been to share knowledge with the collecting public, because there wasn’t much available to me back then. It was very difficult, learning everything on your own through trial and error; going to auctions and talking to other dealers before and after, and handling things at the auctions; pulling things out of the auctions. And back then, the auction houses were honest and would actually pull things prior to the sale, not so much today.
SCD: Are you mostly a dealer, an authenticator or an author today at this point in your career?
SK: A little bit of everything. I’d like to say mostly dealer, but I’m a dealer/author/authenticator.
SCD: What is PAAS, who is it and what are the services available?
SK: PAAS stands for Professional Autograph Authentication Services. This company was created a few years ago, basically by collectors requesting that a good, solid authentication service be offered to them, most importantly by people who actually have a documented autograph background, not a self-promoting background. The website is www.paasaa.com. You can call 719-598-8870.
SCD: What does “documented autograph background” mean?
SK: It means the history of our authenticators can be documented — they’ve been around 20-30 years or more. They can be traced and their records in the industry can be traced. You can find articles they wrote, private signings they’ve done, books they’ve written. They have true, documented backgrounds, they have won awards in the industry, they’ve been noticed by and are listed by autograph organizations. They have a documented history. There are too many people, almost all of them, in the autograph business who have a self-promoting background, but little or no autograph background. You can’t find most of the authenticators in any autograph organization’s directory.
SCD: Who is PAAS? Who are the authenticators?
SK: Mike Frost, who’s known for having the first signing with Mickey Mantle in a shop, and that’s going back a long time. Mike Frost specializes in modern-day sports, entertainment and music. If you ever saw his reference library or his in-person library … he’s got albums of photographs with photographs of celebrities who have been to his shops, and he’s friends with a lot of these modern-day celebrities. Lynne Keyes, one of the first female auctioneers to be licensed and bonded, by the state of New Hampshire back in the ’70s. She has authored many articles and signature studies that other dealers use for reference. There’s myself, and Richard Scott, who’s also a show promoter and has been a dealer at the National for as long as you can remember. Most of the trade knows who Richard Scott is. I am now specializing more than ever in working with law enforcement. They contact me, whether it’s the FBI or a sheriff’s department, or my court appearance for the FBI a few years ago in locking up Steve Lyons, or a recent case I testified in. I’ll take it case by case, but I always want to be on the side of the good guys. If I’m asked (to testify) on the side of who I feel are the good guys, I’ll take the case. My track record is pretty good so far — 100 percent.
SCD: How does your PAAS system work? Do you all have to see each item?
SK: We have four people because sometimes one of us is on the road. We have three people examine every item; the three best qualified to look at that item. All four names are on the bottom of our cert, and those boxes are checked off and each person who saw the item hand signs the certificate, no preprinted signatures. Our fees are a flat rate — this has been one of our peeves for a long time, authenticators asking what your item is worth. We think that is really wrong, and we’ve changed a lot of the other authenticating companies from doing that. We charge a flat rate of $50 a signature on a single-signed item, plus return shipping and insurance, which is usually several dollars up to $8. That holds true if it’s Ferdinand or Isabella, or Bernie Williams, it’s $50 per signature. It’s less complicated, there’s no booklet of prices, and why someone else would charge $250 for a Babe Ruth and $50 for a tougher signature of a modern player, it doesn’t make sense.
SCD: Some collectors believe it’s important to have a formal authentication education in order to be a qualified authenticator. Do you concur with that statement, and what is the extent of your formal or scientific education in autographs?
SK: My feeling is that like any other business or service in the world, I don’t know how you could be in this business and not have an education in the business. You’re not going to go to a heart surgeon unless you see some certificates on the wall. Reading the answers to these same questions (in the other Authenticating the Authenticators interviews), it’s unbelievable how some of these people believe in education but don’t have any education.
SCD: What is available to authenticators, if they wanted an education in autographs? What do you have that you would call an autograph education?
SK: There were 15 educational courses given around the country on autograph collecting by some of the best experts, the top names in the field. I was responsible for creating all 15 of the courses; however, I was not the instructor for all of them, I was the instructor for three of the 15. I attended every one of them, and I know who also attended those courses, and not another person who claims to be an authenticator has ever had the interest in taking a single autograph course. And they were available in all of the major cities across the country.
SCD: I know of some authenticators, the former foursome employed a few years ago by PSA/DNA, that took a course from autograph expert Andrew Bradley.
SK: I’m talking about autograph courses, strictly autographs. Some day, what’s necessary, is somebody who is capable of giving a course, it should be attached to something like the National. All dealers who sell autographs and participate in the event, as part of the contract should be required to take the course, so everybody’s on the same page.
SCD: How much of autograph authentication is an art and an experience vs. science and data and training?
SK: Probably 80-85 percent is an art; about 15 percent is scientific, the scientific portion being knowing paper, knowing the different ages of paper, knowing the ink that belongs to that paper. The art is having the eye, and the correct reference material. Too much reference material being used today is not correct.
SCD: From where do you get your exemplars to know they’re real? Are they out of a book, or signed in front of you? Why are you confident about them?
SK: That’s one of the best questions you can ask. To have an exemplar cut out of a book or a magazine is a start, but it’s far from a finish. You must have dozens and dozens of exemplars of as many people as you can, and when you bring in those exemplars from different places, or get them in person, and you pull out the 20-150 examples of each person, that’s when you realize that some of the exemplars are not right. If you only have three or four, and that’s all you have, they could all be wrong, especially if you’re cutting them out of the auction catalogs, which most of (the other authenticators) do. Many of the items in auctions are not genuine. This is the problem we have in our hobby — when you have an exemplar that’s not genuine, and so-and-so collector walks in with his Mickey Mantle ball, and it doesn’t match your exemplar, the average authenticator will say the signature on the ball is not good.
SCD: It seems to be your opinion that bad exemplars are a serious problem in the authentication field.
SK: It’s one of the worst problems in the field. Many authenticators don’t know a good exemplar from a bad one. They’re using exemplars from an auction catalog, and the exemplars are wrong. That’s why there are so many misdiagnosed COAs out there. I had a dozen Mickey Mantle balls at a Richmond show that I got in person in Philadelphia. I paid $35 an autograph and handed each ball to Mickey Mantle, and put them away as an investment. I was selling them years ago, and Ron Gordon came up to my booth and wanted to buy the balls. He took them to the authenticator, who said they weren’t good, he didn’t like them. I went over to the authenticator and told him, “I got these in person, why did you say they were no good?” His answer — from a person who gets paid to authenticate autographs — was “every time I see that many items the same, in one place, it makes me nervous.” These people are guessing. And it killed the sale.
SCD: Where did you get each of your exemplars from your different coverage areas — sports, presidential, etc.?
SK: A lot of the sports exemplars, especially the modern-day sports exemplars … I’ve been going to shows since the ’70s — local shows, national shows. I’ve been getting a lot of them, including the Hall of Famers, in person. I’ve gotten a lot of them at spring training games in Florida. One of my favorite places (for exemplars) is your own (SCD columnist) Ron Keurajian. I wish he would write weekly instead of monthly. This man is probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on sports autographs. I look forward to his articles, and have copies of every one of them. I think I have probably every book ever written on the subject of autograph collecting, plus the autograph trade magazines through the years, the manuscript societies’ magazines. Our own club, the IADA, issued a wonderful magazine full of exemplars and signature studies, plus the auction and dealer catalogs we know are respectable. You put them all together and lay them out, and then you start seeing printed signatures and autopen signatures, and you start making your own reference files from these references.
SCD: If you were handed a really bad fake at a show, you’re experienced enough to know it’s bad. Do you issue the “it’s bad” certificate right there, or do you need to refer to your exemplars?
SK: In some cases, some jump right out at you that they’re obviously no good. If somebody wants to sign George Washington’s name with a ballpoint pen … there’s no need, no matter how good they were in their forgery techniques. In general, though, having your exemplars there is much safer.
SCD: How do you get exemplars from throughout a person’s life? There can be such a huge difference from a person’s younger days to their retirement age.
SK: There is a huge difference. That’s why I am capable of writing signature studies on certain individuals. I have reference files and go back and give you signature examples from their eighth grade graduation, or high school yearbook, or when they were in the service, up to the time they died. With this vast reference library, we’ve been able to correct mistakes in other people’s books. You’re only as smart as your reference, and only as smart as the reference available today. Something new may come out from an expert five years from now that we didn’t know, but up to now, we have the most up-to-date reference library available.
SCD: Would you ever authenticate, or deem something likely fake, from a scan only?
SK: Never. It’s impossible, it cannot be done accurately.
SCD: Couldn’t you deem something likely fake?
SK: What is likely? Likely means you don’t know; likely is a guess. I’m not going to use the word “likely,” because somebody is going to spend some money based on my opinion, and “likely” is not an opinion.
SCD: Let me rephrase. Can you deem something definitely fake from a scan only?
SK: Yes. But you can’t say something is genuine without seeing the original.
SCD: What percentage of the time do you get an “easy” one where something is impossible, something that’s purely objective, like the item didn’t exist yet?
SK: Not that often anymore. The forgers have been educated; in the early days, the forgers in the late ’80s, early ’90s, were sloppy, they didn’t do their homework. There’s been so much publicized in the trade magazines that the forgers are now very, very knowledgeable what to have signed. I’ve seen the Marino family tools in the FBI evidence room. It’s amazing the amount of tools they had, and the boxes of old paper and postcards. They had the correct tools. The trade magazines have publicized so much of this that they’ve educated the forgers.
SCD: How much can you allow provenance to be a factor? If you’re on the fence, can you allow it to be the tipping point or do you have to ignore it?
SK: I’m not concerned about provenance. Provenance is nice, after I’ve made my decision. I’ve learned this by having people come in with the photograph of the person with the celebrity, and the item is an absolute forgery. Provenance is a major problem today with authenticators because too many authenticators can use the provenance to make their decision for them: “If a certain dealer is giving it to the auction, we have to make it good.”
None of our authenticators want to know who mailed it in. We don’t want to know the source. We don’t want to see pictures. We’re not going to be influenced by the seller or the owner.
SCD: Do you have a buffer, like a secretary, who makes that possible (to not know the submitter)?
SK: Yes, we have somebody who separates us.
That’s why we don’t do much with auction houses anymore, where they pressure you … “If you guys want to come back and do 500 items next month, this is my cover piece, this is my moneymaker, this has to be real.” There’s too much of that going on.
SCD: If you have a niche-area item, do you need to send it out for a second opinion? Or does the versatility of your staff allow you to keep everything in-house?
SK: We’ve pretty much got it all covered.
SCD: What’s your opinion on the verbiage of “authentications” vs. “professional opinions”? What’s on your COA?
SK: It’s a technicality; it all means the same thing. The games are being played with the words to protect the authenticator now. We don’t use either term. An opinion is just an opinion; if you want an opinion, you can ask the guy across the street.
An authentication is a little bit more serious. It’s telling somebody that we can assume the authenticator has studied the piece, done his research and done the authentication, and his opinion is after he’s done his research, and there’s an assumption he’s qualified to give an opinion.
We look at it a little differently. Our certificates read “Certificate of Examination.” It’s stating that the piece has not been looked at for only a second. We have examined the item, and this is our findings based on the knowledge available today.
SCD: What happens if somebody questions your findings, and doesn’t necessarily prove you wrong initially, but what is your process, your initial reaction?
SK: That hasn’t happened yet. To add to that, we have not made a mistake yet, to our knowledge. That was brought up in court two weeks ago in front of two attorneys, and it wasn’t even challenged after they did their homework. There’s nobody, so far, who has come to us to say that we made a mistake.
However, if somebody were to question something, we are prepared, we have the documentation to prove why we made our decision, and are prepared to do so in a court of law.
SCD: What if a collector wants you to re-examine an item?
SK: We could have spent hours or a whole day on a certain item. To deal with the individual collector and start explaining all the reasons for our findings could become complicated. They paid us to give them an opinion on a certificate and that’s what we have done. We aren’t going to go through it verbally now. You’re not getting two for the price of one.
SCD: If your company ever did get one wrong, do you have a policy in place regarding whether you would “buy it back”?
SK: That’s an interesting subject. I don’t think we would buy the item back, because we are so convinced that we were right we signed our three names on a piece of paper. If it happens, it’ll be a fluke. The reason why we haven’t made a mistake is we aren’t a money-grubbing company. We don’t take the $50 and run, and if we don’t know, we don’t just give any opinion. There’s a portion of material that we return that we feel we cannot justify a decision in a court of law, so we make no decision. We return the check and the item. That’s very important. We are going to be definitely right, or we don’t know. We turn down revenue sometimes, and we’re not ashamed of it. When we sign our name, we have made our decision, and we’re ready to back it up against anybody who wants to question it.
SCD: Do you buy and sell in the field(s) in which you authenticate, and what’s your response to those who say you shouldn’t be financially involved as a dealer in the field in which you’re a third-party authenticator?
SK: I deal in autographs of all kinds. My response is, first of all, most of the authenticators who call it a conflict of interest still buy and sell. They buy and sell under different names, their brother’s name. Companies who say their employees don’t buy and sell are not telling the truth.
Secondly, I don’t know of anyone who could really become a real, serious, legitimate authenticator unless they’re a dealer. That’s contrary to what everybody wants to hear. But when you become a dealer, you are prepared to go into your wallet based on your knowledge, and pay $5,000 of your hard-earned money for that George Washington. A guy who doesn’t buy and sell doesn’t have to do that; he can guess all his life. When you’re prepared to put down the bucks, you’ve got enough knowledge that you’re prepared to shell out that $5,000, now you’ve become an expert.
How you can become an authenticator without being a dealer is beyond me. Where do you go to authenticator school? How do you make a living while learning to be an authenticator? People knew where to find me in 1967, and with all of the selling I’ve done since, you still know where to find me.
SCD: Do you have signatures on your COA from people who didn’t see the item, and conversely if you’re name is on the COA does that mean you have definitely seen the item?
SK: The four names are on the COA, but only three are going to hand-sign it. Those three people who hand-sign it have seen the item. That’s somewhat unique, and that’s one of the sad things in our industry. Their signatures are sometimes there to impress the buying public.
SCD: Do you provide authentications for “common” players or entertainers, and if so, how do you get quality and quantity of exemplars for them?
SK: Some of these modern players, especially if they haven’t been around long enough, there’s no history of their exemplars. In a lot of cases, even we don’t feel we have enough of a history of those exemplars, we just pass on the item.
But remember that two of our team are very, very familiar with the modern players. I can’t tell you how many of these players have been at Mike Frost’s home, or when I do shows, how many people come in like Gary Sheffield and put a headlock on Mike. We’re extremely close with a lot of the modern players.
SCD: If you authenticate a large collection, do you look at every item?
SK: That has not been a part of our business, doing large collections. That’s an auction house type of question, and we have not done that a lot. We’ve done high-end single pieces. If we had to do that, how could anyone sign their name to a piece of paper on an item they haven’t seen?
SCD: Do you have a history in the hobby and an exposure to large collections that gives you the ability to be an expert?
SK: That’s an easy one. Fortunately, this hobby was a little different back in the ’60s, especially me being in New Jersey at the time, I was in New York City within a half hour. I had access to the monthly Charles Hamilton auctions, and I would go through all the lots. During the week, I would sit and work with Hamilton and Keith Thompson, who actually made the catalogs. I handled thousands and thousands of autographs every month. We’d go to the Sotheby’s stock and pull those items, and at that time they’d pull the items, it was us dealers who told them the items were not genuine. The collectors and dealers today don’t have access to that amount of material today.
SCD: Tell me about Charles Hamilton.
SK: People use and drop Charles Hamilton’s name all the time, “Oh, I met Charles Hamilton and was to his house a few times.” Well, if you’ve been to his house, it’s too late, Charles Hamilton’s career was over, he filed Chapter 11 and he wasn’t selling autographs anymore. So you met him, so what? I worked with him in his office month after month after month. I’m looking at a letter on my wall from 1996 where he’s thanking me. I’ve worked with these people.
SCD: Why is he such an icon?
SK: Charles Hamilton was the one who really promoted the autograph hobby to the United States. It was a small industry of some wealthy people, names like the Huntingtons who had museums and collected historical documents. He really brought it to the attention of the collecting community, and he wrote at least a dozen books on autograph collecting. His reference books are the basis of knowledge to the newer collecting public. The sellers who started in the ’80s and ’90s aren’t aware of books that were written in the ’30s and the 1800s, but they know the Charles Hamilton or Mary Benjamin books.
That’s why he’s called the “dean,” but he had a terrible ending. He filed Chapter 11 and it got very nasty at the end. And the new dealers can say they were at his house, just to drop his name.
SCD: If you’ve got a team ball, and 2-3 autographs on there are clubhouse, how do you identify that on your cert?
SK: We’ll break it down on the cert, we’ll say it’s a team ball and of this year, and we’ll list all of the signatures and their validity. We don’t come across that too much, because we charge per signature, and if you have 20-odd signatures per ball, a lot of these balls aren’t worth that kind of money. They end up going somewhere else for authentication.
SCD: Besides your partners, which of the other authenticators in the hobby do you trust? Do you have working relationships with anybody?
SK: I know them all, and, frankly, I know their backgrounds, and they’re not authenticators. I’ve been asked by most of these people to help them. I’ve been called behind the curtain at shows to help them. Unfortunately, the answer is probably “none.”
However, there are some very good, qualified sports authenticators out there. The problem is they won’t authenticate for the public. They’re great names, they’re the smartest in our industry, but they’re dealers and they only authenticate their own material. I wish two or three of those guys would get into the authenticating business. I highly admire people like Bill Corcoran and Jim Stinson. All of the other authenticators together don’t know as much as these two guys.
SCD: Many collectors believe an item can be graded higher or approved based on who submitted it. Some think as the little guy, they won’t catch a break. Does that happen in the hobby, and why wouldn’t it happen in your service?
SK: Well, first of all, I don’t believe an autograph should be graded. You get a signature on a ball graded, and put it in a closet for 10 years, and you take it out, and the darn thing is now a “10” and when you take it out of the closet it was a “7.” Why grade a ball? It can never be better than the minute it was graded; it’s only going to go down. If you frame it, it will fade. What does the average collector do with his treasure? They frame it and put it on a wall. A little sunlight at a certain time of the day can cause fading … and the matte you put it on leaves a burn mark. And the grading certificate says a “10” after it’s 50 percent faded.
SCD: Back to the question of whether items are influenced by their submitter …
SK: It happens very often, which is a major problem. Auction houses and big dealers influence authenticators. Authenticators make money by authenticating, and they want to continue to authenticate. And when a dealer or an auction house threatens them, or says this is mine … that puts a lot of pressure on the authenticators. It’s very hard to say to the auction house “it’s no good” after the auction house says, “This is mine.” Every auction we’ve gotten involved in, we’ve been unhappy with the pressure. “Stop telling us who it came from. Stop telling us why it’s good. We’re going to tell you if it’s good.” There is no authenticator who is as bright at the auction house premises as he is in his own office, with all of his reference material available. And the auctioneer is paying you for your time, so they’re constantly trying to shove things at you.
It’s amazing that 50 percent of our business at PAAS is examining items that have already been certed by somebody else. People get an item certed, it’s genuine and they’re happy, and six months later they want another opinion. We get a lot of collectors who really want to know, because they’re going to put it into their collection for 50 years, and we put the time in to get it correct.
SCD: What is your advice to a collector who’s caught between “dueling authenticators,” and how often does that happen?
SK: The collector is confused because the collector is uneducated. There is no such thing as “dueling authenticators.” If an item is real, it’s real, if it’s not, it’s not. The reason why we determine it’s real or not is because we have information and research material to prove one way or another.
Calling it “dueling authenticators” sometimes is an excuse not to have to refund money. If you have two educated authenticators, they’re going to basically come up with the same answer.
SCD: But there are times when a collector has one of the main authenticators in the hobby saying “yes” and one of them saying “no.”
SK: In some cases, they don’t even know who’s saying “yes” or “no.” Who said it’s not real? A lot of times you don’t even know who saw the item. A company can’t say it’s not good, a person has to.
SCD: But there seems to be constant in-fighting among the authenticators.
SK: We disagree often, but we shouldn’t, if the knowledgeable people who can authenticate were authenticators, we’d all agree. But when you have people who are hired as authenticators who can’t authenticate, there are going to be disagreements all over the place because everybody’s guessing. If you get three people who know what they’re doing, those three people are basically going to always agree.
SCD: What’s your opinion on authentication prices changed based on the value of the item? You already mentioned that you don’t like that.
SK: I think it’s a gimmick to make more money for the authenticator. Some of the most valuable items can be authenticated very quickly.
SCD: What enables you to tell when an autograph is secretarial, or (separately) an autopen?
SK: There is so much reference material. If an authenticator has any interest in educating himself before he becomes an authenticator, he collects all of the educational material available. There are so many books written on secretaries or autopens; there are even specific books on individuals or areas. There are books about astronaut autopens, and cosmonauts, and Robert Kennedy, Neil Armstrong. Gerald Ford has a book about his autographs through his life, including his secretaries. There are so many signature studies and websites. One just has to be interested in not guessing but educating himself first.
SCD: I don’t imagine sports stars have autopens like presidents did?
SK: Not really, but again, it’s knowing each individual case. Take Joe DiMaggio, who had his sister answer a lot of his mail. You have to know his sister’s “Joe DiMaggio” from Joe DiMaggio’s. You’ve got to be specific about an individual person. Some people had their wives sign, some had their mothers sign, some used machines.
SCD: You’ve already answered this, but in the interest of asking each question of each authenticator, would you be willing to go to court to prove a specific item?
SK: On any item. If we sign for it, we’re ready to do battle and prove our findings.
SCD: The next question came from a collector who says the typical COA is meaningless because an authenticator can wash their hands of the item if they want to, that it just says “opinion.” Talk about that.
SK: That comment is basically true. You can see from the wording by the authenticators that they are protecting themselves. The authenticators are changing the wording so many times to protect themselves, because they’re guessing. Many of the mistakes wouldn’t be made if they had the correct reference material. There are too many rubber stamped signatures and autopens authenticated as genuine because they do not have the reference material, so they need a disclaimer.
SCD: What’s your advice to the collector after you’ve had to tell them they have a fake autograph?
SK: We try to avoid verbal communication. We avoid giving decisions over the phone. You paid for our findings and you’ll get them in the mail.
SCD: What are the toughest signatures to verify? The newer guys whose signatures are so incomplete?
SK: Some of the newer celebrities are tough (to authenticate) and some are impossible. A vintage celebrity, you’ve been collecting for 20-30-100 years, there are books about nearly every subject, so there are books for that. On the modern celebrities, there’s not enough written on these people yet, and their signatures change, there are so many variables. Some are just one letter and a line through it. If an authenticator wants to tackle that, they’re committing suicide.
SCD: Who is the most forged, on a percentage basis?
SK: Across the board, based on what I’ve seen, Muhammad Ali. Some people will say Mickey Mantle, others Joe DiMaggio … it’s definitely Muhammad Ali.
SCD: Some people say he’s tough to authenticate because it can be such a scribble.
SK: No, he’s not tough at all, you just have to know his signature from the ’60s all the way to recent times. He’s authenticate-able, and the forgers really don’t understand his signature, they never get it right, and I can easily pick them out.
SCD: Who are the most forged in presidential?
SK: Presidents, to me, are the easiest. There is so much reference material on all of the presidents, and most of them were somebody before they were president. There’s a history of their signature throughout their lives. JFK could easily be No. 1 with Reagan now running second and George W. Bush third.
In terms of percentage of fakes, sports are probably worst, and second runnerup would be entertainment/movies.
SCD: You talked earlier about a lack of autograph courses for authenticators. What could the industry do to encourage more education?
SK: There was an attempt at a recent autograph course recently in England, where they have serious forgery problems. They chose instead to do a test, and the people who took the test were shocked. It’s a massive problem over there.
The problem we have here is unfortunately the dealers are here to make money. Most of them are not interested in being educated. A trade publication or a major show needs to grab the bull by the horns and make these dealers take the course, and make it mandatory, if you’re going to get a booth at our show, you have to take the course.
SCD: What sorts of scientific methods do you use to analyze ink and paper pressure and etc.? Do you have a laboratory?
SK: I don’t want to call it a laboratory, but we have different microscopes, we have different magnifications. More important is educating yourself to ink and paper, and knowing what paper came from what period. It’s knowing the paper, the watermarks, how paper is made, you look for the chain lines in the paper, you’d know the paper didn’t belong in that period of the ink, whether it was iron galled ink or made from gunpowder.
We use four different types of lights; lighting is very important. We use sunlight, blacklight, fluorescent light and regular light.
SCD: You are involved in autographalert.com. There are times when it appears to me that you will post on there and be critical of your competition.
SK: That’s the way it may appear, only because what is being posted is the current news of the day. Unfortunately, in this hobby, there’s very little that’s good to say. Complaints seem to be the news of the day.
SCD: Who runs the website?
SK: There are a few dealers involved.
SCD: I would suggest, and you can comment, that when somebody posts something (accurate or not) shouldn’t they sign their name?
SK: I think the feeling of the website is get it up and running and see what kind of reactions come. It’s a fairly new website. Right now, it’s just posting information that is accurate and backed by paperwork. In the near future, I think there will probably be an e-mail or contact address.
SCD: Do you have any comments on something we have covered?
SK: I think I have some words of wisdom. I believe collectors shouldn’t get caught up in the third-party authentication “gimmick.” Third-party authentication is a great way for dealers and auction houses to place the blame on somebody else. If you’ve got a treasure that needs to be authenticated, go to a dealer who specializes in that type of item. You’ll get a more-accurate reading than going to a third-party authentication company. Go with the time-tested experts. In the ’80s and ’90s, we had to deal with the forgers. The problems in our industry right now are authenticators who shouldn’t be authenticating.