Kevin Keating is a prominent collector, dealer and authenticator who is known to be a high-end operator in each of those categories. The first two parts of Keating’s interview ran in the past two issues. This is the final installment. His company is Quality Autographs of Virginia, based in Alexandria. The phone is (703) 519-9881 and the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The web address is www.qualityautographs.com.
Comments on the following interview with Keating are best directed as a letter to the editor.
SCD: Which of the other authenticators in the industry do you trust? If you were too busy, you had to go to Japan on business for three months, and somebody said, “I can’t wait that long who should I use?” who would you send them to?
KK: Frankly, I’m not a proponent of third-party authentication over the use of traditional and respected dealers for all the reasons we’ve discussed, and it’s like saying that I support letters of authenticity when I really don’t since “LOA’s” are really “LOOs,” letters of opinion, or “LOEs,” letters of examination. And they are only as good as the knowledge and integrity, i.e., reputation, of the entity that has done the letter. And everyone makes mistakes and is only as good as their knowledge as it is applied to an individual piece at a given point in time anyway. Thirdparty authenticators, me included when used as such, are handicapped by the fact that they are most often examining a piece nakedly, with no “contextual evaluation.” And let’s not forget that the result is always an opinion, unless an item is a “Category 5,” which as mentioned earlier, is a provable forgery based on something inherent to it that scientifically prohibits its veracity.
So what it boils down to is this: whose opinion does the submitter place the most confidence in? I have also seen where collectors and especially dealers have no real preference for one authenticator over another, but merely go “letter shopping,” that is, they only care that they can have someone’s letter attached to an item, particularly when they have something they want to sell. This way they can claim, “I have a such-and-such piece and it has so-and-so’s letter with it….” This begs the question, what is really being sold here – an authentic piece or someone’s letter? To me it’s sad that the autograph market has gotten to that point; but many now make a healthy living providing those letters. And with all the letters available to collectors out there, I think collectors are becoming confused. Add to the fact that authenticators themselves issue different types of opinion letters and sometimes issue letters on the same piece with different conclusions, or that forgers sometimes forge LOA’s, too, and it’s no wonder that collectors are becoming frustrated and confused. And in the process, the collector is paying authentication fees which, in essence, are a tax incurred on the original purchase. Until recently, there were a handful of respected and notable dealers, including many of those who now make a primary or complete income solely on authentication, who sold items with lifetime guarantees of authenticity and if something was sold and later brought into question by someone else, the original dealer-seller bought the item back – period – no LOAs required, and keep in mind that traditional dealers still do this and also self-authenticate their items, which explains why the pool of the most respected authenticators started as dealers. And why not be an authenticator only? It’s a healthy living with little limited overhead since there is no need to carry inventory and associated costs, and no need to buy-back any inventory someone else questions.
Having said all that, the four authenticators who come to mind whom I would consider to be hobby leaders are, in no particular order, Richard Simon, Mike Gutierrez, Jimmy Spence and Steve Grad of PSA. I didn’t know him personally until recently and I must say that he has really impressed me. I think now that Spence is on his own, Steve is getting a lot more exposure at PSA as the lead guy there and a lot more deserved credit for his independent knowledge and skill. The others have an established and deserved reputation, too. Fellow dealers who also possess an appreciable amount of skill and deserved reputation are Rich Albersheim, Ron Gordon, Bill Corcoran, Jim Stinson, Seth Boyd and Phil Marks, to name a few. I like to think that I get along well with all of these dealers and authenticators and that we have a mutual respect for each other’s opinions and expertise. The hobby is better off when these individuals and others like them work together when possible and share knowledge rather than covet information for competitive advantage and let’s face it, there is plenty of business to go around for all of us anyway and always will be, it seems to me.
SCD: Some collectors worry about the authenticator knowing who submitted the item and maybe that pushes an item in one direction or another. Does it happen in the hobby and why wouldn’t it happen with your service?
KK: If what you are asking is: “should the origin of a submission affect the outcome of an evaluation?” Then the truthful answer is “maybe,” depending on a number of things. Ideally, an autograph should stand on its own merits and be “self-evident” as authentic, a common example of this are signed checks which tend to command premiums higher than raw signatures since they tend to be accepted on their face by all without accompanying opinion letters or other support. But if this were the case for everything, then none of this discussion would be relevant. So the best way to approach it, I think, is to do your best evaluating the piece on its own merits, without the benefit of contextual evaluation and when more information is needed to arrive at certainty of opinion, gather that information where and when you can.
Obviously, one piece of information which may be considered then is where an autograph last comes from, with emphasis on the word “last.” In reality, it doesn’t matter how many times a genuine Babe Ruth signed ball trades hands since who had it when doesn’t affect its authenticity. However, if a guy named Johnny Fang comes at you with a good-looking Babe Ruth signed ball you may want to think twice before buying it.
Conversely, it doesn’t matter what story accompanies a forgery as a forgery is a forgery no matter who sells it and what supporting documentation and or story accompanies it. To my knowledge, no LOA/LOO/LOE ever made a fake autograph into a good one. If someone can prove otherwise, let me know. And if someone knows anyone in this business who hasn’t changed his mind on something and or who has been correct 100 percent of the time, I’d like to meet that person, too. Anyone who claims to have always been right and to have never made a mistake in this business is either lying or delusional.
Unfortunately, the whole process of evaluating something is subjective and it’s a combination of science and art. The opinion rendered, unless it is determined to be a “Category 5” autograph, is just that – an opinion. If there is something about the item which leads to uncertainty on the authenticator’s part, the due diligence would be to find out more about the autograph than the autograph presents itself, in which case it only stands to reason that the individual looking at it should ask the question, “Who provided this and can we find out more information from that person about it?” Under these circumstances, failing to ask that question is at the very least lazy on the authenticator’s part and arguably negligent if the item is brought into question in some way. Why? First of all, it would be a shame to incorrectly taint an authentic example with a “not authentic” finding for obvious reasons, not the least of which is that it might create havoc along the way as the owner pursues a refund from its seller – a process that might be repeated many times over depending on how many times the item had changed hands – on a false pretext resulting from the erroneous opinion of an authenticator or authenticators. This is a classic example of an “authenticator turning a good autograph into a bad one.”
Second, the authenticator may learn something to help him make the correct decision and make it accurately; moreover, assuming the item in question is a forgery, the information he may get on a “cross examination” of the owner and/or purveyor of the item may help to uncover the unscrupulous operation which produced it or at least expose that operation. Forgers often use others to sell their wares wittingly or unwittingly, and a common means for doing this is through auctions where the consignor may be the forger and the auction house the unwitting seller. So asking relevant questions like: “Who is the consignor on this?” May yield: “The consignor was so-and-so out of Michigan ….” And that might be all one needs to know to enable you to connect the consignor to other questionable material you have previously seen somewhere else, perhaps consigned to another auction house from the same source.
All this would assist you in concluding definitively and correctly that this material is bad and that the consignor is not to be trusted. For instance, you might conclude: “You know I was just at Mastro’s two months ago and there was another Munson item and the same consignor consigned it and it looked kind of like this, a little bit out of the norm…” Now you have identified a pattern and while you may have been fooled once, erring on the side of “yes” the first time and attributing the anomalies as just that, Munson autographic anomalies, you won’t do it the second time armed with the additional information. And due diligence in such a case requires that you then notify everyone affected by your findings. In the end, all those involved should take both the necessary steps for recompense where required and prevention for the future-prohibiting the participation of the consignor in future auctions and notifying others of the consignor’s name, etc., where appropriate.
SCD: It almost sounds like you’re saying who submitted it should be taken into account.
KK: Not exactly, not as you suggest, it’s a backwards way of looking at it that way, because a good autograph ideally should stand on its own merits. So, if it looks good and you’re sure it’s a “Category 2,” then where it came from doesn’t need to be a consideration. It’s only when something is brought into question as a “Category 3, or 4” when you should start doing some backtracking and adding more information as part of your evaluation. Certainly, if someone submits “Category 3, 4, and 5 materials to me, I want to know who submitted it as I want to know who is trying to get questionable or provably false material approved by me. The reason why this should be a secondary consideration, however, is to prevent bias from entering your consciousness prior to making an evaluation on the naked item as opposed to adding the information when it may be useful in an attempt to provide some contextual evaluation when more information is needed.
Remember, too, that when forgers sell forgeries, they often do it by providing, as part of the contextual evaluation for the buyer, a plausible story as to why the autograph is good, such as “My dead uncle got this and bequeathed it to me” and so on, and so if you’re asking that question first as part of your evaluation, then you may become biased based on a story that may be untrue. So that’s why the autograph should first be evaluated nakedly and then add whatever facts you can, when needed.
SCD: How often do you disagree with those authenticators who are well-known in the hobby? Do you agree with them 95 percent of the time?
KK: It’s difficult to put a number on it because seldom does anything come back to me that I’ve sold. I do, however, think it is accurate to say that in almost all cases the experts are going to agree and the overall figure of 95 percent is probably low. Where there is going to be a higher number of differentials is on more esoteric material that is not inherently self-authenticating. Such an example of this might be a Mike “King” Kelly autograph. There was a player contract of his that sold a few years ago first to Barry Halper and then again to someone else when Halper sold his collection. There was no doubt looking at it that the document was authentic, and so it was easy also to assume that the Kelly signature on the document was real. But for the purpose of this example, let’s assume that the very same signature from that document had been first clipped from the document and offered into the market only as the naked signature, thus eliminating the benefit of contextual evaluation of the document, so that only the naked signature was being evaluated and sold. In that case, I can virtually guarantee that there would never have been 100 percent consensus by the hobby’s experts on the validity of the naked signature as a real Kelly or a questionable Kelly or even as a forged Kelly, the conclusion would have been mixed.
SCD: I would imagine the owner is going to take the opinion of the guy who said it was good and they’re going to put their LOA on it and they’re going to move on.
KK: As I mentioned before, that does go on to be sure, and what you have just described is a variant and application of what I mentioned before that I term “letter shopping.” Basically, trying to get someone else to help you prop up an item with their “LOA/LOO/LOE” as a basis/enabler to sell the item to someone else. According to the FBI’s Tim Fitzsimmons, it was this very practice that helped the Scheinman’s and Smokey’s stay in business so long selling forgeries, as it was their practice to prop up their fake merchandise to unwitting customers with fancy “LOA’s” written by “experts” and “forensic examiners.” They were able to do this, in part and unfortunately, by taking advantage of the perceived need of unwitting consumers who have bought into the notion that in order for an autograph to be authentic, it must have a corroborating LOA. So this need to have letters has been sold to the hobby by both the good guys who make a living trying to get rid of the bad guys and the bad guys themselves – the “dark-side” of the hobby.
SCD: A lot of collectors have been caught in some of these confusing and frustrating situations we’ve discussed, and some of them have thought about giving up on a hobby that creates such difficult situations for them. What would be your message to that collector?
KK: First of all, that’s already happened quite a bit, unfortunately. I think it’s going to happen more and more, and one reason for this, at least in the short term, is the proliferation of third-party authentication services. You can’t just give somebody a class for a month and they become an expert on sports autographs. It takes years and years of experience, on top of innate skill and an openness to learning all you can, even from your competitors. But there are more and more third-party authenticators and services cashing in on the demand for LOA’s and adding to collector confusion, and as there’s more turnover at established companies and they have to train new people, and independent businesses start up, there will likely be an erosion of institutional knowledge that takes years to acquire by on the job training, and a dispersion of institutional knowledge among many people, which will only create more and more conflict of opinions down the road. I hope I am wrong, but that is how I see it trending. The way that a collector can best ensure that they minimize these conflicts and painful scenarios – which are very unpleasant for everybody – is to do their own research on the people they’re going to buy from, and limit the people they’re going to buy from to a few known, established, and respected sources.
SCD: Would you be willing to go to court to back your opinions, if necessary?
KK: Yes, on three occasions, I’ve been called on to testify and in all three cases, the defendant copped a ninth-hour plea and the plaintiff won. So I have never actually testified yet, but I have been prepared to do so. And as we talked about before, I felt much honored that Tim Fitzsimmons selected me as the government’s expert witness in the Smokey’s case, even though the Scheinmans pled guilty a few weeks before the trial, preventing the need for me to provide testimony.
SCD: A collector submitted a question regarding COAs or LOAs. He asked, “What’s the point of COAs if the language on them allows for the authenticator to wash their hands of the authentication anyway” using verbiage like “opinion.”
KK: His question is simple but profound, since it implies recognition of some of the inherent downsides to such letters. First, the collector who asked that question implies that authenticators are not bound to their opinion, per se, and can simply change their opinion at any time with the issuance of a new letter, all true. While reputable dealers can also change their minds, their mistakes have deeper consequences than the mere re-issuance of a letter. When an item they have sold is put in question, not only are their reputations impugned, but they must also buy the piece back to uphold their reputation even if the item is authentic but brought into question erroneously by a third party, so they have a lot at stake every time they offer something, beyond just their reputation via their specific opinion on an item sold. Which underscores the advantages of recognizing the value of a sound and respectable traditional dealer who guarantees the authenticity of what he sells so that when you buy from such a person, you are buying more than the autograph; you are also buying the person’s reputation including his authentication of the item and the contextual evaluation of that item the dealer made when making its acquisition, and an insurance policy, too, since a reputable dealer will buy back anything later brought into legitimate question.
SCD: And your reputation, as an authenticator, is about the most important thing you’ve got.
KK: And that gets right back to why – and I’m biased because I’ve got a stake in this – you should deal with dealers like me and others like those I have mentioned whose reputations are dependent on selling you good autographs. If they make mistakes, more than their reputation is going to be hurt – they’ll have to buy back their material. And if they make too many mistakes, they will be out of business.
SCD: What kind of advice can you give a collector who brings an item to you and it’s clearly a forgery? Do collectors typically make mistakes when they find themselves in that situation?
KK: About all one can do is go back to the seller and request a refund. Again, reputable dealers will comply. When you’re first starting out as a collector, the most important research you can do is to research the people from whom you’re going to buy. If you buy from respectable dealers and auction houses that will stand by their material with no questions asked and who offer a lifetime guarantee of authenticity, then when you get in those situations, you’re going to get your money back. That’s the best advice I can give anyone. The autograph portion of our hobby has changed significantly in the last 10 years. One reason for this has been eBay, which has changed everything and has forced businesses like mine to have a lot more online exposure. It’s also brought a lot of collectors into the hobby who shop online. Likewise, however, the Internet has provided an avenue for forgers who target those collectors by selling their wares while hiding behind their computer screens.
Another significant change is the proliferation of auction houses. SCD recently published a list of current auction houses, and it looked like there were almost 50 of them. It used to be that there were 20 or so dealers who sold vintage autographed material, and now there are 40-50 auction houses and only a handful of dealers left. Together with eBay and its impact on the proliferation of auctions, I would also credit Bill Mastro and his auction empire which has been the model for so many others. As they say, “the high tide raises all boats,” and Mastro raised the tide that lifted a lot of these auctions into the water.
The last major change is the advent of third-party authentication services and the corresponding perceived need among the greater collecting public for LOAs. I’m not sure, but I believe that Mastro really introduced us to the concept of “third-party” authentication as we know it today, by use and promotion of them to screen material for his auction. Whatever his role in the advent of third-party authentication, he certainly helped jump-start it at the very least, moving it along to where it is today and making it a standard for all auctions to follow. And were it not for eBay, Mastro and other auction houses and their use of third-party authenticators, I doubt that we would have third-party authenticators making their living solely on authenticating as we now do.
SCD: What are the toughest signatures for you to authenticate, within the areas that you cover?
KK: Anything that I have limited exposure to, so that would be the rarer, older material, from the standpoint that you may not have a large template of material from which to draw analysis from.
On the other hand, what offsets that to a large degree is the application of a lot of common sense and acquired skill from looking at similar material from similar periods. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s pretty easy to make a determination of how old something is and what it should look like. So the individual’s autograph may be extremely rare, but you can tell from various things you’re looking at whether or not it was signed 100 years ago. And let’s face it, if you can conclude that something was or was not written from a bygone period before there were people forging Frank Chance autographs or the like, you are more likely to connect the dots and draw an accurate conclusion about what you are examining. Where the greatest challenge to me lies – and why I typically don’t touch them – are the commonly forged autographs of the last 10-20 years – Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, to a lesser extent Mickey Mantle. Mantle forgeries are easier to detect for me than DiMaggio, because Mantle had a very standard way of signing his name in his last 10-20 years, and I think forgers have difficulty replicating it.
DiMaggio is a difficult autograph for me, the ones that he signed on flat surfaces in the last 20 years, especially with a Sharpie. He was consistently inconsistent, which is perfect if you want to forge, because forgers only have to get it moderately correct to make it indistinguishable from one of his many variations. If I had to pick one name that would be most challenging, it would be him, and that is one reason that I will not buy contemporary Joe DiMaggio signatures from third parties. I have no problem doing the vintage DiMaggio stuff.
SCD: I’ve asked the authenticators in this series, “Who is the most forged?” and I’ve gotten the typical answers. Let me make it more difficult for you: Which player is more forged than the typical collector realizes?
KK: One player who’s really widely forged is Christy Mathewson. There are so many fakes out there, very few real, and a lot of confusion. And on that topic, I read not too long ago where someone contended that the limited edition bookplates signed by Mathewson were most certainly ghost written, an erroneous conclusion arrived at from the author’s speculation by comparing bookplate signatures to later, verifiable Matty signatures. Specifically, Matty ghost-wrote a series of children’s books in the 1910-14 time-frame and would sign numbered bookplates that were later glued into the books, resulting in “signed,” limited-edition copies presumably for special purchase or gifts, a standard practice for publishers and authors to do dating back to the 1800s. Notwithstanding the fact that I have owned (and sold) a multi-signed dinner program from 1907 that bears an identical Mathewson signature to that form he applied to the bookplates, it makes absolutely no sense that Matty would have delegated the signing of these special books to anyone else. If he had delegated them to someone else, it would easily be the earliest use of a ghostwriter by a baseball player to handle autograph demands. Remember, these are his authored books, a work of his for which he would have taken credit and been proud of. Moreover, it is not likely that the publisher would have tolerated anyone but Mathewson signing the books anyway.
And lastly, if someone other than Matty would have been signing for Matty in 1910-14, why would they have used bookplates at all? Why not just have the person doing the signing write all the info on the books themselves? No, clearly Matty signed these bookplates and then mailed them to the publisher who affixed them to the books. Any other explanation is simply not plausible. But the confusion generated by one person’s conclusion is an example of what can happen when making signature variant comparisons of someone like Matty whose signature changed over time and who is otherwise widely forged. As I recall, the author was troubled by the difference of the signatures in question – those on the bookplates – to those he had seen from Matty dating from 1915 on. And to the author’s credit, there are some differences and if he had been able to compare the 1907 version I have to those on the bookplates, he would have likely arrived at the same conclusion as I have – that the bookplates and the program were signed by the same person and that person would have had to be Matty.
Roberto Clemente is another one. He’s a huge challenge for most, and I see a lot of the respected dealers inadvertently selling forgeries or ghost-written examples. I had the great fortune of meeting Clemente twice, and he signed seven autographs for me, and I still have them. Like Mathewson, part of the problem with Clemente is that he changed the way he wrote his name, too, so there are multiple variations of legitimate Clementes. Add to that, the flourished way he signed in the later part of his life and the employment of a ghostwriter or two to answer his mail.
SCD: What sorts of scientific methods do you use? Do you have a laboratory, do you machines, or are you a loupes and lights guy?
KK: I use loupes and lights, and that’s been more than sufficient for my needs. The only real, scientific testing you can do on an autograph is testing the materials to determine their age. That will only give you a range, and most often the range can be replicated anyway. You can get old paper and old ink.
When people talk about doing ink and paper testing, it’s really a big fallacy. It’s not relevant to the sports autograph market. All you really need is magnification. As an example, when you look under magnification at a piece of paper, the older the paper, typically the more acidic it is. Paper dries out over time, there’s less and less moisture, which leaves larger and larger gaps in the structure of the paper itself, the paper becomes more porous. When you apply wet ink to old paper, it tends to spread out a lot, compared to the result of applying wet ink to the same paper when it was new. If done today the ink would “ghost,” “flair,” or spread out. The converse is true on a baseball. Take a 1940s-era baseball, for example: in 1940, the leather is suppler, less dry and more porous. If you signed it with an ink pen, the ink would go into the leather. You take that same baseball and sign it today with wet ink, the ink isn’t going to go into the leather as it would have 60-70 years ago because the leather has dried out some over time so the ink is going to blob up on the surface. That may not be very visible under the naked eye, but under magnification, you can pick out those kinds of anomalies.
SCD: Some of the authenticators in this series are concerned about the quality of exemplars in the authenticating field. Do you agree with that?
KK: I think the whole exemplar thing is really overblown. What does a forger use to forge from? They use an exemplar. It cuts both ways. What a good authenticator needs to do is connect a lot of dots, and apply many different elements and considerations to what he is examining, not the least of which, of course, is what the autograph should look like. Don’t get me wrong-exemplars are very, very important. In the Mathewson example, for instance, the 1907 exemplar should suffice beyond any reasonable doubt to verify that the later-signed bookplates are indeed done by Mathewson and not a ghost signer. You do touch on a big problem, though, and I mentioned earlier about some errors being made by authenticators where good autographs are being rejected and fake autographs are passing. In some cases, it’s quite possible that the examiners may have the wrong exemplars in their database, so they’re passing some fakes because the forger got close to being right.
On the other hand, they’re rejecting good ones because they’ve authenticated some bad ones (and use those as their database exemplars). It really hits a nerve with me when I hear an authenticator fall back on exemplars as an end-all-be-all. There’s a lot more to it than that. If the autograph looks exactly like the exemplar, maybe the forger got it right.
SCD: Where are your exemplars from? Are they out of a book, or signed in front of you? In general, where are they from?
KK: I would stack my exemplars against any database of exemplars in existence. I’ve been pulling exemplars and creating a file base of exemplars on all of the Hall of Famers in the major sports for 10-15 years. That consists of every form and type of autograph example. When I buy collections, I copy everything. When I authenticate collections, I make copies. I’ve copied 3-by-5s, documents, things I’ve known to be good, things I’ve known to be fake, things I know that other people have made mistakes on. My Babe Ruth file, as an example, goes back to a team sheet in 1915 and I have more than 1,000 examples in my file database. It’s about 8 inches thick. And I date the examples, too, when possible, and I also record any other important information like what collection the piece may have come from.
SCD: Are you a member of the International Autograph Collectors Club & Dealer Alliance, the Universal Autograph Collectors Club or the Manuscript Society?
KK: Yes, I have been member of each of them, I believe. In fact, the UACC has selected me as their sole authenticator on behalf of the organization for sports autographs. They’ve been getting a lot of inquiries from collectors contacting them and asking, “Who should I get my such and such autographs authenticated or appraised by?” As the demand for third-party authentication has grown, the UACC has had a lot of pressure from its members for names of “sanctioned” people whom they can recommend for that purpose and they’ve selected a handful of people who are experts in certain fields, including myself for sports, and John Reznikoff for presidential, I believe. That was announced in January.
In reality, just because you’re a member of the club doesn’t necessarily add anything to your qualifications, per se, though you can be sanctioned or expelled if actions warrant it or club bylaws are broken. One real benefit is that you gain access to the newsletters so you can read the ads and the articles which I like to do for self education.
SCD: Give us some closing comments or touch upon anything we didn’t get to.
KK: I just want to state once again that people have to understand that the best due diligence they can do to protect themselves from being duped is to do research on the parties they are going to buy from. That’s where you should start. And remember that LOA’s are really letters of opinion, subject to change, and are only as good as the people from whom they come. And lastly, buy only from established sources that provide lifetime guarantees of authenticity, because when you get a lifetime guarantee from a dealer or auction, you’re getting an insurance policy on that piece with your purchase and anyone selling authentic material will gladly provide such a guarantee.