It was huge news this spring when James Spence, known by most as Jimmy, left PSA/DNA and went back on his own as an autograph authenticator. The biggest question for many was who was bigger, the company or the individual?
Time will answer that question, and PSA/DNA’s recent hiring of Mike Gutierrez might help answer it, too. But nobody can doubt that the single most famous sports autograph authenticator is Spence, who’s now back to running his own company, James Spence Authentication, with business centered at www.spenceloa.com.
Spence is remarkably controversial considering he’s clearly the top dog in authenticating. His backers say the critics are jealous or trying to defend their bad material; his detractors say Spence hasn’t earned his premier status and point to his mistakes, some of which are well-documented.
Spence addressed all of the rumors, innuendos and facts in this two-part interview.
SCD: Tell us about your history in the hobby.
JS: I’m a third-generation autograph collector. Both my father and my grandfather, both of the same name – with my son we’re four Jameses in a row – were autograph collectors. I treasure that, and it’s neat because I have an article that was written about my grandfather in the 1940s, about his collection. There’s a picture of him with his collection. That’s a neat lineage. I used to actually use that article years ago, when I was dealing, in my advertising.
SCD: Some people don’t like to work in their hobby, they don’t want their hobby to become work for them. Do you ever feel that way?
JS: No. I can honestly say that every day, I get up looking forward to work. It may sound a little silly, but this is my passion, it’s not just my work, and I really mean that. I’m going to learn something every day.
SCD: Did Dad and Grandpa both collect baseball autographs?
JS: Actually, they had more of an eclectic interest, it was far beyond sports. It was more of a who’s who in America. My grandfather had all 48 governors, everybody who was a major film star, comic artists, and sports as well. But he didn’t collect the minutiae of sports; he went after the big guys.
SCD: I don’t imagine he had any problem with fakes?
JS: There were some secretarial back then, but in the ’30s and ’40s, there was very little of it, it was negligible. You can’t avoid that when it goes through the mail. But they both also worked at Yankee Stadium, so they had access to autographs there.
SCD: Did you ever authenticate for either of them?
JS: The strange thing is, when my grandfather passed away, my step-grandmother had sold the collection, in its entirety. So this collection that my father and grandfather had built, with very few exceptions, it all was sold to a local antique dealer and it hasn’t surfaced since. But the article substantiates it, and I remember it as a kid growing up, that’s what gave me the interest.
SCD: How did you get from collecting at that early stage to where you are today, working in the industry?
JS: As a collector, I wished to get better items in my own collection, and the only way to do that was to trade or sell off my doubles, and the only way to do that was to become a “weekend warrior,” like most dealers start off. At least years ago, that’s how they started, I guess now they use eBay. But I took tables in the late ’80s, and by selling off my doubles, I was able to buy for my primary collection, and then after a while, my “weekend warrior” days started to outdistance what I was making on my regular job during the week. That’s when I realized this was my destiny.
SCD: When did you become a formal company?
JS: I suppose that happens when you file for taxes, and that was in the late ’80s. Back in the early days, (the company) was called Showoff Collectibles. I was combining autographs along with matting and framing people’s collectibles. I saw there was a tremendous need for that, because everywhere I looked, I saw people hoarding autographs, but at the time, it wasn’t very popular to put signed items up on the wall. Then I realized that there was a need for that, and I had the ability to do matting and framing, and that helped supplement my growing inventory. After a while, I started building “Year to Remember” signature pieces with multiple signatures on them from different teams. Eventually, I stopped doing that because it was so demanding, and authentication overcame everything. It’s been an evolution.
SCD: When would you say you became mostly authentication?
JS: That would happen to be during my employment with Collectors Universe, May 1, 2000.
SCD: At some point, they asked you not to be a dealer anymore, correct?
JS: Yes, they changed their whole business model, just not for my division. They sold off all the commerce divisions, and I had to abandon buying and selling.
SCD: Do you buy and sell now?
JS: No, you could count the purchases I’ve made in the past year on one hand, and those are just to keep my interest and add to my personal collection.
SCD: Many authenticators say they have to buy and sell because they couldn’t earn enough to only be an authenticator. But with your status as one of the top authenticators, you are able to do that?
JS: Yes. I would say there are fewer than five legitimate full-time autograph authenticators who do not buy and sell, and two of us (and a third who starts work with me in a week) work for this company. I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate authenticators who do buy and sell. I was able to do both effectively without that getting in the way.
SCD: Do you think there are other authenticators who could say they are able to make that work, too?
JS: They probably can, and are.
SCD: What are your services? What do you authenticate, what do you turn down, what do you specialize in?
JS: We’re not strictly limited to sports; however, that is the bulk of our authentications. One field that we’re shying away from until we feel comfortable is rock ’n’ roll. We’re probably going to be adding on some authenticators who don’t work full time but as consultants (in the rock music genre). Everything else, we have a network of authenticators around the country and we do some of it on our own (in non-mainstream-sports fields). The majority is sports, but we get involved in political and entertainment as well.
SCD: Do you have a second authenticator in-house?
JS: Yes, Jeremy Kraft. He’s been with me since week three of this new venture; since May 15 or 16. Everybody that I’ve ever had work as a full-time authenticator, even going back to my former employer days, I pretty much hand picked. I knew them, I knew their capabilities. They all actually used to submit autographs, and I could see they had an eye for it, a good base. You can build on that aptitude. I had three people and each of them had moved to Orwigsburg (Pa.). They all learned right under my roof. We’ll add another (authenticator) to be announced soon.
SCD: You have an expansive and detailed document on what each player’s authentications cost (available on the Web site). In general, what does a current player cost, what does Mantle cost, what does a vintage guy cost?
JS: We have a stamp of approval that is pretty much reserved for flat items valued under $20. That would be a $4 charge. Moving up the scale, our basic certificate starts at $20. A basic certificate might be somebody such as Tom Seaver; flat or non-flat item. The next step up is our standard letter of authenticity, which has the picture and the notary stamp on it. That level is $50 and up and then it gets logged onto the SpenceLOA.com Web site that people can accessed to make sure the certificate numbers coincide. Mantle, DiMaggio, Williams start at $75 each. For the rarer autographs, we have fees that are $100, $150, $250. Those are the ones that require a greater and more scrutinized examination; there are fewer exemplars to go by, they’re the “scarier” ones, if you will.
SCD: Many collectors believe it’s important to have a formal authentication education, almost a scientific education. Do you concur with that, and what’s the extent of your formal education in this field?
JS: It certainly can help, but it’s not totally necessary. I did go through a training course and I have a certificate in forensic document examination. That was over five years ago (when PSA/DNA had its authenticators take the course).
You gain a vocabulary. It’s kind of like going to college; you get an exposure that does help you out. But it’s probably less than 10 percent of the overall exposure, compared to being around autographs my entire life. That, to me, is more valuable than taking a course. I’m not negating the course; I’m happy I took it, and I’m happy I passed it. This is a constant learning process. I’m hungry for that, I have a passion for that.
SCD: How much of your process is an art and an experience process vs. science and data?
JS: Part of it does lean toward scientific, but it’s a smaller portion. One of the first things we do is determine the age of the item we sign. That’s the scientific end of it. But after a while, the “feel” comes in, very strongly, especially if it’s a (forgery) that’s repetitive.
Charles Hamilton used to talk to me about things like (repetition and memory). I’d visit him in his Manhattan apartment, and he used to tell me that a really good forger can get one by any authenticator, but it’s when you see the second one, that’s when the light bulb turns on and you realize there’s a scam going on. Anybody could be fooled on the first one, but the second one you’ll realize it. Charles was very right; I’ve seen situations like that.
You need a tremendous memory for (authenticating). If you had to constantly refer back to notes, even if they were all computerized, you’d never get through an authentication. I’d be sitting at these auction companies for two weeks. They need the work done in an efficient and productive manner, but at the same token nobody wants mistakes. You have to know your stuff. If I was to look up 10 exemplars for every item they put in front of me, they’d never be able to produce the catalog. There are some things that you just know; you can authenticate or dismiss them very quickly.
SCD: Why does the name “Charles Hamilton” continue to come up in these authenticator interviews?
JS: I used to visit him in the city. He was kind of like a legend in autograph authentication. He actually worked under Dwight Eisenhower in World War II. He had a wealth of knowledge in many different fields. I recognized this, and because it was a big interest to me, I made a point to stop over and visit him on many occasions in his New York apartment. It was definitely worthwhile, because I used to talk to him and he shared his knowledge with me. I’m not saying he gave me a degree in anything, but why not? This is how you learn, by talking to people.
SCD: Back to the art vs. science question, what percentage of the time are you able to make a subjective ruling on an autograph because something was clearly, scientifically wrong?
JS: The subjectivity is less than 2 percent of the time. But when you do find out something is that objective, you can definitively refer to the item as an outright forgery.
SCD: There are people who think that it’s not right for you to shoot down an autograph in five seconds, say at a show, and you haven’t pulled out your exemplars.
JS: Maybe that’s why some of (the other authenticators) are not authenticating for major auction houses — maybe they don’t have the exposure or the experience to be able to do that. I’ve spoken to state-employed forensic document examiners, and they’ve told me they could never get through what I can do because of my experience. They said, “You’ve stared at more Babe Ruth autographs than anybody in the country.” I have an advantage over them; the prices they would have to charge would be astronomical. One of the reasons is that they’d spend a long time gaining valid exemplars; I already have that, not to mention what’s already calibrated in my eye.
SCD: Can you let provenance be a factor?
JS: Sure, throw it at me. A lot of times, some people think they have ironclad provenance, but it actually works against the item. We’ve uncovered lies based on provenance. The stories are getting more elaborate.
So sure, bring it on. It can work for or against an item.
SCD: Can you let provenance be a tipping factor in the affirmative?
JS: You’re dealing with percentages and I’m not going to put my name on something that has a 30-35 percent chance of being real. If you do feel on the fence with something, after studying it, and you still feel unsure, that’s when it goes “inconclusive.” Sometimes, we’ve seen great provenance on the item and I outright hate the autograph. “I appreciate the fact that your grandfather signed the affidavit, but I can’t bring myself to sign off on that,” and that comes in “inconclusive.”
We have to reserve the right to call something inconclusive. And the odd thing about them is, those items in question are the ones we spend the most time on, and we make no money. There are other things that within seconds, we know the direction I’m going. You can spend three weeks on an autograph and come up inconclusive. If it’s inconclusive, we write a credit voucher. It happens less than 1 percent of the time. Any good authenticator should have “inconclusive” part of their repertoire. For some authenticators, I’ve never even seen a rejection letter. I can’t believe these companies don’t issue a rejection letter and tell the person why it failed.
(Coming next week: Part II, including the famous “Babe Ruth signed left-handed” incident.)