The following is a letter the editor of the Sports Collector's Digest (SCD) To the editor: I just finished reading Operation Bullpen, Kevin Nelson's well-written book about the FBI's investigation into the Marino-Bray autograph ring. It was certainly eye-opening to read about how such an incredible number of forgeries--estimated at one million--infiltrated the hobby during the mid to late 1990s.
At the same time, though, what's always neglected in books and articles on the topic of authenticity is that the autograph hobby--or business, to many--is very much a high-road, low-road situation. An autograph collector has the option of looking for the cheapest piece available or the one most likely to be authentic. These are two very different objectives. The Marino forgeries from Operation Bullpen allowed collectors to buy Ruth cuts, Mantle balls, McGwire photos, and whatever else for a fraction of the price that reputable dealers were charging. If people thought they were truly pursuing authentic examples of these items by buying them from dealers who had massive quantities for bargain basement prices, they were simply in denial.
On the other hand, there are plenty of opportunities to get real signatures of these superstars. Collectors just need to be willing to expend the money and effort to assure they are getting the real thing. For example, if you want to learn how to identify real Mickey Mantle signatures, you can look at past auction catalogs and eBay auctions to see hundreds of Upper Deck Authenticated examples, Mantle signatures on the original 500 HR Club lithos. By reading up, you can learn about other signings that Mantle did with reputable sources and see examples of those items. Then, as you look at ones on eBay or at shows, you will notice a pattern: the ones authenticated by James Spence Authentication or PSA/DNA look remarkably like the UDA ones or other ones with good provenance, whereas the $150 Mantle balls just don't look right. You might do the same thing with Ted Williams, or Joe DiMaggio, or Babe Ruth. As signatures get more expensive, the forgeries will tend to be better because there's more incentive for forgers to offer that type of material. But as you see more and more of them and keep track of who has vouched for them, you will notice a clear divide between which ones are real and which ones aren't. You will also see that perhaps there's a good reason why a PSA/DNA or JSA Babe Ruth ball might go for $20,000 or $30,000, whereas a similar one from another authenticator might not exceed $5,000.
This is not to say that every expensive one is real, or that there aren't any real ones that aren't authenticated by JSA or PSA/DNA. But it is to say that if you do not have the time, resources, or frankly, the aptitude--it is not for everyone--to learn for yourself about a particular autograph, it just makes sense to buy one approved by someone who does. As we learned from SCAA and J. DiMaggio Co. and the rest of the bogus authenticators uncovered by Operation Bullpen, there are legitimate authenticators and illegitimate authenticators. Do your homework and look at prices realized, and you'll see that this is not behind us. It never will be.
So while I thought the book was a great read and also have enjoyed reading about it in SCD, I just think we're not spending enough time focusing on the fact that there is plenty of fantastic, authentic material in the hobby. Furthermore, there is a handful of incredibly qualified people who are able to identify it. The market is efficient, in the sense that the top-notch, real material authenticated by PSA/DNA and JSA commands the highest dollars. It may require time to educate yourself, and it may require significantly more money to get these items, but in the end, that's how to get the item you truly want.