Forged (and Authenticated) T206 Signatures Prove Autograph Game is a Risky One
Several signed (and authenticated) T206 cards have been proven to be fakes
For the longest time, I’ve contemplated saving some pennies to buy an autographed T206 card. I’m not much of an autograph buff but I can’t lie — adding a signed card from the most iconic baseball card set of all time would be quite the thrill. I’m a big tobacco card collector and having something that old signed by a player would be a cherished item.
But some shocking discoveries kind of has me rethinking that.
The Net54 website has been around for more than a decade and has made some incredible discoveries over the years, in part to a membership of hobby enthusiasts knowledgeable about most anything with regards to cards. One member (Manny, named ‘SetBuilder’) recently proved that a Rube Marquard autographed T206 was fraudulent. Shortly thereafter, he again did an incredible job as he proved that an auctioned Fred Parent autographed T206 was also no bueno. The Marquard was offered in an auction from Clean Sweep Auctions while the Parent was in an REA auction. They have easily been determined to be fakes because recent pictures of the same cards, unsigned, have been found. That, of course, easily proves they were ‘signed’ recently, long after the players have passed on.
If you think it ends there, I’ve got bad news for you. Two more signed T206s in the Parent thread have been found to be fakes as well, using the same methods of finding relatively new scans of the cards unsigned. Those last three were found in the span of only a few hours. I have little doubt that more will surface as this looks like it has serious potential to snowball even further once more digging is done.
Here’s an example of one. Shown here are the pictures of the Marquard unsigned (left), which was sold in February of 2018, as well as the signed version just sold in October (right). As a point of reference, you can see creases at the top and to the right are in the same location, proving these are the same cards. I’ve circled some of the flaws that appear on the images so you can better see they are the same.
Marquard, in particular, has quite a few autographed T206 cards as he lived until 1980 and was often targeted by collectors. This site documents nearly 60 of his. His is probably the one that a scammer could best get away with forging because of that. However, since he died nearly 40 years ago, he clearly didn’t sign this card. The Marquard, in particular, set off this firestorm as the buyer sent it to SGC for a second opinion and they deemed it to not be authentic.
So, don’t buy fakes and only buy truly authenticated stuff, right? Seems easy enough. But it’s a little more complicated than that in these cases. Unfortunately, the real conundrum here for autograph collectors is that at least some of the cards were authenticated by JSA, one of the foremost companies when it comes to determining whether signatures are good or not so good.
The autograph authentication business is a lucrative one. For example, JSA’s fee to authenticate can be over $100, per the company’s website. Multiply that fee (or even their lesser fees) by thousands of items, and it’s easy to see they can make good money. These authenticators are experts and are paid well for their opinions on autographs. But what these recent T206 finds reinforce is that they are, in fact, only opinions.
Despite all the work authenticators can do to compare signatures to other known authentic signatures, these are not 100% guarantees. They surely are not mere guesswork as these folks, I’m inclined to believe, know what they are doing. However, the service falls somewhere in between. Even if that ‘somewhere in between’ leans heavily towards being more correct than not, the unfortunate reality is that, unless collectors witness a signing with their own two eyes, there’s always some degree of uncertainty when it comes to autographed items.
The problem with autographed pre-war cards is that there are relatively few of them. That’s particularly true with something like the T206 set, which was printed from 1909-11. Even the youngest players in that set have long since passed away. And while autograph collecting has been a thing for a while, it was less popular back in the day when the signatures didn’t hold nearly the same value. In addition to that, many autographs have surely been lost over time just as regular, unsigned cards have been. The result is a small amount of genuine pre-war autographs and a large group of collectors ready to open their wallets.
The aforementioned Parent card is a perfect example of that. An unsigned Parent T206 card in Good condition might sell for around $20-$30. The signed version sold for a whopping $2,700. That, boys and girls, is the problem. If we were merely debating the merits of a $5 Darryl Strawberry autographed card, no one would bat an eye. But when you start throwing around cards with four figure values, the level of concern escalates dramatically.
None of this, in case you’re wondering, really rests with the auction companies. At least not to me. They are merely auctioning an item that has been authenticated by someone else. If they themselves made the authentication or used a service that was not a reputable one, it’d be one thing. This, however, is quite another. Having an autograph authenticated by one of the leading experts in the field tells me they’ve done their job. Unless we get more information here, it’s hard to hold them accountable, in my mind.
The question, then, becomes one of the capabilities of JSA and other authenticators. Here’s the thing. I know the rush will be to pile on here and get the pitchforks out. And yeah, we’d like them to be spot on every time. But these guys, like graders, are not perfect. Grading cards is not particularly easy but I’d argue that authenticating cards is significantly harder because there’s no baseline, really.
The counter to that, I imagine, will be that if any random collector on a message board can find inaccuracies with little effort, why can’t a proven authenticator? It’s a fair question. More than fair, actually, and one I’d ask myself. This type of stuff should not be uncovered so easily when collectors are paying for a quality service that should include doing some reconnaissance work. A problem with the pitchforking, I guess, is that if we’re asking authenticators to dig for dozens, or even hundreds, of unsigned cards to see if every single card could have been forged, that is something that would dramatically slow turnaround times.
Maybe that’s the answer. Perhaps, collectors should merely have to settle for turnaround times that could take weeks instead of days, similar to what we’re seeing with grading companies. All I know is that collectors aren’t necessarily the most patient bunch. We see that with grading delays all the time (psst – SGC, you’ve still got my cards that are well past their estimates. Grade my stuff, will you?). And short of finding a scan of an unsigned card, again, there’s no guarantee that the ultimate assessment will be an accurate one, anyway. Will collectors really be patient if authentications take significantly longer? My hunch is no, but perhaps that’s just what it takes.
In the end, I think the analysis is pretty clear on this one, regardless of what you think authenticators should be doing. When you’re buying autographs in the pre-war era, you’re inheriting a degree of risk — no matter who says so.
What can you do? For starters, the Net54 guys have created a pretty good template. There’s nothing saying you can’t do your own recon work. Looking at a potentially signed card? Check for examples of that same card unsigned. And if you manage to buy a card that is authenticated, send it to a second authenticator. Even beyond their mere opinion, it’s possible they uncover something about the signature that you or the first authenticator didn’t. The work doesn’t end with the shiny certificate from an authenticator. At least it shouldn’t. Do. Your. Freaking. Homework.
This is a mess right? Should you avoid buying pre-war autographs? I’d never tell a collector how to collect. If autographs are your thing, have at it. I’d merely advise that you treat authentications for what they really are.