In this world of one-upsmanship and prestige based on material items is has become clear that you need a cornerstone piece to turn the heads of your friends. That beer mug shaped like Lincoln's head isn't cutting it. You need a really cool signed item from an awe inspiring figure to put on the wall in the hallway or over the fireplace. With your target in mind, you jump on the 'Bay and start surfing.
Wow, so many choices. Some are offered on auction, some in stores. Some have big scans, some none at all. Some are cheap, some are not. In addition, you have heard from a friend that there are a lot of fakes out there, or maybe your friend told you everything is fake. Maybe your friend is fake. Whatever the case may be, you are confused, which is making your head hurt, which isn't good because you are sober at the moment. With all this potential peril at stake, including the state of your coolness on the line, how can you be sure you are buying a real autograph?
Authentication. A key word to many people is authentication. Many collectors believe that it all stems from having the highly important certificate of authenticity (COA) with the item in order to guarantee the signature is real. However, a COA is only as good as the word of the seller of the item, a seller who you may not ever even speak to unless you somehow run into the guy. Hopefully that meeting doesn't take place in a courtroom or a back alley. As the old saying goes, you can put makeup on a pig but it's still only a pig in makeup.
It's not difficult to create a COA. A printer or hand with writing implement and a few minutes of spare time are the ingredients in most cases. Keep in mind that Major League Baseball does even less, going with a sticker with a serial number on it. The thing is, a Major League Baseball authentication is stronger than pretty much anything else out there as far as knowing it is authentic.
Even more confusing, isn't it? Wait, it gets even worse.
Professional Authentication. You've heard the names, or more accurately the letter abbreviations. They all seem legitimate enough. After all, if they claim they are experts then how can what they say be incorrect?
It's simple. These are large corporations with many employees, with the sole purpose of making money. These companies hire people based on some ability and not on their intimate knowledge of the field they are paid to protect. Most casual autograph collectors (children at the ballpark with small stacks of cards) have more knowledge of what a player's autograph looks like than these "experts". Did you know that Michael Jordan's autograph has shown at least four significant changes since his rookie year? Did you know that Shawn Kemp's autograph changed in the past two years? More importantly, does the authenticater sitting at a three wall cubicle on a middle level floor of an office building know this?
Also, were you aware that most of these authentications will not hold up in a court of law? It is true. Because the authenticaters are not forensic experts, any case involving fraud will not allow the opinion of these authenticaters admitted as evidence. Only a forensically backed authentication can be used in the prosecution of a fraud case, and very few companies employ forensic experts.
In addition, many of the companies people rely on can be bought off in a fairly easy way. First, a potential customer can cut a side deal with the authentication company for a discounted rate. This is usually done more in the graded card field but with some of these companies dabbling in both genres it is available to the autograph dealer as well. Once the discount is in place, the customer sends in enough product with nearly unreachable parameters, cutting down the amount of time the authenticater has to do his job with the order. Since the company is trying to make money, and since more money is generated through deeming items real, the bulk load gets authenticated, whether the items were real, fake, or inconclusive. Basically, a large order needed back almost immediately sent from a party willing to spend will be returned to that dealer with COAs from a "legitimate source".
Now you probably want to call the whole thing off and try to paint a mural to impress your buddies, even though you have the art skills of a sleep deprived spider monkey. However, you shouldn't give up just because it sounds so hard. After all, as another old saying goes, things aren't worth doing if they aren't done right. So how do you do this right?
Education. If you are going to bother to buy an autographed item, you should probably take some time to make sure you are buying something you aren't going to end up throwing in the trash. It all starts with knowing what you are getting into. Look at auctions that have ended and take note of commonalities among them. Try to compare with examples that are known as legitimate (such as autographs from trading card companies). Discover a normal price range that an autograph should end for. Check feedback and feedback rating and research potential sellers for their policies regarding potential returns or refunds.
Once you have an idea what you should be spending and what the autograph should look like in normal conditions you should be able to find an item you will enjoy, and more importantly, have a great deal of confidence in. If there are any further concerns, you can always ask. Most dealers who want their customers happy and returning will answer questions about their offerings.
If all else fails, do what most collectors do. Get out there and get the autograph yourself. You will find the experience, whether successful or not, more entertaining. You will have a better story to tell your friends about how you got the autograph (of how your favorite athlete or actor threw a cell phone at you) than you would telling them about how you sat in your underwear in front of the computer and clicked three times.