Autographed items seller (and owner of AutographsForSale.com) Theo Chen has plenty to say about his industry, and a lot of it is not good, to put it mildly. AuctionBytes caught up with this outspoken proponent of authenticity in the autograph world, and got tips about what to watch out for out there, and information that can help you find authentic items. He also has more info on his blog.
- What got you interested in autographs? How did you get started in selling autographed items?
TC: I got my first in-person autograph as a kid when I was about 8 years old. I didn't get hooked on collecting autographs until I got my first real job in 1989. I loved the thrill of the chase. By the mid 1990s I had so many autographs that I had started to sell my extras to a local memorabilia store. Then came eBay.
I first started selling on eBay in 1997 and back then it was SO easy. Booming economy, lots of demand, little competition.
In 1998 I got a key position as Autographed Product Manager at industry leader Upper Deck Authenticated (UDA) and learned a lot. So that, coupled with success on eBay led me to launch AutographsForSale.com in late 1999 and by early 2000 selling autographs was my full time business.
Fakes in the Entertainment World
- You say in your blog that autographed items are faked even more in the entertainment world than sports world. Can you talk more about this?
TC: Obviously, fakes are a huge problem in all areas of the autograph business, but the worst is modern entertainment autographs. Autographs of modern A-list entertainers are more likely to be faked than almost anyone in the sports world.
The absolute worst of the worst are cast autographed movie posters. On my blog I wrote that 95% offered for sale are fake, and I may have underestimated the problem. A buddy of mine who did a lot more Hollywood autograph chasing than me said it may be 98% or 99%. It's that bad. REAL cast autographed movie posters are almost impossible to get for a variety of reasons, mostly logistical.
But unsigned movie posters are easy to obtain for very little and very valuable if cast signed, so connect the dots and there's a huge opportunity for fraud. I have around 10,000 different autographed items for sale on AutographsForSale.com. At the time of this writing I have exactly ONE cast autographed movie poster for sale (Star Trek Generations) and it's actually only signed by 6 of the 11 stars. What does that tell you?
Sports Autograph Fakes
TC: With sports autographs there are extra layers of scrutiny involved with selling fakes. The players sometimes care, their agents sometimes care, the companies they do paid signings with sometimes care, the sports leagues or players associations sometimes care. With entertainment it seems almost no one cares about fake autographs, and a lot of the sellers are located outside the United States making enforcement that much more difficult.
Sports Jerseys - What to Watch Out For
- It sounds like many sports jerseys are replica/fake/misrepresented. What can a buyer do to ensure - or even increase the odds - that they're not?
TC: This is another very difficult area to deal with, not just for autograph buyers but the general public. Bootleg jerseys from Asia have flooded eBay, the Internet and even brick and mortar retail locations. They are especially attractive to eBay autograph sellers who love buying these jerseys at a fraction of the cost of real jerseys because when they get them signed, their profit margins are much higher. I try to stay away from them. The numbers look like cloth but typically are made of vinyl, and when vinyl gets ink applied to it, the long term stability is uncertain.
Basically, if the jersey is coming directly from Asia, it's almost definitely bootleg. If the price looks way too good to be true (as compared to the prices on the NBA, NFL or NHL website stores), it's almost definitely bootleg. If you get the jersey and any stitched numbers look wrinkly or shiny or have sloppy stitching, it's almost definitely bootleg.
- What do you do at AutographsForSale.com to ensure your signed items are authentic?
TC: It's a constant challenge. Every autographed item I sell has the potential to damage the solid reputation I've built my whole adult life. So I try to get all my autographs in person myself, from companies like UDA that do paid signings, or from in person autograph chasers or respected dealers who I know personally or have thoroughly researched. I have become more and more cautious over the years, and I am learning more all the time.
- What are some of your most popular items, or celebrity names that sell best?
TC: I like to think I have something for everyone, but perhaps my biggest specialty is golf. I have one of the best selections of modern golf autographs anywhere. I also have a particularly large selection of modern football autographs. Football and golf are the two sports that I spend the most effort collecting in person.
- You write in your blog that autograph fakes are too small-time for the FBI/law enforcement to pursue..and eBay does some enforcement but there are still fakes out there. (And Amazon is worse?) Is this still the case, and what do you think can be done, if anything?
TC: eBay was on the right track for a long time until 2012, when they made an internal change that I vehemently disagree with and will never understand. eBay knows how I feel about it and I don't want to get anyone in trouble, so I won't name names, but it's gone downhill since then. There is no longer even one eBay employee in a position of authority who knows anything about the autograph market, and whoever they are relying on as experts don't know what they are doing. There is one outfit on eBay with feedback in the high five figures that I know for a fact sells 100% fakes and they refuse to shut them down.
TC: I haven't sold on Amazon since 2010. They terminated my selling account pretty much because I wouldn't shut up about the competitors who were selling a massive volume of fakes on Amazon right under their noses, including by using photos of real autographs stolen from me and other legitimate sellers.
Amazon was notified by me and other legitimate dealers and as far as I know, never took action, and I wouldn't let it go. Maybe they've cleaned up their site since then, but I doubt it.
- You say PSA/DNA are "largely incompetent." Why do you say that?
TC: PSA/DNA thinks they know everything, and they don't. They have made many egregious errors, some of which are documented on AutographsForSale.com under
Authenticity & Frequent Questions, on unaffiliated websites like HaulsOfShame.com and elsewhere. If PSA/DNA were being honest they'd admit they are making, at best, well-educated guesses as far as authenticity. Several years ago I noticed they had listed all sorts of foreign heads of states under the autographs they authenticated including then North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Really? I exposed this travesty and pretty soon his name and others were removed.
It's well known in the autograph industry that PSA/DNA cuts volume pricing with dealers who submit large quantities, and that's fine. What's not fine is these submissions appear to get favorable treatment. PSA/DNA claims that they don't know whose autographs they are evaluating. I find that extremely hard to believe.
In fact, I have submitted quantities of autographs through two companies that do regular business with PSA/DNA, and almost all of them passed. Last year I submitted 5 autographs directly to PSA/DNA, including 2 obtained in person by me, one obtained in person by a friend of mine, and one that later passed their main competitor JSA (James Spence Authenticated). All five failed.
- Anything else you'd like to add?
TC: It's a real shame that the companies that do paid signings with current and former sports stars don't do more about the fakes being sold on Amazon, eBay and elsewhere. I almost never stock quantities of any particular autograph. They do, so when unscrupulous sellers flood the market with fakes, it hurts them a lot more than me. I have volunteered to provide them information about the biggest sellers of fakes that I know, and none of them took me up on it.
In fact, one of those companies filed eBay VeRO reports alleging that two of my autographed items I obtained in person were fake, and this severely damaged
my eBay selling account. So I am suing them. Instead of working together to deal with the problem, they attacked someone like me who not only sells real autographs but has helped remove tens of thousands of fake autograph listings from eBay. Go figure.
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- Thanks, Theo!