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Autograph expert says beware of forgeries, authentication companies

Here's an image of a bank check signed by Detroit Tiger Hall of Famer Ty Cobb in 1960. It's valued at $1,000. Image courtesy of Ron Keurajian.
March 12, 2008 - Would it surprise you to learn the vast majority of autographs on the market from baseball's early legends are fakes?

It doesn't surprise Oxford resident Ron Keurajian, but then again he's an expert in this field.

"There's a lot of forgeries out there, especially with the vintage material," he said. "Ninety percent of the Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young autographs out there are forgeries."

Since the early 1980s, Keurajian has been collecting, studying and writing about vintage baseball autographs, the real ones and the fakes.

"Baseball has such a hold on the American psyche. It's our national past-time," he said. "There's such a need to possess something signed by people like Ty Cobb or Lou Gehrig."

Between 2001-06, Keurajian wrote 50-60 articles on vintage autographs for Sports Collectors Digest.

Keurajian also coedited sports memorabilia guide published in 2003 by Krause Publications. He wrote the sections on vintage autographs from baseball hall of famers and professional golf's early legends.

"I'm working on my first book, which I hope to have completed by Christmas," he said. "It's a study of every member of the (baseball) Hall of Fame and their signatures."

For about three years, Keurajian's been collecting specimens and illustrations, trying to get multiple signatures from each player at different times in their lives.

He's now down to probably seven or eight names, some of which he admitted he's never going to find like pitcher Rube Waddell, who played from 1897 to 1910 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946.

No known examples of Waddell's signature exist, so "it's impossible to complete a hall of fame set," Keurajian said.

It was a 1982 meeting with former Detroit Tiger Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer that sparked Keurajian's interest in vintage autographs.

"He's generally considered one of the five greatest second basemen ever," Keurajian said. "He used to live down the road from me (in Southfield). I lived at 12˝ (Mile) and Evergreen. He lived at 13˝ (Mile) and Lasher."

Keurajian called Gehringer to interview him for a high school report he was writing. The old Tiger, who played from 1924-42 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1949, invited him over for a face-to-face meeting.

"He gave me a couple signed picture postcards and I was hooked," Keurajian said.

Collecting autographs is about preserving history and owning something once handled by a legendary figure.

"You're holding something that was actually touched by them and that's very powerful – that's something you want to possess," Keurajian explained.

Vintage baseball autographs come in many forms, from cancelled bank checks and photographs to letters and gum cards.

"The single signed baseball in good condition is the most desirable of any medium," said Keurajian, who noted the only problem is they're difficult to store.

At one point, Keurajian had a large collection of autographs.

"When I started collecting back in the early 1980s, stuff was worthless," he explained. "You could pick up a baseball signed by Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth for $50 to $100."

Today, that same baseball sells for $50,000 to $100,000, if the ball is a "museum-grade specimen," meaning it's a "cream white ball with a nice bold signature."

It was this meteoric rise in values that forced Keurajian to store his collection in a safety deposit box.

"The problem with this stuff is it gets so valuable, you can't really enjoy it," he said. "I was seeing my collection one or two times a year. That's not a collection anymore."

So, Keurajian sold most of it, but did hang on to a few specimens. He said "probably the only piece of consequence" he has left is a 1924 baseball signed by Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth at Navin Field in Detroit.

"Cobb was the greatest ball player of all time and Ruth was the greatest slugger," he said. "To have those two on a baseball is a great combination."

These days Keurajian is more into doing research, collecting information – such as examples of autographs whether they're scanned or photocopied – and writing about it.

"I'd say I probably have 10,000-15,000 illustrations in my files," he said.

Keurajian's focus is on the physical construction of the autograph, known types of forgeries in the market and counterfeit documents, and how to spot forged signatures as opposed to genuine ones.

"A signature's like a fingerprint -- no two people in the world have the same handwriting," he said. "No forger can copy handwriting perfectly."

"If you have somebody that's really good with autographs that understands handwriting they can spot even the best forgery," Keurajian noted. "I've seen thousands of Ty Cobb autographs, so with a Cobb signature you can just put it in front of me and bang, in a second, I know whether it's either real or not."

When it comes to well-known legends like Cobb and Ruth, Keurajian said, "Nine out of every 10 signatures you see for sale of those guys are fake."

"The demand for these autographs is just huge," he explained. "There's literally 100s of thousands of people collecting these types of autographs who are willing to spend big money on it."

The chances of an autograph being a forgery increases with the hall of famers most people have never even heard of before.

"When it comes to the really rare names like the (Christy) Mathewsons, the Willie Keelers, closer to 99 percent are fake," Keurajian said.

Mathewson was a pitcher from 1900 to 1916 and part of the first class of players inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936. Keeler, an outfielder from 1892-1910, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939.

But the biggest problem in vintage autograph collecting is the so-called authentication companies who supposedly examine signatures and issue certificates of authenticity for forgeries.

"Even if it comes with a certificate of authenticity chances are they're still fake," Keurajian said. "There are no good authentication companies in the market today that know what they're doing. Certificates of authenticity carry about as much weight as the Hitler-Chamberlain peace accord of 1938."

He's seen big items sell for between $50,000 and $150,000 which "are nothing but high quality forgeries that have been wrongly certified."

It's the people who don't know much, but want to invest in vintage autographs that are getting "burned" by these so-called authentication companies, Keurajian said.

"A lot of big money's being paid for forgeries by unsuspecting collectors," he explained. "It's really become a problem."

Keurajian urged current and potential collectors to visit to "see all the mistakes these companies are making."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader.
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