Using a Black Light in Baseball Card Authentication

This article shows methods for using an inexpensive black light in the authentication and fake detection of baseball cards and related ephemera. 

For card collectors, black light is primarily used with Pre-World War II cards because it can identify modern paper and cardstock and, thus, modern reprints and fakes of Pre-War cards. However, as this article shows, black light is also useful when examining modern items.

What is a black light and how does it work?

A black light is a light, often resembling a little flashlight, that gives off longwave ultraviolet light. The common nickname for longwave UV is black light. A black light allows the collector to see things invisible in normal daylight.

Ultraviolet light and black light are outside of the human’s visible spectrum, meaning it cannot be seen by human eyes. However, in a dark room materials can fluoresce (glow) under black light. Most of us have experienced black lights that make the whites on our shirts or shoes or rock posters glow brightly. Some materials fluoresce brightly, some not at all and the rest somewhere in between. The fluorescence varies in color. Under ultraviolet light, minerals, plastics, paints and antique glass can fluoresce red, yellow, green, purple, white and orange.

Without going much into the science, the fluorescence, or visible light that is emitted from a material when black light is shined on it, happens at the atomic level. You are adding energy to the atoms then observing what light the atoms gives back. The color and brightness depends on the atomic makeup. Physicists and chemists can go as far as identifying the specific chemicals in materials by shining ultraviolet on them. Happily, you don’t have to be a scientist or even know the science to effectively use a black light. For collectors, it is as easy as observing the fluorescence and knowing what it means.

Common handheld LED blacklight flashlight
Common handheld LED blacklight flashlight
Common style of blacklight flashlight
Common style of blacklight flashlight

Tips on effective use of black light

A black light must be used in a dark room, the darker the better. Take a minute or three to let your eyes get adjusted to the dark. The cards should being examined on something that does not fluoresce. Something that does not fluoresce will appear black under black light. If your background fluoresces too brightly, it can be hard to judge the fluorescence of the cards or memorabilia.

It is best for the cards to be removed from any top loader, glass, plastic sleeve or other holder. The holder itself can fluoresce or otherwise mask the card’s fluorescence. Shine the black light on all sides of the cards. Some trading cards and photographs have coatings on one side that can block fluorescence.

For comparison purposes, you may wish to have a shard of modern computer paper that fluoresces brightly. Between the black table and bright shard, you will have a range on the spectrum for comparison.

Practice using the black light. See what items from all years look like under black light. Feel free to look at magazines, books, paper, glass vases, plastic. Some around the house materials that fluoresce brightly include granular laundry detergent, vaseline, plastic items, textiles and some reading glasses.

Identification of Reprints and Forgeries of Pre-War Cards

A black light is effective in identifying many, though not all, modern paper and cardboard stocks, and this is its most common use with trading card and paper ephemera collectors. If a so-called 1933 Goudey, 1909 T206 or 1925 postcard can be identified as being made from modern cardstock, it is obvious that it is a modern made fake. For many modern fakes, identification is as simple as shining a black light on them.

Starting in the late 1940s, manufacturers of many products began adding `optical brighteners’ and other new chemicals to their products. Optical brighteners are invisible dyes that fluoresce brightly under ultraviolet light. They were used to make products appear brighter in normal daylight, which contains some ultraviolet light. Optical brighteners were added to laundry detergent and clothes to help drown out stains and to give the often advertised `whiter than white whites.’ Optical brighteners were added to plastic toys to makes them brighter and more colorful. Paper manufacturers joined the act as well, adding optical brighteners to many, though not all, of their white papers stocks.

A black light can identify many trading cards, posters, photos and other paper items that contain optical brighteners. In a dark room and under black light optical brighteners will usually fluoresce a very bright light blue or bright white. To find out what this looks like shine a recently made white trading card, family snapshot or most types of today’s computer paper under a black light.

If paper or cardstock stock fluoresces very bright as just described, it almost certainly was made after the mid 1940s.

The bright light blue uv fluorescence shows that this 1880s Old Judge is a modern reprint
The bright light blue uv fluorescence shows that this 1880s Old Judge is a modern reprint

It is important to note that not all modern papers and stocks will fluoresce this way as optical brighteners are not added to all modern paper. For example, many modern wire photos have no optical brighteners. This means that if a paper does not fluoresce brightly this does not mean it is necessarily old. However, with few exceptions, if a paper object fluoresces very brightly, it could not have been made before World War II.

The beauty of this black light test is you can use it on items where you are not an expert. You may be no expert on 1920s German Expressionist movie posters, World War I postcards or American Civil War etchings, but you can still identify many modern reprints of those items. The infamous Hitler Diaries were identified as forgeries in part because black light showed that it contained materials that were were too modern.

A 1930s photo on top of a 1980s photo under blacklight, showing how the older photo is darker
A 1930s photo on top of a 1980s photo under blacklight, showing how the older photo is darker

In the same way, the black light can also identify modern reproductions of antique cloth items, as the cloth and even stitching sometimes fluoresces very brightly if made after WWII. Game used and military uniform experts often use black light.

The fluorescent tag shows this old fashioned fedora is modern
The fluorescent tag shows this old fashioned fedora is modern

Identification of restoration and alterations

Black light is helpful in identifying many types of restoration and alteration to cards, posters, paintings, prints, furniture, photos, vases and more. These items can be altered by the addition of paper, glue, paint, varnish and/or other material. Items are typically restored to fix damage and make things appear in better condition.

As the added material often fluoresces differently than the rest of the item, the restoration can often be identified under black light. The restored part will stand out by either being brighter or darker than the rest of the material under black light. With paintings, restoration often appears as black spots and forged signatures often fluoresce much brighter than the rest of the painting.

Black light shows restoration to a vase
Black light shows restoration to a vase

To identify alterations, one should also look for visible light differences in texture, gloss, and opacity. In normal visible daylight light, when a print is put at an angle nearing 180 degrees to a desk lamp, the added paint, ink or paper will often have a different texture and gloss from the rest of the card surface. The added material also may be physically raised from the rest of the surface or an erased area will have different gloss. You might be able to feel the area with your fingertip.

Opacity is the ‘see through’ effect when you hold an item up to a light in visible light. If material is added to a poster or print, it will often appear darker than the rest of the translucent collectible.

Some dealers and collectors remove autographs from baseballs for aesthetic or financial reasons. For example, a single signed Joe DiMaggio baseball can be worth more than the same ball with the bat boy’s signature beneath. There is one or more companies that will remove autographs. While the removal may be difficult to see under normal daylight, the restoration shows up clearly under black light.

In some cases, baseball card forgeries are alterations to original cards. For example, a inexpensive baseball card may be changed into a rare and valuable variation by changing text, such as with the 1990 Fleer NNOF Frank Thomas and T206 Maggie spelling error. Close examination under black and visible light will usually give it away.

In a few cases, the forger covered the entire baseball card in a clear substance to try and cover up the alteration handiwork. The substance however gives the card a different gloss and black light fluorescence than other cards in the issue. Once, a beginning collector did not notice the altered text of one of cards, but was curious that the card was much glossier than his other cards from the same set. Examination by an expert revealed the alteration.

Another Way to Identify Reprints and Counterfeits Using Visible and Black Light.

A standard and effective way to detect trading card counterfeits and reprints is by directly comparing the card in question with one or more known genuine examples. Granted, it is uncommon for the collector to already own duplicates, especially if it is a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth or 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle. However, good judgment can be made when comparing a card to different cards from the same issue. Comparing the Ruth to a bunch of low grade Goudey commons and the Mantle to a handful of other 1952 Topps.

A T206 Ty Cobb, and even a T206 Honus Wagner, was printed on the same sheet as T206 commons. The printers did not bring out special cardstock and VIP inks for the superstars. When you are studying the qualities of T206 commons, you are also studying the qualities of the T206 Wagner and Ed Plank.

In nearly all cases, counterfeits and reprints are significantly different than the real card in one and usually more than one way.

Comparing cards in both visual and black light is highly effective in identifying modern counterfeits. If you know how to properly compare cards, you should be able to identify a fake 1986-7 Fleer Michael Jordan and 1979-80 OPC Wayne Gretzky.

Before examination, the collector should be aware of variations within an issue. A genuine 1956 Topps baseball card can be found on dark grey or light grey cardboard. While the 1887 Old Judges are usually sepia in color, pink examples can be found. The examiner must also take into consideration reasonable variations due to aging and wear. A stained card may be darker than others. An extremely worn or trimmed card may be shorter and lighter in weight than others in the issue. A card that has glue on back will allow less light through when put up to the light. The collector will often have to make a judgment call when taking these variations into effect. This is why having experience with a variety of cards is important.

The following is a short list of things to look at. You are welcome to add your own observations to the list.

Obvious Differences: This can include text or copyright date indicating the card is a reprint, major size difference, wrong back. Many of these problems are obvious even in an online scan.

If you are experienced with an issue, perhaps you have collected Goudeys for the last few years, most reprints and counterfeits within that issue will be obvious. They simply will look bad even at first glance. The experienced eye is one of the most sophisticated scientific tools.

Black light Test. Studying the degree and color of fluorescence under a black light is an unbeatable tool for comparing ink and cardboard. If you spread out in the dark a pile of 1983 Topps with the exception that one is a 1983 OPC, the OPC will be easy to pick out with black light. The OPC is made out of a different card stock and fluoresces many times brighter than the Topps stock. This is the way it often works for reprints and counterfeits. Reprints and counterfeits were made with different cardstock and often fluoresce differently than the genuine cards. The reprint may fluoresce darker, lighter or with a different color. In some cases, a reprint and an original may fluoresce the same, but in most cases the black light will pick out the reprints with ease.

Visual light appearance of card stock and surfaces: This includes color, texture, feel, etc. The correct gloss is hard to one of the hardest things duplicate on a reprint, and most reprints will have different gloss than the original. Make sure to check both sides. A T206 and 1951 Bowman, for examples, have different textures front versus back. Make sure to check the thickness, color and appearance of the card’s thickness or edge. The edge often shows the cardstock to be different.

Visual Light Opacity: As already mentioned, opacity is measured by the amount of light that shines through an item, or the ‘see through’ effect.

Cardstock and ink vary in opacity. Some allow much light through, some allow none, while there rest will fall somewhere in between. Most dark cardboard will let through little if any light. White stocks will usually let through more. While two cardboard samples may look identical in color, texture and thickness, they may have different opacity. This could be because they were made they were made in different plants, at a different time and/or were made from different substances.

Testing opacity is a great way to compare cardstock and ink. The same cards should have the same or similar opacity.

Opacity tests should be done with more than one card from the issue. Comparisons should take into consideration variations due to age, staining, soiling and other wear, along with known card stock variations in the issue. It must be taken into consideration that normal differences in ink on the card will affect opacity. If one genuine T206 card has a darker picture (a dark uniformed player against dark background), it should let less light through than a genuine T206 card with a lighter picture (a white uniformed player against a light sky).

In nearly all cases, the differences between a questioned card and genuine examples will be significant enough that the collector will be nearly certain it is a fake.

Purchasing a black light

The collector should purchase a longwave ultraviolet light (‘black light’), as opposed to a shortwave ultraviolet light (often called UVC or germicidal light). Shortwave is important in a few specialty areas, including identifying stamps and gem, but longwave is the safest and all you need for the purposes of this article.

Black lights will usually be advertised as longwave, will have a wavelength of about 300-400 nanometers/nm (shortwave is usually 254nm) and are much more plentiful and cheaper than shortwave lights. A black light can be purchased for well under $20, while a decent shortwave light is in the $100+ range. This article pictures the two most common styles of black lights for sale, with shortwave lights usually looking significantly different.

Safety of black light

Black light is used by many collectors and hobbyists and is safe to use. In fact, sunlight and office and home lights give off UV. The key is to not stare directly at the light source, just as you shouldn’t stare at any light. 

Ending This Article With Some Interesting If Useless Facts About Ultraviolet Light

There is a wide range of ultraviolet light, with black light only being a section of it. Ultraviolet research and use is a fascinating and varied area and the following are just a few interesting facts.

** Astrophysicists study the ultraviolet light emitted by planets, stars and galaxies to identify the chemical makeup and ages. Some distant stars can only be seen, and thus discovered, in the ultraviolet range. As the earth’s atmosphere blocks much ultraviolet, the ultraviolet is recorded and photographed from space stations and rockets.

** The Dane Niels Finsen won the 1903 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his use of ultraviolet in treating diseases, and ultraviolet light is used in many areas of medicine.

** Some animals can see black light and this vision has practical uses. Bees and butterflies identify flowers by markings that can only be seen in ultraviolet, and this is important for finding species of flowers in the shade and dark. Reindeer use their ultraviolet vision to find their staple food lichen and to avoid their predators, Polar Bears. Polar Bear urine can be seen in the ultraviolet range. Scorpions have ultraviolet sensors in their tails that tell them when it is safe to go outside at night.

** The goldfish is the only animal known to be able to see both ultraviolet and infrared light. Infrared is a range of light invisible to human eyes on the other side of the visible light spectrum.

** Ultraviolet is used in many areas of art, including ultraviolet photography, uv fluorescent paintings and murals, and black light theater where the costumes, body paint and props fluoresce. Image google “ultraviolet fluorescent portraits” and “blacklight murals” to see some interesting stuff.

MLB adds UV markers to important baseballs, including this Barry Bonds home run ball
MLB adds UV markers to important baseballs, including this Barry Bonds home run ball

 

Author: David Cycleback

David is an art and artifacts scholar. You can visit his website at cycleback.com

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