As well known to my friends and family, I am a non-linear thinker and talker, and this article follows the pattern. Offered here are aleatory notes, thoughts and tips on authentication related topics.
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A concern I often hear from collectors is that computer and digital printing technology is getting so advanced that some day they will be able to make a counterfeit T206 Honus Wagner completely indistinguishable from the original.
The answer is no, this is not correct.
Modern digital printing indeed looks better and better and is more and more detailed at the naked eye, holding-the-card-in-your-hand level. However, it looks less and less like the original 1909 T206 lithography at the microscopic level. And it is at the microscopic level that printing is identified and dated and such cards are ultimately authenticated.
The paradox with printing technology and the duplication of old prints is that the more closely it looks like the original at the naked eye level, the less it looks like the original at the microscopic level. Today’s computer printers use a fine pattern of tiny dots to reproduce graphics, with the finer the dot pattern the more detailed and realistic the reproduced graphics at the naked eye level. However, this fine dots maze looks very different under the microscope from the original, antiquated T206 printing–and the finer the dot pattern gets, the less it looks like the original printing at the microscopic level.
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If the identifying, dating and microscopic inspection of old printing is something that interest you, I wrote the following guide book. Well illustrated in color, it covers the major forms of antique and commercial printing and was written for collectors and dealers of antique trading cards, posters, ads, signs, premiums and even fine art. It is in pdf format and you can download it for free.
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Fake detection tip
If a seller is selling online a rare and expensive baseball card with obviously scissors clipped corners that he describes as “natural corner wear,” there is a more than probable chance you’re looking at a fake.
With homemade fakes, one of the harder things to do is to mimic natural corner rounding due to wear. The forger often clips the corners at straight angles then roughs them up a bit. In many cases, the corners remain obviously hand cut.
Of course genuine cards can have clipped corners, but anyone experienced with cards can tell the difference between clipping and natural wear. Even if the there is the odd chance the card for sale is real, why would you choose to make expensive purchases from a seller who can’t identify obvious trimming? Shouldn’t you be buying from the seller who knows what he is doing?
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Identifying Common Cracker Jack Reprints
The 1914-15 Cracker Jacks cards used no white ink and this helps in identifying many reprints.
The white (actually off white) on the card is created by the absence of ink on the white (actually off white) color of the cardstock. In other words, the white borders and any white in the player picture is the color of the cardstock.
If the Cracker Jack player picture has a large white section of his uniform that directly touches the border, there should be little or no difference in tone between the border white and the white of the uniform. They should seamlessly blend one into the other.
On the common reprints, a giveaway is that the border is distinctly different than the white in the player image. You can clearly see this when the border ends and the touching white in the player picture starts.
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Scams regularly involve greed from both sides
As has been noted by numerous experienced collectors, baseball card scams often involve greed on both sides of the equation–from the buyer and the seller, not just the seller.
Since the dawn of scamming, it is a common scammer’s technique to appear ignorant about what he is selling (often a forgery he made himself!), and have the buyer believe he is getting a steal from a dim bulb of a seller. The scammer will say something on the order of: “This card looks real to me. But as I’m not an expert, I am calling it a reprint to be safe and offer it at a deep discount” or “I found this Sweet Caporal Honus Wagner card. A local card shop says it looks like the real deal and is worth lots of money. But I don’t know for sure so I’m offering it for $5,000.”
The purchaser in these sales correctly believes there is a rube involved in the sale, but incorrectly believes it is the seller. The purchaser also thinks he is getting a steal of a deal from a rube. This is why some collectors feel little pity for such buyers. The buyers are trying to get a steal and think they are taking advantage of the ignorant.
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For science geeks, this is an old article I wrote on the advanced science used in authentication and forgery detection of art, artifacts and collectibles, including baseball memorabilia. It covers carbon dating, infrared radiation, x-rays and even dendrology (the study of trees rings). Technically, baseball cards can be radiometrically dated (carbon dating is the best known form of radiometric dating), but it is cost prohibitive. The article also shows how there are limits to science in authentication.
The Science of Forgery Derection
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A simple technique for dating a pinback as antique
If you are at an antique store or garage sale and see a cool antique looking pinback, a simple way to identify it as genuinely antique, and not a modern reproduction or fantasy item, is to check the back. If the back and needle is corroded and rusted brown, you can be confident it is antique.
Similarly, rusty staples on antique items are signs of authenticity. Many antique booklets, magazines, calendars and tickets were stapled. Antique staples have rusted dark, with the rust sometimes spreading to the paper. If the staples are bright and shiny, that is evidence the item is a modern reproduction or at least has been re-stapled. I’ve seen many modern reproductions offered online that are given away in part by the shiny staples.
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Authenticating playing and game cards
Many playing and game cards, such as the 1913 National Game and Polo Ground issues, have factory cut round corners that make identifying reprints and counterfeits easy, even in online pictures. The corners on the originals were die cut a consistent size and curve. Known official reprints will have a noticeably different corner size, while homemade versions will be obviously scissors cut and usually of different size. If someone is offering one of these playing cards online it is easy to check the authenticity by comparing the corners to a picture of a known authentic card, say one in a PSA or SGC holder.
Die cut shaped cards in general are harder to deceptively forge, because it is hard to cut the shapes to perfectly mimic the original machine cut–especially if the forger is doing it by hand.
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The Issue of Restoring baseball cards
The restoration of baseball cards is a regular hot topic of debate with collectors, and it seems the restoration of high end cards is becoming more common. Some collectors are adamantly against any alterations, some have no issue with it and some say it depends on the situation. I am not here to give the ‘final ethical word’ on the topic, but to look at various aspects of the issue.
The common strong and often visceral reaction against restoration and any form of alteration is based in two reasons. First, the hobby has a long history of deceptive (undisclosed) alterations as part of scamming: trimming, bleaching and other alterations without disclosure at sale. Many collectors consider this equivalent to counterfeiting and forgery. This problem is still ongoing, with unethical resellers who only care about money, altering and trying to sneak cards past profession graders. This is one of the scummy parts of the hobby. For some people, it is anything for a dollar.
The second reason is many collectors like old cards that have honest wear and aging. These collectors think they there is nothing wrong with an old card showing its age–after all they are collecting old items not twenty first century Upper Decks inserts. To them, there is nothing wrong with ‘honest wear,’ so there is nothing to fix.
Many collectors are generally against alterations, but are not zealots about it and feel that there are times where restoration is reasonable. Many collectors say it is ethical to remove items and substances that are not original parts of the cards. They say it is fine to remove a of piece scotch tape, glue or paint on a 1952 Topps, because it is not an original part of card. There are also cases of major damage, such as a card that has a substantial tear or fungus, where conservation will not only make the card look nicer but will prevent further damage. Left to their own devices, fungus spreads and tears only get bigger over time.
One question baseball card collectors often ask is why is restoration so frowned upon in the baseball card hobby, but seemingly accepted and common practice with paintings and movie posters. It is true that restoration is more accepted in those areas, but realize that, as in the baseball hobby, opinions and sentiments vary from collector to collector. Another thing to keep in mind is that movie posters and paintings have different uses and are of different materials.
A movie poster and painting are display items, usually large and designed to be hung on the wall for everyone to see. Baseball cards are little and spend most of their lives in boxes and drawers. Few people want a 2×3 foot display item on the wall next to the dining room table or over the living room couch to be covered in coffee stains, scrapes and scotch tape marks.
Also, movie posters and paintings are often made of materials that are delicate and must be conserved to preserve them and to withstand display. Movie posters are on thin paper, and old paint and the backing on paintings often have deterioration problems that must be fixed. Old oil paintings were originally varnished, with the varnish turning brown over the years. Removing and replacing the dingy varnish not only makes the painting look as it originally did, it often reveals the real colors of the painting. A green appearing flower may turn out to be bright blue.
It should also be noted that as part of restoration and conservation, movie posters are usually ‘linen backed’ (backed in linen) so are easy to identify as restored.
As far as valuation of restored versus unrestored posters and paintings go, an advanced vintage movie memorabilia collector told me that a grade Vg movie poster restored to Near Mint looking condition will be valued more than the Vg grade but less than unrestored Near Mint. Painting collectors look for restoration, because it does affect value. All other things the same, a restored painting will be worth less than an unrestored one. So, while restoration is more accepted, there still is a valuation and sentimental difference between restored and unrestored.
One inescapable constant is that all alterations and restoration have to be disclosed at sale. Not only is this the ethical thing to do, it is the law. This is in all areas of collecting, including movie posters and paintings. If a seller knows a physical fact about the item will likely change the value in the minds of the buyers, that is a fact that has to be stated. It is up to the bidders, not the auctioneer, to decide what facts will affect the final bid value.
I end by noting that a veteran collector once said that collectors are temporary caretakers not owners of the items, and that is what people should keep in mind when deciding what to do with a card. Or, as I say, these are historical artifacts and serious collectors are historians. There may be legitimate reasons to restore an item–such as for preservation for future generations or to fix major damage–but a card or other item should never be altered for purely monetary reasons. When things are done strictly and only to make a buck, all forms of unethical and seedy behavior soon follow.