Though collectors of collectibles, art and memorabilia sometimes consider the definition of term “authenticity” to be an esoteric term for theoretical discussion and ‘How many angels can stand on a pinhead?’ chatboard debate, it is surprisingly simple and straightforward. Thus, this simple and straightforward post.
In all areas of collecting, from trading cards to oil paintings to ancient artifacts, something is authentic if its true identity is described accurately and sincerely. There is truth in advertising. Whether it is an eBay listing or the placard label next to a painting in a museum, the description of the item matches what the item really is. It is as simple as that.
If you pay good money for an “original 1930 Babe Ruth photograph by legendary photographer Charles Conlon” you expect to receive an original 1930 Babe Ruth photo by Charles Conlon. You do not expect a 1970 reprint or a photo by a different photographer.
An item does not have to be rare, expensive or old to be authentic. It just has to be accurately and sincerely described. A 2 cent 2013 reprint is authentic if described as a 2 cent 2013 reprint.
I use the word ‘sincerely’ to give no excuse to sellers who try to pull the wool over the potential buyers’ eyes with intentionally confusing, ambiguous, vague or/or diverting language in an attempt to sell something they know is a reprint. One can both be “technically correct” and deceptive– and judges in false advertising cases are the first to know this.
Errors in the description of an item are considered significant when they significantly affect the financial value or reasonable non-financial expectations of the buyer. An example of the reasonable non-financial expectations would involve a collector who specializes in real photo post cards of her home state of Iowa and makes it crystal clear to the seller that she only wants postcards depicting Iowa. Even if there is no financial issue, she would have reason to be disappointed if the purchased postcard turned out to show Oklahoma or Minnesota.
Many errors in description are minor and have little to no material effect. If that 1930 Babe Ruth photo turns out to be from 1933, it may not affect the financial value or desirability to the purchaser. Some would call this “No harm, no foul.”
Counterfeit: a reprint or reproduction that was intentionally made to fool others into believing it is original.
Forgery: an item that was intentionally made to fool others into believing it is something it is not. This includes counterfeits, but also fantasy or made up items. An example of a fantasy would be a 1958 Bowman Mickey Mantle. Bowman did not make baseball cards after 1955, so a 1958 Bowman Mantle never existed.
Fake: an item that is seriously misidentified. This includes forgeries and counterfeits. It also includes items, even original items, that are innocently but badly misidentified by collectors or sellers who are uninformed.
When in doubt about seller’s or maker’s intent, it is best to call a bad sale or auction item a fake instead of a forgery or counterfeit. All three words mean an item is not genuine, but forgery and counterfeit implies intentional illegality.