Predictably and understandably, many collectors were appalled and outraged at this. We, as a group, tend to treat our cards as items whose aging must be arrested. We lock them away inside increasingly-secure plastic holders and handle them with kid gloves on the rare occasions that we look at them.* The idea of modifying a card by accident—let alone on purpose—is anathema to the collecting ethos and immediately makes people suspect malicious intent or ignorance.
*One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this SABR group is how frequently it champions the use of cards. Sorting and re-resorting things. Changing the contest in which they’re displayed, etc. etc.
So there were lots of reactions about how this is destroying the card. Or how it was no longer worth anything. Or how it was setting up the opportunity for someone to defraud an unsuspecting buyer.
My reaction though was one of excitement as this represents one of those occasions when baseball cards cross over into the art world. The issue of art restorations is one that’s fascinated me for a long time; the first thing I did was re-read Rebecca Mead’s wonderful New Yorker piece, remind myself of all the different ways that we’ve both “preserved” and “restored” items in the past, and think about what it means for us to have invested so much money and/or emotional weight in small pieces of printed cardboard.
“People always ask, ‘Who do you feel responsible to?’ If a collector comes in and says, ‘I want to have a piece fixed this way,’ do you do it as the collector wants it, or as the artist wants it? I always say we are responsible to the art work, not to the artist or to the collector.”
Centering the discussion on the card itself allows me to really think about what restoring does and what it means to restore a card. I proceeded to jump down a rabbit hole and read posts about when museums have chosen to restore objects.* When they haven’t.** Plus discussions about how restoration is really a commitment to having to maintain the artwork over the course of its lifetime.***
*MoMA’s restoration of a Jackson Pollock is interesting in how it addresses previous restoration efforts as well as emphasizing the fact that the restoration is not intended to make the painting new but rather let it show its age while taking care of it and stabilizing the artwork.
In everything I read it was clear that restoring artwork is about balancing the immediate health of the item with its long-term prospects while keeping it “true” to itself. Restoring an old item so it looks brand new is not the point. It should appear old and reflect its history without looking like it’s going to fall apart.
Interventions should also be obvious without being distracting. The goal is to make it clear that things have been mended yet foreground the original piece. This is a delicate balance and is the reason why the restoration cannot be thought of as one-off fix. The item will continue to age along with the restoration and there’s no way for anyone to know for sure how their relationship will work in another 50 years.
All this makes a lot of sense for me when it comes to trying to preserve an item that’s been kept in reasonably good condition. It’s less relevant for items which are heavily damaged—such as the T206 Wagner in question. Sure, the question of being true to the item still remains. But which truth? The item as it was originally or the item as it’s become today?
Comic books have already ventured into this territory with restoration companies bragging about the level of restoration they can accomplish. The restored Wagner is very much in a similar vein. As much as I appreciate that it wasn’t restored to look pack-fresh and instead still looks like the century-old card that it is, something about doing that much addition just doesn’t sit right with me. The damage is part of the history of the card and obscuring that feels dishonest.
I found myself returning to a post The Getty made about how to display a collection of vase fragments since it points at a middle way of restoring a piece. While representing a much more extreme example of damage, the final restoration suggests the finished original while also being clear about what’s original and what’s new.
This approach is one that I feel would work great for damaged baseball cards where instead of rebuilding the trimmed areas and missing pigment so things look perfect, the restored areas were called out by using neutral pigments or a slightly-differently-toned paper. We would still be able to appreciate the card in its complete state while also being able to see how the original was altered over the years.
On the other hand, all the cleaning and soaking to remove dirt and accreted material—specifically the paper glued to the back—is something I’m still struggling with. Much of that material contains a lot of information about how the card has been used over the years and I hate to get rid of it. It’s good to know how it had been displayed before (in this case, pasted into an album) and be reminded that every generation’s best practices will likely give a subsequent generation hives.
There’s also always the risk of removing too much material. There’s a long history of over-cleaning objects in art world.* Even in sportsland the Hall of Fame just recently underwent a massive restoration project on its Conlon photos which, while it cleans up the photos, completely obliterated the history of how those photos had been used in print.
Do I know how I’d want to restore a damaged card like the Wagner? Of course not. Nor do I fully trust anyone with a single concrete answer as to the best solution. The discussion and thought experiment about how different approaches could help or hurt our understanding though is one which I’ve enjoyed and hope to see continue in the comments here.
Watching baseball card twitter over the past month or so has involved seeing a number of stories pop up which increasingly remind me of the art market. Many of these stories in particular involve grading companies and their increasingly prominent role as arbiters of “authenticity.”
The first story involves the newly-discovered 1950s Mickey Mantle. This is and extremely cool story and it’s always great to be reminded of how many things about baseball cards we all don’t know. They can always be another regional or oddball out there just waiting to be discovered and those discoveries are the stuff I’m sure all of us dream of. The thread on Net54 documenting the discovery is especially interesting as the community there came together to figure out what these were.
Buried in that story is the news that PSA refused to grade the newly-found cards. It seems that without a checklist, PSA doesn’t want to touch them. This strikes me as very weird if the grading companies are concerned with describing circulating cards. It is however totally consistent if the point of grading is to treat cards as part of a known catalog of works—in which case anything not in that catalog is inherently suspect.
In the art world there was a lot of news this past year about the newly-attributed Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi. Much of the news involved the enormous price that it sold for but a lot of the discussion was about attribution and whether it should be considered part of the Leonardo catalogue raisonné. While a significant number of experts attest that it is a Leonardo, many remain skeptical and from what I can tell the jury is still out.
The newly-discovered Mickey Mantle card is not comparable to an ostensibly-new Leonardo—especially in terms of how attribution in baseball cards is less about who made the card and is instead about who’s pictured. But I found myself noticing a number of similarities in the objects and how the discussion about getting an imprimatur which would allow them to be sold at auction became as important to the objects’ stories as their actual provenance. In short, without becoming part of the catalog these items weren’t “valuable.”
In the case of the Mantle card, Beckett ended up doing the legwork to add it to the catalog and get it graded. And I found myself wondering about what it means when one authority won’t touch a card when another one will. In the art market this kind of disagreement produces controversy and is a big warning flag to the buyer. In the card market though as long as someone has graded the card it seems like people are okay with it.
The idea that Topps would request that grading companies not grade these makes total sense to me. Mistakes like this could just as easily be backdoored out of a printing facility and that kind of shenanigan is something I can see Topps wanting to explicitly discourage. That said, in my opinion, that principle goes out the window once the card gets pulled out of a circulating pack.
What I’m fascinated by though is the concept that Topps could disavow a card which was released by mistake—removing it from the catalog by corporate fiat. This is similar to something that has come up in the art world, most famously wth Cady Noland whose disavowal of Cowboys Milking resulted in a number of lawsuits as people tried to recoup invested money and find a way to sell what had become “worthless” overnight. As with the Mantle and Leonardo, the discussion again is one of whether or not an item belongs in the catalog and who’s responsible for maintaining that catalog.
Now I’m not suggesting that the Visual Artists Rights Act applies to baseball cards. I am however noting that between the card companies and the card graders, there’s a real possibility for there to be a similar amount of control in the market for card makers to effectively render some cards as worthless—or at least ungradable—if they were released to the public by mistake.
That getting a card graded is the current standard of authenticity for much of the card market means that explicitly rejecting a card from grading rules it as “inauthentic.” As someone who primarily conceived of card grading as a way of certifying condition and chasing confirmed great-condition cards, this realization shook me. It’s not that I no longer trust graders themselves but rather I’ve found myself questioning our collective trust in them as the arbiters of authenticity—especially given the recent news which makes me wonder how things get into the baseball card catalog.
So I can’t stop wondering now about what it means when grading companies disagree on an item’s authenticity? Does this stuff get tracked? If another company grades the Topps mistakes does it matter that Topps may have disavowed the cards initially? And what other kinds of production mistakes which shouldn’t have been released could cause a grading rejection?
I don’t know the answers to any of those but it’s where my mind—even though I’m not into card grading—has gone over the past month. I can only imagine how the people who swear by it are thinking.
From the posts I’ve read (and I read ’em all. It’s great being retired), more than a few members of this group don’t think much of card slabbing. I have plenty of ungraded cards, but I admit that I have my favorite sets encased in plastic by PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator, as I imagine most of you know). I don’t especially like how PSA dominates the grading market, but I do appreciate, as self-serving for PSA as it is, the set registry. You can list your cards, even your ungraded cards, by the way, on the registry for free, even if you are not one of the PSA “Collectors Club,” members.
The basic advantages, from my standpoint, of slabbing is preservation of condition, a record of ownership (each card has a certification number) and, to a lesser degree, an assurance of quality — this applies mainly when you are buying a card. If you’re buying a card online, you’re trusting the seller’s description, no matter how good the scan looks. And I don’t find having the card in a plastic slab a distraction or detraction.
Is it worth it? That depends. If you submit cards directly, rather than through a dealer, you generally have to fork over $6 or more to get PSA to grade a card, and that’s if you use the changing offers of the Collectors Club ($100 or more year but with a few free gradings and a monthly magazine), often having to send in at least 25 cards at a time. And the return shipping charge starts at a minimum of $18. But I get most of my PSA cards on ebay or from dealers, which keeps me from going bankrupt.
When I submit cards to PSA, I’m often disappointed at the grades, although I have become better at knowing what will drag a grade level down. Honestly, it’s still hard for me to tell the difference between a PSA 8 and a PSA 10. I assume most of us here would consider an “EX 5” to be a pretty nice card, too. I have a bunch of ’64 Topps that are 5s, and I’m perfectly happy with them. On the other hand, my 1984 Topps set, which ranks no. 2 on the registry, has only 9s and 10s. Once you get out of the ’70s, you probably would not want a slabbed card with a grade less than 9, although you should be able to get those lower grades for next to nothing.
I suppose there are people who view graded cards as an investment. (I’m not one of them.) Certainly, graded cards command higher prices than their ungraded equivalents.
I’m not trying to convince anybody to have his or her cards graded, but it’s good to keep an open mind about it. Collectors like me are glad there are collectors like everyone else with SABR who still loves baseball cards — slabbed or not.
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.
Real photo postcards are postcards with genuine photographic images on the fronts. They do not have “ink-and-printing-press” images but are actual photographs on photopaper. They were designed and printed on the backs to be mailed, often having handwritten letters, addresses and postage stamps on the back.
Real photo postcards with baseball subjects are popularly collected by vintage baseball card and memorabilia collectors, and prime examples of famous players and teams can fetch big bucks at auction. However, real photo postcards can be found with a wide range of subjects, including other sports, movie stars, politicians, nature and animals. Vintage real photo postcards, including of non-sport subjects, is a major collecting area all around the world.
Most real photo postcards were essentially family photographs and snapshots intended to be given to relatives and friends or to be put in the family album. The factory made real photo postcard photopaper that happened to be a convenient size for such purposes. These family photos and snapshots will show standard family poses, including little Jimmy in his school uniform, the family picnicking or a wedding reception.
Some real photo postcards were used for advertising or sold to the public at stores and are equivalent to trading cards– and, thus, actively collected by trading card collectors. Many of these show celebrities such as movie stars, sports stars and politicians. You can find examples picturing everyone from Ty Cobb to Red Grange to Greta Garbo to Thomas Edison.
Some famous sports photographers sold real photo postcards. This includes George Burke (the photographer for the Goudey and Play Ball sets), Carl Horner (the photographer for many early 1900s cards including the T206 Honus Wagner) and legendary boxing photographer Charles Dana.
Dating Real Photo Postcards
Real photos are dated by the back designs and text and, as shown later, authenticated by some basic knowledge of old photography.
In the United States real photo postcards originated in 1901. The American design of postcards was regulated by United States law and can be dated in general by the text and designs. Below is a brief description of the vintage designs.
Post Card Era (1901-1907) The use of the term “POST CARD” was granted by the government to private printers on December 24 1901. Earlier cards were called ‘Private Mailing Cards.’ Only the address was allowed to be written on the back of the card during Post Card Era. A blank panel was put on the front for messages.
Divided Back Era (1907- ) Postcards with a divided back began March 1 1907. The address was to be written on the right side and the left side was for writing messages. This is the same style used today. The early images were ‘full bleed,’ meaning that they went all the way to the edge of the card. White borders were popularly introduced around 1915. In more modern times, both full bleed and white borders were made, but the white borders almost always date mid 1910s and after.
Giving an ApproximateDate to a Real Photo Postcard by the Stampbox Markings
Many real photo postcards have text identifying the brand of paper. If this text exists, they will be found in the stampbox. The stampbox is the little square in the upper right hand corner that the stamps are placed on.
If a real photo postcard has the stampbox text, the below chart will help determine the general period in which the postcard was made. (Chart courtesy of the2Buds.com).
Postally mailed postcards will have the dated postage cancellation stamp. No better way to date postcard. In fact, the blank backed Pinkerton Postcards were confirmed to be vintage (there were doubts by some collectors), because a few were found to have been used as postcards with 1910s postmarks on the backs.
Other tips between for telling the difference between genuine vintage examples and modern reprints
As old postcards can easily be reprinted on home computer printers these days, the following are some additional tips for telling the difference between vintage and modern reprints. As you might expect the counterfeit ones will be of primo subjects, such as Babe Ruth, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Jim Thorpe. Needless to say, it is good practice to buy from reputable sellers who guarantee authenticity. If you want a second opinion, PSA and SGC grade real photo postcards.
* Silvering in the image as sign of old age. Silvering is when it appears as if the silver has come to surface of the image. If it exists, it is more noticeable at the edges and in the dark areas of the image, and when viewed at a specific angle to the light. If you change the angle of the photo to a light source, the silvering will become stronger and darker, sometimes disappearing. It can range in intensity and often resembles a silvery patina.
The key is that silvering is an aging process and appears after decades. The presence of silvering is very strong evidence of a real photo postcard’s old age.
* Early real photo postcards are on thinner stock have matte backs, though the fronts can be glossy. If the back has a smooth, plasticy surface, it is modern. Kodak introduce plastic resin-coated paper in 1968.
* Cyantotype real photo postcards. You will occasionally see real photo postcards with bright blue images. These are cyanotype photos, with cyan meaning light blue. Cyanotype was an old type process. Cyanotypes, even antique ones, don’t get silvering.
* If the front and back have a multi-color dot pattern under strong magnification, as on a modern baseball card or computer print, it is more than probably modern reprint, likely made on someone’s home computer.
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. * * * 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.
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? * * * * 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.
* * * * 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. * * * * 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.
* * * * * 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.