Kevin Keating is a prominent collector, dealer and authenticator who is known to be a high-end operator in each of those categories. His $100 per authentication fee is both cause and effect to that end, and his clientele and product offerings generally come from the same bracket.
Keating is a wordsmith and world traveler who has much to say and a willingness to say it. This interview will appear in three installments. His company is Quality Autographs of Virginia, based in Alexandria. The phone is (703) 519-9881 and the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments on the following interview with Keating are best directed as a letter to the editor.
SCD: Tell us about your history in the hobby.
KK: I got my first autograph when I was 10 and fell in love with collecting. I was interested in baseball and started collecting cards, and when I learned I could get autographs, cards became only a medium on which to get autographs. To me, the difference between autograph collecting and card collecting is that when you have an autograph in your possession, you own a moment in time of that person's life and a direct physical connection to the individual who signed it. Forever and ever, that's a physical connection to that person.
So I started collecting autographs and fell in love with it. I had over 10,000 autographs before I got out of high school, and I got about 4,000-5,000 of them in person, anyway I could, mostly at the hotel in Chicago. I lived outside of the city and I would travel into the city and hang out at the hotel, and at that time, all of the teams in the major leagues, save the White Sox, the Cubs, the Twins and the Yankees, would stay at the Executive House in Chicago, which was on East Wacker Drive. I was a fixture out there during the summertime. Back then, it was a crowded day if there were two or three of us standing around. Now, with the value of autographs, three people would be nothing.
Meanwhile, I was introduced to a guy named Pat Quinn, who hobbyists will recognize as a long-time dealer out of Chicago who's been running a monthly auction since I believe the '60s (Sport Collectors Ltd).
My dad started subscribing to his monthly auctions, and I started bidding in those auctions and I bought a Jimmie Foxx 3-by-5 for $3.25. I believe that was the first autograph I ever bought. I bought a Ty Cobb signed photo for $15.75, which was basically a month of mowing lawns. Pat was great to me as a kid and he advised me how to get autographs through the mail by sending to the Hall of Fame with a nice letter and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Otherwise, I never would have figured that out, and I started collecting through the mail. The best day I ever had at the hotel was 177 autographs of the Minnesota Twins, and when I got home I had another 10 autographs through the mail that day. Up until then, that was about the best day of my life.
SCD: When did it become a business for you?
KK: I graduated high school, went into the Army, went to West Point and then served as an Airborne Ranger Infantry Office in the Army for another seven and a half years, so that was about 11 1/2 years all together that I didn't collect. I left the service in 1988 and about that time, a friend of mine who knew I had this big autograph collection introduced me to the Universal Autograph Collectors Club. I joined that, and I put my name in their magazine, and through that process, I started buying autographs and it rekindled my collecting interest, so I started collecting again. I had been out of the hobby since I had gotten out of high school, and that was basically the period of time that the hobby evolved from the very innocent world of collectors like myself who didn't attach any monetary value to this stuff, they just did it for the love of it, to the big business it evolved into.
I had no idea that there was a Sports Collectors Digest, or card shows, or auctions. I was amazed by the whole thing. I started taking out little classified ads that I was buying and selling. I realized very quickly that I knew as much as the dealers I was contacting, at least with the autographs I was interested in. I'd see their ads in the same publications that I was reading, so I decided to start taking out my own ads. I'd buy up collections and syphon off the stuff I wanted for my own collection and sell everything else. That was covering my cost, and then I started to make money at it. I incorporated (Quality Autographs of Virginia) in 1992, and from that point on I started growing. Meanwhile, I was working a full-time job in management at a pharmaceuticals company. When it became obvious that my day job was getting in the way of my hobby, which was much more lucrative for me, I decided it was time to leave.
I started advertising in the Pen & Quill Magazine (the Universal Autograph Collectors Club newsletter). Someone I met through the UACC introduced me to SCD and I took out my first full-page ad in SCD around 1990 or 1991, and I was amazed at the response I got to it. I started doing ads more frequently, and the rest is history.
SCD: What does your company do? What are all of the services available?
KK: The main stream of income for us is simply buying and selling autographs in the strictest sense of what traditional dealers do. Our specialty is in vintage sports autographs, all fields. We don't normally sell what consumers might easily find elsewhere. We like to specialize in difficult, rare, high-quality, high-demand, low-supply material. Deceased material in particular attracts us. We don't want to be competing with the rest of the world. We deal in the things that I like to collect.
SCD: Are items worth more when you sell them than when you buy them because of the trust people have in your authenticating ability?
KK: I think it's fair to say that people will pay a premium for an item if they make a differential in their mind where it's coming from. But it's worth noting, also, that you get what you pay for. Part of the problem with forgeries is that a forger has to do three things to get it right: 1) Replicate the autograph to a reasonable amount of competency; 2) He's got to use the proper medium, with regard to pens, paper, balls, etc.; and 3) The marketing of products, he's got to be able to market things.
The unsophisticated collector is the target of the forger. What is an unsophisticated collector going to use as their criteria for finding autographs? The average person grows up realizing the best buy they can get is the least expensive item. If you see two products sold side by side, and you don't realize a difference, i.e., the items generally otherwise appear to be the same, you pick the one that's least expensive. The unsophisticated collector looks at price points. Forgers are well aware of this and they price their creations attractively at significantly less than what a genuine example will cost.
I'm not going to lower my price point to what one can get one for from somebody else, because more than likely, the least expensive example might well be a forgery. You may end up paying a premium price to get a real item, but if you just spent $100 to get a $1,000 autograph, did you save $900 or lose $100? If I was forging Roger Maris autographs on index cards, I can afford to sell them for $100 apiece, but I can't afford to sell a good one for that. I should also point out that I'll pay top dollar to get good stuff in. Things cost what they're worth.
The challenge that you have as a dealer - and talking to other dealers, they concur - it's not selling the stuff, it's finding the stuff. There's a limited supply and it's always a challenge to find fresh, great material. If you don't sell it today, actually, by the time you sell it, it'll be worth more money anyway.
SCD: Can somebody send you items for authentication and what are the costs and services?
KK: I don't have any particular area that I won't handle it; it's kind of a case-by-case basis. If it's an item I'm comfortable authenticating because I feel my level of expertise is sufficient to render an opinion, I'll do it. My fee is pretty standard - $100 an item. If somebody wants to send me a group of items, we'll work out a group rate. I realize that $100 an item is, in some cases, more than somebody would spend to have somebody else authenticate it, but quite frankly, if I made my fee any less than that, I'd be inundated with a number of things that wouldn't be worth my time to go through. You're not only paying for my time, to examine something and put a letter together, but the other thing about authenticating an item is that when you render an opinion on something, it often comes back to you down the road. Someone might be paying me for a letter today, but I might have to field several phone calls down the road once the item circulates through the hobby.
SCD: At $100, you're going to get high-end vintage submissions only, I'm guessing.
KK: It also discourages forgers from sending their material to me to try to get their stamp on it. I also get submissions from people who need a refund. The item could be something that has come into conflict with somebody else's opinion, and the person wants to be armed with my opinion when they want to go back and try to get a $10,000 refund.
SCD: Some people think authenticators should have some scientific training to be an autograph evaluator. Many of the authenticators have said their history in the hobby is their training. What is your training and your opinion regarding scientific training on autograph analysis?
KK: First of all, I don't know of any particular program that's out there that someone can go through and when they come out the other end, they're going to be an expert on autograph authentication. If there were a program like that that would be beneficial, I'd be the first one in line.
I know that the definitions of being a dealer and being an authenticator are mutually exclusive, but I don't see the skill set as being any different, because a dealer, de facto, authenticates every day. When you're buying and selling stuff, you better know what you're doing or you're not going to last very long.
Now there is a distinction that has evolved with the hobby and the use of third-party authenticators. There are a number of dealers now who sell autographs and make a substantial living at it, and they call themselves dealers, but they're really brokers. If you look at their tables at shows, they have autographs spread out with the accompanying letter from the third-party authenticator, and they don't do any personal authentication. Everything they buy, they send automatically to the third-party authenticator, and then they hide behind the approval of that third-party authenticator, selling their wares based on the fact that somebody else approved their items. My question is, where is the personal accountability there for what they are selling? They call themselves dealers, but in the traditional sense, they are not dealers, they are merely brokers.
Anyone who does authenticating who claims that they know everything there is to know is either delusional or lying. You can't know everything that there is to know. Every time (FBI investigator) Tim Fitzsimmons eliminates a forger from the sports memorabilia business, there's another one out there trying to do the same thing. There's a perpetual challenge to everybody in the business to try to figure out what the latest techniques and trends are; it's an evolving universe of knowledge. If there were some type of training program that would explain the more objective, scientific aspects of authentication, I think that would be very beneficial to everybody. If nothing else, it would help institutionalize the knowledge that the "experts" should have as a basis for authenticating.
Having said that, obviously someone who's collected at the level that I have, over the many decades that I have, has an advantage. But a man has to know his limitations, and what happens is that often dealers start dealing in material they're unfamiliar with, and likewise authenticators can start authenticating in material they're unfamiliar with, and that opens both up to a lot of problems. You have to know what you don't know.
The simple answer to your question is that just because you've been exposed to tens of thousands of autographs, or hundreds of thousands of autographs in my case, doesn't make you an expert. Some people have a natural aptitude or an affinity for recognizing patterns and applying common sense. The reality is that autograph authentication is a merger of science and art. The more knowledge you have on the scientific aspects, the more you can apply that knowledge to the non-scientific aspects.
The problem is, and I see this all the time, is an authenticator will reference, "I don't have an exemplar of that person's writing that matches this particular autograph, so this autograph is bad," or conversely, "I have one that exactly matches this exemplar, therefore it's good."
Ask yourself a question: What does a forger do when they forge material? Getting back to an earlier point as to what a forger has to do, they have to replicate the autograph. How do they replicate an autograph? They use an exemplar. They reference the same exemplars to try to copy the autograph that a lot of authenticators rely on. So you've got to be able to apply common sense when you look at something, and it is a merger of science and art, and how good somebody is at doing that is a combination of a lot of skill sets. Experience is very beneficial, and understanding the scientific aspects is also very beneficial and could be covered in a class, although no such class is offered anywhere to my knowledge. It's very beneficial to know when certain pens were being used, when certain pens were not being used, when certain baseballs were being manufactured and so forth.
I have a pretty good memory. Some people would say it's close to being photographic. This goes back to my childhood. We lived in Japan for two years and I was fluent in the Japanese language. I went to an all-Japanese school in second and third grade. And then when I went to West Point, I took Chinese language, that was my field of concentration and I graduated No. 1 in my class in Chinese language. You can't read Chinese unless you memorize the characters. That was both reflective of my aptitude for memorizing things, and also, for those four years in college when I was studying Chinese, it helped me develop that skill. That is certainly a large part of evaluating autographs. You've got to have recall. You've got to be able to recognize patterns.
Someone who's very good in their field of expertise in authenticating material doesn't need to refer to exemplars very often. I've got a philosophy on how I look at autographs. I categorize autographs in one of five categories. It's a simplistic way to look at it, but it's also very realistic. Category 1 is the autograph you see signed in front of you - no questioning something you witness and any other autographs requires some "leap of faith." The opposite is Category 5. That is an autograph that you can look at and for some physical property inherent to the item itself, you can point to it and say, "This is impossible to be authentic because of this." For instance, a Babe Ruth autograph written in a Sharpie pen. The point here is that the autograph is a provable "fake."
Therefore, everything else is an autograph that you can't be certain of and its authenticity is rendered by calculated and educated opinions. So Category 2 material is an autograph that I have no doubt that it's authentic, no more doubt than if I had seen it signed in front of me. I am convinced it is real, period.
Category 4 is the same thing, only opposite of "Category 2". You're not going to be able to physically prove, through some concrete, visible reference, that it's fake, but you conclude it's a forgery. Autopens fit into this category, too, as do ghost-written examples.
Category 3 covers all of those autographs that have something that prohibits you from concluding it is either a Category 2 or Category 4 item. There's a property to it that makes you think, "This is probably good" or "This is probably bad," but ... there's something not right about it. There's something about it that prohibits you from being definitive on it. The better you are at authenticating, the fewer items you'll be left with in Category 3.
One example of typical category 3 material for me is contemporary Joe DiMaggio material. We all know that Joe probably did more signing after he died than when he was living. And he was also widely forged while he was living. The thing about DiMaggio - and I was with him and saw him sign his name many, many times, and I've seen him sign thousands of autographs at shows - the first one was remarkably different than the last autograph he signed that on a given day. Joe was consistently inconsistent in his autograph. There was a certain amount of flow, and there are certain points that you can look at, generally, to get an idea of whether it was good or not. But there were enough differences in the way that he would sign from signature to signature that he's an easy autograph for forgers to get reasonably correct. It's very tough, in my opinion, for an authenticator to qualify contemporary Joe DiMaggio autographs as either Category 4 or a Category 2 material with 100 percent accuracy.
I contend that Joe could not have identified his forgeries accurately. He would have made a lot of mistakes in trying to pick out what was authentic from those that are not. So assuming this to be true, how in the world is an authenticator supposed to get it right all of the time?
SCD: What is your authentication process? I don't imagine that with the nice vintage items you get, you'd put a hologram on those.
KK: No, I don't, and I'm glad you brought that up. I think doing so is a disservice to the autograph. Unfortunately, I'm seeing more and more where holograms are being used to brand certain authentication services, and they're being placed on very prominent locations, sometimes even touching the signature. In my opinion, as a collector and a purist at heart, they're really scarring the autograph in an effort to brand their service as having authenticated that particular item. I don't think that's very constructive.
We don't do that. We do a letter, and if it's an item that requires scanned images, we'll put scanned images on the letter. That's been a problem in the past. A lot of these letters of authenticity have been forged to accompany fake autographs, so it's certainly useful to put a scanned image on the letter, when possible and practical.
SCD: How important can provenance be? Can you allow it to impact your thinking at all, or do you have to ignore it?
KK: Speaking on authenticating material, I think you're a fool if you dismiss it categorically. It can be a very valuable piece of information associated with the piece. If there's concrete provenance that an item is a certain thing, it could absolutely add value to the item. For an autograph coming directly from a person's estate or someone whose reputation is substantive in the hobby, you may pay a little bit more. In other cases, if you have a game-used bat from Babe Ruth, for example, that sells on eBay, and it may well be a bat that Ruth used, but there's no specific provenance that goes with it, it'll sell for significantly less than it would if it had ironclad provenance. If the same bat, for instance, came from the family of Joe Sewell with a family letter that Ruth gave him this bat and the bat's been in the Sewell family ever since, and there's even a letter signed by Joe to that affect, that bat is going to get a lot more money because of the provenance.
So provenance is important, but what you're really asking is, "Should an autographed item stand on its own merit?" Does it have ... I don't like to call it provenance, which by definition is a story, provenance to me is "contextual evaluation."
For example, a good dealer doesn't even have to be good at authenticating material if they "source" material properly. You can make certain assumptions if you can have the benefit of contextual evaluation, that is, knowing where an item comes from and seeing it as part of its greater whole when something is not a solo piece but rather part of a larger collection. And that's a benefit that a traditional dealer has over a third-party authenticator who's viewing an individual piece apart from contextual evaluation factors. Because third-party authenticators typically don't have the benefit of contextual evaluation - they're looking at pieces individually and out of context - they're more likely to make a mistake than if they had the benefit of contextual evaluation, for instance if they had seen the same piece as part of its original collection in its entirety.
So, yes, it's always great when an item stands on its own merit, independent of contextual evaluation, and an item should ideally stand on its own merit. But certainly provenance, or as I like to call it contextual evaluation, is beneficial and can help you answer the questions you might have, especially when you're not particularly familiar with the person's autograph you are evaluating.
SCD: Do you use a team - do you have a network to help you in certain areas of autographs, or are you a one-man show?
KK: I don't remember the last time that I asked somebody else for their opinion on something, but I certainly have asked for opinions, and I continue to. Since I only deal in material that I'm familiar with, and I feel as confident in rendering an opinion on things as anybody I would use, I don't often have occasion to ask somebody else about their take on something.
But, there are cases where, for some reason, I'll look at something that I feel I have a qualification to make a judgment on, but it's a Category 3 item. For some reason inherent to that piece, I feel there's something I don't know about it, and there's a reason I can't decide if it's good or bad, and in that case, I'll ask somebody for their opinion.
In the last two days, I have had a pair of well-known dealers ask me my opinion on something, they sent me a scan and asked, "What do you think about this?" In both cases, it was a Category 3 item for them. It was something that, if I was evaluating myself, I would have been compelled to ask them for their opinions. I could see why they had a level of uncertainty. There are pieces like that, where you're a fool if you don't ask somebody else. There may be things you don't know, or they may see something you don't see.
SCD: What is your policy if somebody questions your findings? What is the initial reaction?
KK: If somebody disagrees with an opinion that I have on something, I'd like to know why they disagree, because I might learn something. I'm always open to learn more. I've made mistakes in the past, and if I keep doing this indefinitely, I'll make mistakes in the future. I can't remember the last time I made a mistake, but I have.
If I'm saying something's good, and somebody else is saying it's bad, I need to know why they're saying it's bad. I may need to help educate other people to make sure they're getting it right, too.
I'll give you an example. I sold a baseball about a year ago that I had gotten signed myself. It was an Albert Pujols ball and I had gotten it at a St. Louis show after he had won the Rookie of the Year. It was an advertised show and I had two dozen balls signed. I sold some of those balls over the years, and I sold one about a year ago, and the person - and this is certainly somebody's prerogative - took it to a third-party authenticator, and the ball got kicked back "fake."
A good dealer is worth the price that you pay because a good dealer will always stand behind their material, and they'll always be willing to buy something back if it's put into question, even if they know it's authentic. In this case, I knew the item was authentic - I don't sell anything I have any reservations about. I told the guy, "I'm happy to refund your money, but you need to know the ball was signed on this day, at this location, and you need to know that I'm going to send you a copy of the documentation and the receipt," which I did. I open-copied the third-party authenticating service, too, and I explained to them that if they're going to be in business, I have to assume that they want to be accurate when they render opinions. I went on to say that their opinions sometimes have unintended consequences, and that in this case, if they were authenticating authentic Pujols autographs as fake, they may well be authenticating fake Pujols autographs as authentic. If their database of exemplars is such that they render a good one bad, that goes into their database as a fake autograph. So now the 24 autographs I bought, they're all fake according to their database. Conversely, they may actually have fake autographs in their database attributed as good ones.
So part of the process for me is to make sure that everybody else is educated and that becomes a problem because there has been a proliferation of so-called "experts" who people pay to render opinions, and if they don't get it right, it creates a problem for everybody. Another problem with third-party authentication services, as I see them today, is that their business model is based and dependent on taking material in, which means that every time they are offered material to authenticate, they stand to make money by way of rendering an opinion - right or wrong - so they do not benefit from turning material away, only by accepting it and rendering an opinion, whether they are qualified to do so or not. If they were honest about it, in some cases, they would say, "We don't have a qualified expert in that area." A man's got to know what he doesn't know. The majority of errors being made are in areas where there is no competent level of expertise.
SCD: You mentioned earlier that there are authenticators who are trying to offer opinions on too much material, for revenue purposes and they're not qualified, they should say "no" more and turn down the money. Are there areas that you're not an expert in that you turn down despite the loss of revenue?
KK: Yes. One example recently happened when I was asked to authenticate a Michael Jordan signed basketball along with a Larry Bird signed basketball. My answer was, "No, I can't do that, I don't feel qualified." And it should be pointed out that not being qualified to authenticate a random piece of someone does not limit my qualifications to sell an item signed by that very person, in this case a Michael Jordan or a Larry Bird autograph.
Why the difference? Because I have the benefit of knowing where what I sell comes from and can thereby apply contextual evaluation. For instance, I could go to Upper Deck Authenticated and buy authentic examples of Bird and Jordan and offer them knowing full well they are authentic. But I don't, in this case, feel personally qualified to determine the authenticity myself of a random item of these two, for instance, submitted randomly and nakedly to me for my opinion and don't mind saying so.
SCD: Tell us about a time you were wrong on an authentication and found out about it.
KK: Yeah, Johnny Fang.
SCD: I hear that name a lot. Who is that?
KK: Johnny Fang is a guy who surfaced around the mid 1990s, and he was very good at his work and he was smart about how he approached the process of marketing his material. He was very selective, but then he got greedy, and that's typically what happens to forgers and leads to their ultimate demise. It used to be that there were only so many places and public buyers a forger could utilize to move material to. Now the Internet has changed that, to a large degree, but 10 years ago, that wasn't the case, so there were only a small number of outlets to move their products into the marketplace.
Fang and I had some conversations. I speak Chinese and he spoke some, too, so I think he felt comfortable with me. His stuff looked great at first and the prices were right, so I bought some things from him for my own collection. A good forger can fool you once, but if you're good at what you do, forgers have a hard time fooling you twice, and they can forget about it the third time. That's what happened with Fang. He came back to me with more material and once I looked at everything in its entirety - again, contextual evaluation, looking at the two groups of items I had gotten together - I started asking pointed questions about the items' originations, I realized that he had fooled me on the first group, that the stories he was giving me to prop up his material couldn't possibly be true. It was evident that he was either the guy forging the stuff or he was the one fencing it.
As soon as I put the word out to dealers I knew, I heard back that this guy was selling and/or offering duplicate similar material to multiple people - a tell-tale sign usually that someone is manufacturing items themselves. And around this same period, Rich Albersheim and I bought this huge baseball collection from Rick Firfer, who was a sportswriter out of Chicago (Editor's note: Firfer is still an SCD contributor). It consisted of some 1,400 baseballs, and among them were some great balls, and a lot of medium- or low-end stuff, including many team-signed balls with no big names on them and no great value.
One day a fellow named "Henry Lin" called me up and blanket-ordered every inexpensive 1930s-1940s team-signed ball we had, 15-20 of them. Notwithstanding his distinctive voice, which matched my recollection of that of Fang's, his order struck me as funny because he did not ask one question about any of the balls - who was on them, what kind of balls they were on, condition, nothing - and no one buys team balls, much less a batch of them, without wanting to know these things, unless they want them for the ball itself.
I took the order and played stupid. Moreover, I was not comfortable at the time confronting "Henry Lin" and accusing him of being someone else, a.k.a., "Johnny Fang," based solely on a hunch and circumstantial evidence. Anyway, his credit card went through and the order was processed, but it didn't sit well with me and I put the word out to those I could, namely other dealers and auction houses, that I thought Lin and Fang were the same person and that Lin was buying cheap, old stuff he could alter to produce his forgeries on and offer them from "Johnny Fang," or other aliases for that matter. It turned out that others later concurred with my assessment that Lin and Fang were the same person.
I never heard from Fang or Lin again and he has appeared to have vanished, though I occasionally still see his work surface here and there in the hobby. In fact, I saw a Fang ball sell in a major auction only a month or so ago. His stuff is still out there, and a lot of it still has letters on it. At some point, somebody will question it, and then it becomes a hot potato for the owner, and unfortunately, some people like to pass on their problem pieces to others when they can, so these "problem pieces" often move around from one buyer to the next, until someone pulls it our of circulation. That's the case with some of the Fang stuff; there is still some out there. He was very good. In fact, noted autograph expert Charles Hamilton said that Fang was truly a master at what he did.
SCD: Was he the most talented forger you've seen?
KK: No, the most talented person I've seen is still, as far as I can tell, actively forging stuff. I see a lot - well, I shouldn't say a lot, but too much of his stuff being actively sold. I bought a couple of things for my own collection once and the story he provided was very plausible, a standard story about a relative who died and bequeathed the pieces to him. And when you ask, "Was there any more?" and the answer is "no," but a month later you get a call, "Well, we just found such and such," as was the case here. I got suspicious for good reason.
So I wound up with a couple of things, and then two unsolicited baseballs later came to me out of the blue, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner single-signed balls, and they were incredible. I knew that I could buy those balls and sell them for a lot of money but I also knew they were fakes. I asked for a second opinion - I contacted Albersheim, I contacted Richard Simon and I contacted Mike Gutierrez. I told them, "I'm 99 percent sure these items are fake, but they've got to be the best forgeries I've ever seen. What do you guys think?" We all came to the same conclusion.
I contacted the FBI and held those balls for a year while the bureau was doing their work on the back end of it. In the meantime, I got death threats, and he contacted the local police, who showed up at my door one day. He told them I had stolen these two baseballs from him. I actually had to get the police on the phone with the FBI at that moment, which I did, and they backed off completely. In the interim, 9/11 occurred and changed everything, and I was told that the FBI didn't have the resources to pursue the matter anymore. An FBI agent came to my door and picked up the baseballs from me to get them back to the guy, but I can't verify what happened after that. I see his material too often, unfortunately.
One thing people ask me is, "If he's that good, how can you tell (the items are forged)?" He gets everything right - he gets the autograph right, he gets the medium right, he does his homework. He's not afraid to overindulge and be creative with the use of personalizations or inscriptions, something a lot of forgers stay away from. He's that good that he has the confidence to write more, not less, on his wares.
He did the infamous Babe Ruth ball signed to "Kiki Cuyler" - at least I attribute that work to him. It had all of the corresponding letters; most of the experts in the hobby had approved that ball at one point or another. That was one of the famous exposed works of this guy and it made it a couple times around the hobby, that's how good this guy is. He's so good he routinely adds inscriptions and historical notations that are plausible in order to add perceived value to his work.
Back to the question of what it is about his work that stands out to me (and allows for identification), if you look at genuine Ruth autographs - and I don't care how far back you go, how close to his death or how early in his life - when he wrote his name, he wrote it, just like everybody else who writes their name. This guy gets the name right, he does the autograph nearly perfectly, as Ruth would have done it himself, but there's a certain amount of deliberation to the autograph. It almost looks like instead of being written, it's drawn.
There's not a visible hesitation or resulting tremor to it, there's no pooling of ink, which is indicative of hesitation, but it looks more like something that was either stamped - which it's not, it's definitely written - or the best single adjective is "drawn" instead of written.
SCD: I understand you worked with Tim Fitzsimmons and the FBI on the Smokey's case involving the owners of that store in Las Vegas. They settled and it didn't go to trial. What did the FBI need you for, and were you disappointed that it didn't go to trial?
KK: I was certainly looking forward to the opportunity to testify on behalf of the government against the Scheinmans and their role in the process of brokering all of that fake autograph material into the hobby, probably, conservatively, millions and millions of dollars' worth. I was flattered that Tim Fitzsimmons, the point man for the FBI on sports memorabilia fraud, selected me over and above all of the other potential persons as a government expert witness. I had flown out there a couple of times and spoken with the prosecutors at length on the phone, and we were all set to go, and suddenly about four weeks before the actual trial date - which had been postponed many times - the Scheinmans copped a plea.
Tim's out there and everybody seems to know his name now, and everybody knows he's out there ferreting out the bad people who make it difficult for us all. What I didn't know until I got directly involved with him was that he's sent more than 60 people to jail for sports memorabilia and autograph fraud. While that is fantastic, it does make you wonder how many more haven't been caught red-handed.
SCD: Does it say "authentication" or "opinion" on your COA?
KK: It says "opinion." We've modified the verbiage over the years to accommodate the ever-changing litigious nature of the business to prevent ourselves from being open to litigation. It says, "Kevin Keating renders a service in expressing his opinion and knowledge, however, Kevin Keating and Quality Autographs of Virginia does not guarantee the accuracy of any opinion expressed regarding any items submitted for authentication and assumes no liability whatsoever for any loss or damage allegedly sustained as a result of any opinion issued." Then I state, "In my opinion this item is authentic" or "in my opinion this item was not signed by the individual represented," or something like that.
Now, if there is more information I can provide, I'll get into that. But as far as this nonsense about the pen pressure, slant, blah, blah, blah, (details about the item), that's really not relevant, in my opinion, as you either conclude it's authentic or you don't think it's authentic. I mean, if you get it wrong and you approve a forgery as "authentic," it's implied that the pen pressure, slant, blah, blah, blah, fit your impression of an authentic version anyway, so what value do these adjectives provide in real terms?
Now, there are times when I will also submit a Category 3 (Keating's scale is Category 1 definitely real, Category 5 definitely fake, Category 3 very difficult to assess) response based on some anomaly in my examination where I simply am inconclusive as to the authenticity of the submitted item and I'll be happy to state that when an item fits that category, which is very rare but occasionally does happens. When someone submits something to me and I find that it's a Category 3 item, I'll also tell the person, "Look, in my opinion, if you can't be certain that the item's good, don't buy it, there's enough good material out there, and you shouldn't have to buy Category 3 material." I don't buy, sell or trade items that I'm not certain are authentic.
SCD: Do or would you buy back your mistakes? Would you buy what the item had sold for if, after a few generations in turnover down the road, it was proven you had made a mistake?
KK: First of all I have never had an autograph come back to me that has proven to be a mistake. I have had autographs that have come back to me that other people have questioned. And I have had a couple of items come back to me after several years that, when I examined them a second time and years later, I did concur that the item was questionable, having changed my view on something based on more knowledge gained since the original sale. However, in almost all of the few cases, I would say 90 percent of the time, I have not wavered on my certitude of the authenticity of any item from me brought into question because I had either gotten it signed myself or the source I got it from was simply irrefutable, notwithstanding the normal evaluative process.
However, regardless of my position on something, I have always been willing to buy back my material from the original buyer when a legitimate concern for that person's confidence in an item from me was raised. And I think it should be a standard, that individuals (consumers) should demand from the people they buy from that the seller of an item should provide a lifetime guarantee of authenticity and the only way that there's any credence to a lifetime guarantee of authenticity is if the individual selling it is going to be willing to buy the item back if it's ever brought into question, for the original selling price.
Now keep in mind that if somebody's a legitimate dealer and they're selling autograph material that's authentic, then the number of returns they get are going to be very few, even over the course of years. Also, when something comes back to them typically so much time is going to pass by the time they are buying it back that they probably are going to be making a lot of money when they resell it anyway, because if you know an item's authentic and somebody else questions it, why wouldn't you want to buy it back? You can always resell it.
I remember one time I had a woman buyer and she contacted me to buy the Tommy John baseball I had in my ad, so she bought the baseball and I sent her the ball. She then sent it back to me with a really nasty letter stating how she had met John as a kid, John was her favorite pitcher, his autograph didn't look anything like the one on the ball and she wanted her money back and how dare I be selling fake material. And I sent her back a nice letter with the full refund and told her that I certainly appreciated her sentiment, but I wanted to assure her that I wasn't selling fake material, John was a friend of mine he had signed that ball amongst other things for me and I provided her the date, the location, and I also sent her the latest Christmas card I had gotten from John and his family and I said, "You're absolutely right that he has changed the form of his signature, but that doesn't mean that the one that he signed for me last November, which you bought and returned, wasn't one that he had actually signed. The one that he had signed for you as a child is a different version of his handwriting."
So the point is that when somebody has a legitimate concern about an autograph for whatever reason, you have an obligation in my opinion to buy the item back. When the doubt is raised by an independent third-party authenticator viewing the item nakedly with no application of contextual evaluation, it does create a problem for the legitimate dealer selling authentic material. In this case the dealer should be informed of who put the item into question and why. If necessary, the dealer may need to educate the third-party authenticator about his finding so that the mistake isn't repeated. Remember, third-party evaluators are only rendering their best opinions on an item at a given point in time. They make mistakes, too, and many of them are not only operating with large volumes of random material, but they are also evaluating each item without the benefit of contextual evaluation, and a dealer may know more and decisively relevant information to prove the veracity of a piece.
SCD: If you provided authentication on an item and a couple of generations down the road it sold for much more than what you sold it for - that person puts it in a Mastro auction and he doubles his money - let's just for the sake of argument say that somebody questions it and they talk to you, you do change your mind, maybe you did make a mistake. Would you buy it back at the higher price?
KK: Well that's a hypothetical scenario which hasn't happened to me so the best way that I could answer it would be very hypothetically, and hypothetically speaking I'd stand by my original policy that I would buy back the piece from the original owner for the original price paid to me. Theoretically, it seems to me, that shouldn't be an issue for anyone as each party should be reimbursed along the way by the person from whom they bought the item until it makes its way back to its original seller. To suggest a different approach would be impractical, at best, since it would allow for unscrupulous individuals to act together to buy one thing, sell it amongst themselves for a ridiculous sum, pay some third-party to question the item, and then demand and extort the higher selling price back from the original owner/ seller.
SCD: Some collectors really believe that they're strong in a certain area - they're not dealers, they're collectors, but they really are the best of their kind in their specific vertical niche area. To what extent can you allow them to be a resource for you and to what extent do you need they're help when your authenticating a piece? Do you have a network like that?
KK: No, there is nobody that I use that would fit into that category. I think I mentioned before that I fit into the definition of a traditional dealer, a dealer who buys and sells material that they have collected themselves, items that they are comfortable with. If, for whatever reason, I have some type of an issue with an item that I want resolved, that I don't feel qualified to resolve myself, I'll use a loose network of confidants, other dealers and people I respect, and I might send something off to get a second opinion. I can honestly tell you over the years that the number of times that I've done that is probably 20, or less.
The main reason for that has nothing to do with ego; it simply has to do with comfort level. Unless I personally feel qualified to buy something and to evaluate it myself, I'm not comfortable owning it, much less selling it. I don't trust anybody's opinion over my own - put it that way - not in the material I buy for my own collection or for resale. It stands to reason, then, that I'm not going to depend on somebody else's opinion to let me know whether or not I should buy or sell something, or own it for my own collection.
The corollary to that would be this. The point that's inherent to what you're asking is a very valid one and it's one I always recommend to everybody and that is that the best source of information for a collector is himself. Collectors should do as much research on the material that they are buying as they can. And if they are not confident for whatever reason of their own knowledge to be comfortable going out to make a purchase, they should begin by doing their homework on what dealers they can trust. One way you can do that is to use SCD contact the editorial department and ask them who the reputable dealers are. All dealers should be able to provide credentials. I've got a hobby resume, it lists my educational background, how many years I've been in business and a slew of other professional information and some personal, as well, just to give an idea to someone of whom I am and what my background is.
SCD: If you authenticate a large collection all at once, do you do group authentications or is it a letter per piece, one at a time?
KK: It depends on what somebody wants. If somebody wants individual letters, then we're happy to do individual letters. If somebody doesn't mind us grouping things together, then we'll group things together. It depends on what somebody wants and what somebody is willing to pay for and it also depends on what the purpose is. For instance, we'll do insurance appraisals routinely, we do probably one or two a month, and sometimes they'll be asking about a group of items and other times they'll be asking about individual pieces. It really depends on the purpose and we'll tailor the letter accordingly.
SCD: If you do a large collection and they don't want to go one item at a time, each item doesn't have a letter from you at that point, does it?
KK: Correct. I've never done a large collection like that where there was any need for individual letters, per se. When I've done large collections en masse, a single letter with itemizations has sufficed and I am paid a consulting fee for my time.
SCD: Do you authenticate from a scan only?
KK: No, we don't do that. I'll tell people if they're unwilling to send me the actual item and only a scan, I won't authenticate it. I may render a generic opinion based on the scan, but I'll qualify the opinion for what it is - taken from a scan. Without examining the piece first hand, I really can't give you more than a very vague, general opinion.
SCD: Do you do team-signed items and what would they cost? Would you have to charge $100 per autograph?
KK: No, but the cost can vary, and it would be $100 to probably $250 I think the most I've charged for a group-signed item was $500. In that extreme case, I charged $500 to Hunt Auction for a Negro League ball that required a tremendous amount of my time because it was a very eclectic group of signatures that I researched to determine, among other things what event it would have been signed at when all those on the ball would have been together. It turned out to be an East-West All-Star game, and the ball without the letter from me attesting to what it was would have probably sold for a few thousand dollars, but because I determined it to be what it was it ended up selling for about $25,000. That's the difference research and due diligence can sometimes do for an item.
SCD: On a team-signed ball, if you've got 22 good autographs on there and two bad ones, what do you do? Do you just describe that in detail on the letter?
KK: Yes, we identify those that are in question. In most cases as you have described, the one or two "bad ones" are done by an authorized signer, a clubhouse boy or whomever and are thus called "ghost-signed." In rare instances, I have seen where someone has clearly taken an authentically signed vintage ball and added a forgery to it to enhance the value. Clearly, in cases like this latter example the forger is also hoping to mask his work under the cover of the authentic signatures. One such example that comes to mind was a partial Brooklyn Dodgers team-signed ball where someone had clearly added a Branch Rickey signature to it.
(Editor's Note: Look for the third installment of this interview in an upcoming issue of SCD.)