The "Authenticating the Authenticators" series has primarily involved interviews with one-person authentication operations. This week we have the unusual task of interviewing a single person and asking him about his company's vast authentication services.
Justin Priddy is the lead autograph authenticator, and only full-time authenticator for Global Authentication, a company that got its start when former PSAers Steve Rocchi and Mike Baker broke away to start their own card-grading company. Global (often abbreviated to GAI) moved into autographs and equipment grading and authentication a few years ago, and Priddy has been heading the autograph authentication for two years and operating as a point man for the company's other areas of non-card authentication services.
This interview will run in two parts. Comments can be directed to SCD as letters to the editor.
SCD: Tell us about your personal history in the hobby?
Justin Priddy: I was a long-time collector; I've been a collector since I was about 8 years old. I started authenticating five or six years ago, freelancing with local clients out here in California. I interviewed with James Spence while he was with PSA about three years ago and there was not a position available at the time. Then about eight months later, I was in e-mail contact with Mike Gutierrez and he suggested I contact Steve Rocchi of Global. Rocchi eventually came to offer me a job.
SCD: What are GAI's niche areas in autograph authenticating?
JP: Our biggest submission rate has been in autographs, in both vintage and modern. We get tremendous amounts of material to authenticate in autographs, and we do a tremendous amount of signed-in-the-presence items that we authenticate at shows and actual private signings.
SCD: The company goes to a lot of shows, doesn't it?
JP: Yeah, I'm on the road 35-45 weekends per year.
SCD: It's not usually pertinent to ask the interview subject their age, but how old are you?
JP: I'm 24.
SCD: Some of the other authenticators have been authenticating for longer than that. To be a vintage authenticator, and to have the experience that some of the other authenticators would suggest you need, what's your response to those who would ask how you can be a 24-year-old autograph authenticator, particularly on vintage items?
JP: It's more about experience and how many autographs you've actually looked at, not how long you've actually been professionally authenticating. We've obviously been established in the hobby, and I have a well-recognized name with collectors and they trust my judgement.
SCD: We'll run a chart to summarize GAI's services available, but I wanted to clarify one area of your fee structure. You've got a $10 opinion, a $30 certificate of authenticity and a $60 letter of authenticity. What is the difference between those three levels?
JP: The $10 opinion is the evaluation fee to look at the item and determine if it is genuine or not. If the item does not pass, that's all you pay. If it does pass, you pay for the certificate, and that's an additional $20. The difference (between the COA and the LOA) is if it's a vintage item like Ty Cobb, then we would issue a letter, but most modern players, we issue certificates with.
SCD: Does the letter have more strongly worded language, or something else that sets it apart from the COA? Why would I want to go to the letter level?
JP: We won't offer a COA for a Babe Ruth or other high-profile item; we want photo documentation of it (LOAs get photos of the item, COAs don't) and we write out descriptive detail of the item for the letter.
SCD: Grading an autograph -- how does that work?
JP: Basically, there are three options. You can have the signature graded itself and that's $20, or you can have the ball itself graded and that's $20, or to have the ball and the autograph both certified it's $35, and that's all on top of the letter of authenticity fee.
SCD: It can't be graded unless it has an LOA first?
SCD: Is the ball encased in anything so it remains in the condition it was at the time of grading? Is there a date put on the LOA?
JP: The ball is encased on a cube and it actually sits on a piece of plastic so it won't move in the cube. But we really can't guarantee the grade for the life of the ball because it could age and fade, depending on how it's stored. The letter is dated and at the bottom it has a disclaimer regarding the grading.
SCD: With your authentication prices I would imagine you get more submissions on modern players whose values don't lend themselves to the more pricey services?
JP: We definitely get our fair share of vintage material to look at, but I would say the majority of the stuff we do is modern autographs.
SCD: How do you get your exemplars?
JP: I've obtained most of mine in person. I do use books occasionally for reference material. I generally won't use something that somebody else has authenticated as an exemplar.
SCD: Global is into a lot of areas of authentication. What areas would you say you are forerunners in, or that you've established a niche in?
JP: I really think it's our $10 opinion that sets us apart from everybody else. That really provides a collector with an easy way of finding out if their item is good or bad without paying $150 for a full fee. I can't imagine anything more painful than paying $150 to find out something isn't good.
We've made really great strides in our signed-in-the-presence material. We've probably done over 150,000 signed-in-the-presence items alone. The sheer volume we do has probably made us the largest authenticator of modern autographs.
SCD: How does that work? Do you have a sticker on the item that has a number on it, and you type that number into a database on your website to find its authentication or origin?
JP: Each item, except for some LOA items that don't get a sticker, but every other item gets a tamper-evident label affixed to the item, and then it has a matching COA card with it. You can look that number up on our website.
SCD: Within the memorabilia areas, how much headway has Global made? There are two or three companies that are well known and have market share, but are you making progress in those areas?
JP: We've definitely made our biggest dent in autographs. I would say we're pretty much even with PSA; we probably do more in volume than they do because of signed-in-the-presence and our eBay listings are neck and neck.
Our game-used division isn't as popular as MEARS; it wasn't a main focus point in the past but we've just assembled a game-used authentication staff that we believe is one of the best inthe business and we plan on marketing this service more agressively.
SCD: So it's a service but not a focus?
JP: It definitelyis a focus to us now as we have a close alliance with GameUseddUniverse.com and gear toward advertising it more.
SCD: Your authenticators in the different niche areas are listed on your website at www.gacard.net. Whose names are on the COAs and LOAs?
JP: If it's a COA, my signature and our director of authentication Mike Baker's signatures are on it. If an item gets an LOA, Mike Baker, myself and any secondary authenticator used will also sign it.
SCD: Mike is well-known in the hobby as a card guy. Does he have expertise in these areas, too?
JP: No, he primarily stays out of authentication of autographs and game-used. He's our head card grader and he oversees our division.
SCD: So he signs it from an executive standpoint?
SCD: Some collectors believe it's important to have a scientific authentication education in order to be an autograph authenticator. Do you concur with that sentiment, and what is the extent of your formal education or scientific training ... courses or classes?
JP: There's really no course available for learning autographs, so it really comes down to experience. It comes from getting your autographs and exemplars in person and handling the high-profile signatures. All of our authenticators realize it's not really an exact science and the signatures often vary because of the shape or size and texture of the items that are being signed. And celebrities seem to refine and change their signatures over time and we try to stay up on that and go out and get more exemplars.
We do utilize a computer program that analyzes the pen pressure of certain signatures.
SCD: How important is provenance in the authentication process? Can it be a factor, or do you have to ignore it?
JP: It's great to have the history, or an unbroken chain of custody on an item. But you really can't authenticate based on the provenance. When you authenticate, you really have to go by what the piece is and what the signature looks like, and not by what the letter accompanying it says. You have to make your judgement by the signature and what the item is signed on to make a full authentication.
I think provenance is great if you have it, but it doesn't come into play in our analysis.
SCD: How many people look at an autograph when it's submitted to Global?
JP: It varies, depending on who the signer is. When an item comes in, I look at it first and if I don't know it, I will determine who is best suited to look at it. Sometimes we will have a second or third opinion. We do use some outside experts when necessary, to verify the authenticity of an item that has certain questions about it that we don't necessarily know.
SCD: How many people are on staff internally who might chip in with an autograph authentication?
JP: There's myself, Jeff Woolf, Bob Gryder, Steve Widgerson, Brandon Mysinger for NASCAR and Dustin Raymond for golf autographs. Those are all independent contractors who are our authenticators. I am the only full-time, on-staff authenticator in either autographs or game-used.
SCD: How many contracted experts does Global have?
JP: There are about eight total, including myself.
SCD: Tell us what Global's stance is on the verbiage of "authentication" vs. "opinion." What's on the COAs?
JP: On the letter, we call it "deemed authentic by our team of authenticators." We don't go with any disclaimers on the letters, because in the end, it doesn't really matter what the public wants to call it.
SCD: What happens if somebody disagrees with your initial assessment? Nothing's been proven wrong at this point, but somebody disagrees with the findings. Will you look at the item again?
JP: Any time there is a question with an item that's in dispute by the client, I am always more than willing to talk to the person why I didn't feel comfortable with it. We will always take it for a second opinion, with no cost to them, for an additional examination.
SCD: What's your policy if something Global authenticated was clearly shown to have been wrong? Do you offer a refund of the authentication price, or, as it's called in hobby terms, do you "buy the item back"?
JP: It's kind of hard to pay out $3,000 for an item you authenticated for $60. We always refund the authentication fee to the original submitter. In some cases, we have paid out cash to buy back an item that we have made a mistake on in the past, to get it off the marketplace and clean up our mistake. We want to do the right thing.
But normally what we do is offer a credit for the amount paid for the authentication of the item, because people want to continue using our service.
SCD: How many times have you had to do things like that?
JP: There have been a handful of instances where this has happened. There was a Tiger Woods 8-by-10 that we recently bought back; actually we exchanged it for the person. We had authenticated it prior to my employment at Global. We provided them a signed Sports Illustrated for it.
SCD: Do any of your authenticators buy and sell in the field in which they authenticate?
JP: Yes, most of them are independent contractors who do buy and sell. It's unrealistic for us to get them onto a full-time salary.
SCD: What about you?
JP: Not really; I've sold a handful of pieces, but I can count them on one hand.
SCD: Have you ever sold anything that you authenticated?
JP: No, none of our authenticators are allowed to have a financial interest in anything we authenticate.
SCD: Regarding your jersey and bat experts, do they have a network of helpers, and do they listen to the experts in certain areas, like the specialists for a certain team or league or time period?
JP: Yeah, our jersey and bat experts try to get as much information as possible when they authenticate an item. We also will sometimes use external experts if we need to.
SCD: Are there areas within autographs that Global will turn down because you don't have expertise in that area? Do you do entertainment and music?
JP: Absolutely, we do music, entertainment and historical pieces. Jeff Woolf is our vintage historical and celebrity authenticator and Steve Widgerson is our modern-celebrity authenticator.
SCD: Are there areas that you don't do?
JP: We try to do as much as we can or as much as our expertise will allow. Any time we have an item that we're unfamiliar with, we can't do it, like if somebody were to submit a really obscure historical or sports piece. If we don't know it, we don't authenticate it.
SCD: We touched on this before, but tell us whose names are on the COAs and LOAs and who signs them?
JP: On the front of our COA, the signatures are myself and Mike Baker. On the back are the names of the people who work for us. Any time there's a letter done, it's signed by myself and any secondary authenticator who looked at it.
SCD: How do you get exemplars for the "common" player or lower-level celebrity?
JP: We have one authenticator, that's his specialty, he really goes after the "common" guys or lower-profile signatures. That's Bob Gryder. That's his niche for our company.
SCD: Have you done big collections as a company?
JP: Yeah, we've done several large collections where we've done thousands of items.
SCD: Do you look at every item, or do you give items that are very similar all the same COA?
JP: Any time we do a collection like that, we absolutely look at every item. If you don't, you open yourself up to making a huge mistake.
SCD: Do your authenticators have a history in the hobby and an exposure to collections that gives them an ability to be considered experts?
JP: All of our authenticators have pretty extensive backgrounds as either collectors or dealers, which has made them very valuable to us with their expertise.
SCD: When you have a team-signed item with a few forgeries on it, or some secretarial, how do you handle that? Is there verbiage on the COA or LOA?
JP: Any time we get an item like that, where the majority of signatures on the item are genuine but there's a handful of those signatures, we will notate on the letter that these specific signatures are secretarial, clubhouse or otherwise, they've been added by someone other than the athlete.
SCD: Which of the other authenticators from the other companies do you personally trust?
JP: I believe that all the legitimate companies have great authenticators. It would boil down to who do I trust for specific autographs. Like a Babe Ruth, I would go to Jimmy Spence or Mike Gutierrez.
SCD: I would imagine some of these veterans are role models for you?
JP: Yeah, Mike Gutierrez really was a big help when I was starting out and when he was working for us.
SCD: Some collectors are worried that the high-dollar client might get something graded higher or deemed authentic because of their status as a client, vs. the little guy who doesn't have influence on their items. Does that happen in the hobby, and why wouldn't it happen with your service?
JP: I really don't think that would happen with any respected authentication firm. I think they grade solely based on the item itself; the item itself really provides all the evidence you need to look at. If we were to do that, we wouldn't be where we are, we wouldn't have the trust of the community like we do.
SCD: Global is officially recognized by eBay as a verified authenticator. Do you have a lot of authenticated items on there?
JP: Right now there are over 2,000 items. We're on their list of approved authenticators. A seller is allowed to sell in the pre-certified category and there are only two third-party companies allowed in there, and that's Global and PSA.
SCD: What's your advice to a collector who's stuck between what I call "dueling authenticators" -- somebody says it's real, somebody says it's not?
JP: Any time you have an item authenticated by one of the top three companies out there, you have a high likelihood of it being genuine. But any time you can get a dual authentication, that's always great. Disputes don't happen that often I would say between the top-three companies, we run about 98 percent congruent. We all tend to agree quite a bit; the disagreements are overblown.
SCD: When you're at a show, I imagine there can be an interesting dynamic because your booths can be close to the other authenticators. Do you get people going from one company to the other?
JP: I never really see the person who submits the item; I don't have contact with them. I'm not behind a curtain, we're out in the open, but we do have customer service people who take the submission and bring it over to the authentication area.
I'm sure there are instances when people have gotten an item turned down by another company, so they take it over to us. I would say we probably run the same opinion most of the time.
SCD: What's your authentication system? Do you put a sticker on the item with a number on it?
JP: We affix a tamper-evident label to the item with a GV or GP serial number, and that gets a matching placard or certificate of authenticity.
SCD: Some of the other companies utilize stickers or labels on the item, too. It must be hard for future authenticators when they're trying to give a neutral opinion on an item, and it has a authentication label from another company on it. What's it like for you, when you're authenticating something that has somebody else's authentication on it?
JP: Generally, we try to stay as neutral as possible. But our findings seem to run congruent anyway; there's only that two percent when we differ.
SCD: What's your opinion of services that change their submission rates based on the value of the item?
JP: We don't change our authentication rates based on the value. We do delineate on the year sometimes, but it really depends on the level of service the item actually requires. It's $30 for a certificate, $60 for a single-signed item that needs a letter and $85 for anything that is multi-signed.
SCD: Would your company be willing to prove its findings in court, if it came to that on a specific item?
JP: It hasn't come to that yet, but we would always be happy to present our findings in court.
SCD: Talk about the COAs we use in our hobby, and yours specifically, and whether they are designed to allow the company to wash their hands of the item. Are they meaningless because they have such disclaimers on them as words like "opinion"?
JP: We don't have disclaimers on our COAs or LOAs. Any time we authenticate an item, we stand behind it 100 percent and if we do make a mistake, we will try to make the collector whole again, either by, in some instances, paying cash back, or by giving a credit for the item's value.
SCD: You're a collector at heart. Let's say some guy's got a fake, and you're very confident it's not real. What's your advice to that person if they ask what they should do next?
JP: I would tell them to get as much information as possible that it's definitely a forgery, and any legitimate dealer would me more than happy to give you your money back when that happens. Keep your receipts and make sure you know who you bought it from.
SCD: Do the collectors sometimes try to place you in the middle -- Global says "this isn't real" and the collector uses that to try to get their money back? Is that a tough spot for you to be in?
JP: It doesn't happen that often, but it has happened. We render our opinion based on our assessment of the item and it's really up to the collector to get their money back if they're not satisfied with the item.
SCD: PSA has a quick-opinion service on eBay, using scans. What's your opinion, in general, on using scans for quick opinions? Can it provide a service to collectors if they keep it in the proper context, or is it just not a good thing for the hobby to have assessments made on scans?
JP: I think it definitely provides a service; it gives the client an idea if it's more than likely genuine or not likely genuine. Obviously we can't be certain for 100 percent certain something's real based on a scan because it could be a preprint or an autopen.
SCD: What are the toughest signatures to verify for you? Really old vintage? The younger players who scribble?
JP: I'd say the toughest ones are usually the vintage ones because they're the high-dollar ones and people want to forge them because they can make the most money on them.
Babe Ruth is probably the most forged. In terms of the ratio of good to bad, I'd say the worst is Lou Gehrig. His real autograph isn't that prevalent.
SCD: There are some pretty good forgers out there, aren't there?
JP: Absolutely. And they always try to make it look as good as they can. You'll see a Babe Ruth autograph on the correct type of paper because they'll go to old bookstores and buy old books and make a cut out of it. They'll try to find the right ink. So you have to do ink and medium analysis on the older stuff.
SCD: Would it be a good thing for collectors if the authentication companies shared their exemplars and their knowledge? Is that realistic, given that you each make a living off this?
JP: I don't really think it's very realistic to expect companies to share exemplars. This is our livelihood and our exemplars are our entire basis for our work.
SCD: When Mickey Mantle died, you were about 14 years old. How do you get in-person exemplars for the Mantle and DiMaggio and players like that, as opposed to the older, veteran authenticators who were with them at shows in the 1980s?
JP: Actually, I was at shows with Mickey, my dad was dragging me to shows when I was only 7 or 8 years old. I probably got 50 Mickey Mantle autographs in person, and it was fairly cheap at the time, maybe only $5. I actually got Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio in person.
SCD: Do you use scientific methods or what you might call a laboratory?
JP: There are different methods to examine ink, paper and pen pressure. We can use ink and medium analysis to match ink to a certain time period. We can also have paper experts examine an item to make sure the paper is congruent with a specific period in which it was supposed to be signed.
SCD: We've touched on this already but it's important enough to repeat: Nothing's more important than exemplars in this industry. Where do you get your exemplars to know they're real?
JP: I've gotten quite a few of them in person. Not the entire thing because my exemplar library is 22 books with 500 pages in each book. I reference a lot of it out of books and other material but I've gotten a lot of it in person.
SCD: Would you do your $10 opinion service without exemplars?
JP: No, otherwise you're compromising your whole system, your whole criteria.
SCD: You could never say something is real from a scan only, but could you say something is likely fake from a scan only?
JP: We would use the verbiage "not likely genuine."
SCD: Are you or any of the other authenticators a member of the IADA or the UACC or the Manuscript Society or similar groups, and why or why not?
JP: I do not belong and neither do the other authenticators. I don't belong because I don't see what those groups have to do with our expertise. We're not dealers, so our expertise doesn't fall within their guidelines.
SCD: A collector said that many authenticators are too strict with autographs signed on the run, that there isn't enough room in the exemplar libraries for variations caused by stress or a quick signature. What's your feeling on that point?
JP: You really have to go by what your exemplars indicate. I have plenty of exemplars of guys on the run, signing at ballparks or restaurants or hotels, from when I used to go get autographs. I can't really speak for the other authenticators.
But you have to match up an autograph to an exemplar and if it doesn't match you really can't pass it. I've seen Muhammad Ali signatures recently and it's kind of a line. You really can't authenticate that.
SCD: What have you learned in your two years as an authenticator for Global? What has surprised you?
JP: It really surprises me how many collectors are out there who feel passionate about the hobby, they really take pride in it and love it. That's really refreshing, given our show schedule, to see the collectors who really care about this.
SCD: Are you a better authenticator now than you were two years ago?
JP: Absolutely. I've increased my exemplar library by probably 10,000 exemplars, with materials I wouldn't have had access to otherwise.
SCD: You're only 24 but your customers don't seem to care that you're a lot younger than the other authenticators in the hobby.
JP: It's all about what the customer feels comfortable with. Obviously our customers feel comfortable with me and my experience with autographs.
SCD: Finish up by telling us what you'd like people to know about Global and its services.
JP: I'd like people to know that we're one of the leading authenticators in autographs, especially modern autographs. We're the only game in town for pack authentication and unopened material, and we've made extensive strides in autographs, cards and unopened material.