Welcome to a first, both for this series and for this writer: A dual-subject interview. We continue the Authenticating the Authenticators series this week with veteran hobbyists and cousins Ted Taylor and Jeff Stevens, who have launched STAT Authentic, a new autograph and memorabilia authentication service that concentrates on sports but will offer evaluations of virtually anything.
STAT Authentic stands for the Stevens Taylor Authentication Team. Both have a long history in the hobby, and they are standing behind their experience as they begin this new career. This interview will be broken into two parts, and as always, if you would like to reply to anything, the best method is through a letter to the editor. If you would like another question asked, e-mail the author; at the end of this series, there will be another question-and-answer period.
SCD: First tell us about each of your histories in the hobby.
JS: I’ve always been a huge baseball fan. I grew up in the Philadelphia area and was always a Phillies fan. I collected baseball cards and put them on the spokes in the bicycle, and flipped them. I was at the last game at Connie Mack Stadium on October 1,1970 and rode home with a piece of sod draped over my shoulder, and planted it in the back yard. I attended the first game at Veteran’s Stadium in April of 1971 and also the last game there on Sept. 28, 2003. Baseball has always been a hobby and a passion of mine.
From a business standpoint, I was able to secure a job at the Baseball Hall of Fame as the merchandising director in 1988. I had the opportunity to play off the 50th anniversary of the Hall of Fame in 1989, and that’s where I started to take off with the autograph experience. The Hall had extensive autograph sessions over Hall of Fame weekend, and that was my first experience in witnessing autographs.
In that position, I created product for the autograph collector, things like bat sets, stamp cachets, pins, clothing. From there, I went to the Cooperstown Bat Co., where I used my relationships with player agents to start doing autographs on limited-edition, specialty merchandise. From there, I went to manage a memorabilia store opposite the Baseball Hall of Fame, Mickey’s Place.
At the present time, in addition to (STAT Authentic), I’m an on-staff consultant to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore, where I set up the retail operation for Sports Legends at Camden Yards, a museum commemorating Maryland sports history. I’m also launching a product for Dan Blacksmith, the company is Blacksmith Metal. Dan is well known in the collectibles business for his production of metal cards for the football, basketball and baseball hall of famers. This process takes the cards to a new level — full-color cards printed on metal. The new product features the Boston Celtics under license from the Basketball Hall of Fame.
TT: I guess I began when I was 8 years old and I bought my first pack of cards, but on an organized hobby level, in 1975, Bob Schmierer and I started the Philadelphia Baseball Card and Sports Memorabilia Show at Spring Garden College in Philadelphia. We did that in conjunction with the college’s 125th anniversary and it launched a show that’s still running today and has been the model for baseball card and sports memorabilia shows nationwide ever since. When we started the show, we had never been to one, we just went on instinct, and it turned out pretty well.
Six years after that, I was called as an expert witness by the Fleer Corp. in the federal antitrust suit that changed forever the way that baseball cards were produced and marketed. Ten years after that, Paul Mullan became the owner of Fleer in 1991, and I joined Fleer and was VP of hobby sales and marketing for almost seven years. Then a brief stop at ScoreBoard and I’ve been on my own ever since, as an adjunct professor at Chestnut Hill College and have done PR and marketing for a number of firms, including Coach’s Corner.
So it’s a long career that includes creating card sets and running countless autograph sessions at shows.
SCD: You each have extensive histories in the hobby. How does that experience lead you to being capable of the difficult task of being an autograph authenticator, being able to tell what’s real and what’s not?
TT: I started becoming an autograph expert out of necessity back in the ’70s, when I was running these massive auctions, which were legendary in the hobby at the time, and determining whether the Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth stuff coming into Willow Grove was legitimate or not. So I began doing comparisons and etc. I’m really not a Johnny-come-lately to authentication; only in wearing the mantle. I’ve been doing this probably 35 years, which is a lot longer than anybody else in this business can lay claim to.
JS: My experience really got heightened when I was with the Cooperstown Bat Co., because what I was really hired for was to set up private autograph sessions. One of the things that we really played up was a good certificate. Doing that first hand, I learned the intricacies of obtaining good signatures. At the Baseball Hall of Fame, my position was merchandising ... but I was able to see right in the basement of the Hall of Fame’s different items, so I knew firsthand what they looked like. So I’ve viewed them historically from the Baseball Hall of Fame, and witnessed autographs for the bat company, and being at so many different shows. And then at Mickey’s Place, I started holding autograph sessions at the store, and to travel and secure autographs, we did a lot of signings. SCD: What is STAT Authentic? How should people submit items to you? Can they submit to you through Coach’s Corner; do you work for them?
TT: We don’t work for Coach’s Corner, there’s no written agreement there. Coach’s Corner has referred people to us; we will liquidate collections through them. We’re never on the clock for Coach’s Corner, let’s dispel that, but I have a long relationship with the Malack’s (Coach’s owners) and have worked for them for a number of years, and they’ve been very receptive to what we’re doing. But there’s nothing in writing, and we don’t want to be in that position. SCD: What are your services, your areas of coverage, and what are your fees?
JS: We offer liquidation services. We will also run events for people, if they want to have a celebrity appear and do an autograph signing. I’ve run countless autograph signings, and Ted has alluded to that, too. As far as our fees for authentication, we use Tuff Stuff as a baseline, and we charge 15 percent (10 percent for current players) of what the going rate is for a baseball in Tuff Stuff. Our minimum is $15 a ball, and we cap it at $100 for 20th-century ballplayers and $150 for 19th-century. But we will look at volume collections for special rates.
TT: For appraisals and liquidations, we essentially go on an hourly rate. SCD: What areas do you authenticate in? Sports, entertainment, music, pop culture, movies?
TT: Yes, plus politics.
JS: We were asked to authenticate an automobile, to determine if it was in fact a 1969 Gran Torino. The car was in parts. We found ourselves getting involved in that, and that was a case where we enlisted a third party and we did do the authentication. The other one, that is still pending, is a Civil War to World War II gun collection, and that will involve a third and fourth party. But we definitely specialize in the sports field. SCD: What is your authentication/letter system? Is there a sticker on the item or the letter? How do you identify which item has been authenticated?
JS: That’s our seven-point process. Both of us have a problem with a hologram being placed on a beautiful piece of memorabilia. We digitally photograph and store that in our database. When the cert is printed, that picture is printed on the certificate. And then we use our corporate seal in two sports, where the item is pictured, as well as where our signatures are. And then we assign a unique serial number, as well. So we feel that we’re protecting the item we authenticated, and making sure we’ve got a unique certification. SCD: What’s the easiest way to submit? Go to the website at www.statauthentic.com?
TT: All of the information is there, we encourage people to do that. Plus, we accept Paypal if people want to pay that way, and they can do that on our website as well.
JS: One of the things we want to stress is personal service. Ted and I both love to talk about the hobby. That’s part of the reason we’re doing this. It gives us another opportunity to interact. So we’ve got a toll-free number (1-877-576-7212) and we’ve just started to make show appearances, as well. SCD: Some collectors feel it’s important to have a formal authentication education in order to be a formal authenticator. Do you concur with that, and what is the extent of your formal, scientific training in autographs?
TT: I’m an educator by profession and a great believer in a formal education, and strongly stress it, especially for people who have no experience in the field in which they’re dealing. But more important than that is your hands-on experience. We’ve both read extensively on autographs and autograph collecting; in fact, that Krause autograph handbook (the SCD Baseball Autograph Handbook, printed in 1991) has been worn out by us. A formal authentication education becomes important only if you lack hands-on experience in the hobby.
JS: The other thing that I have found is that collectors want hands-on experience vs. a formal education. SCD: How much of authentication is art and experience vs. science and data?
JS: I would say it’s probably 75/25. The experience is what we’re bringing to the table. We’ve lived and breathed this. We’ve witnessed so much of it first-hand, both from a business standpoint as well as our personal collections.
TT: You need to have good instincts, and instincts come with experience. You can take a look at a signature and say “that’s good” or “that isn’t good” without any kind of education at all, but you’ve seen enough of them to know. SCD: What percentage of the time does something objective, like Babe Ruth signing a magazine that wasn’t printed when he died, help determine authenticity, vs. something like subjective like your experience?
JS: I don’t think you can put a percentage on it. There are so many particulars to every case you witness. In the middle ’90s, I was doing a private signing with Willie Mays, and he had done several hundred items over a couple hours, and Willie signed those items in the signature that is familiar to current-day autograph seekers. At the end of the signing, I presented him with his 1099 (IRS document) and in the blink of an eye, he gave me the beautiful penmanship that is noted on his 1950s baseball cards. Anybody could just look at those two signatures and say, subjectively, that’s not a good signature. So I don’t think you can put a percentage figure on it. SCD: How important can you allow provenance to be in the authenticating process? Can you completely dismiss it, or can you allow it to be a factor?
TT: I trust provenance if I trust the source; otherwise it’s just a nice story. But if we didn’t know the people we were dealing with, it would simply be a nice story and have nothing to do with the authentication judgement. SCD: Do you have an “extended family” of authenticators, for items that are beyond your areas of expertise, or use niche-area experts?
JS: My son, Chris, worked for me at Mickey’s Place for a while. He’s still in Cooperstown, where he manages a retail store. We’ll use him for opinions on politicians and entertainment, and he’s been a good resource for us in formulating some of the policies for STAT. And we have other people we can call on. SCD: Do either of you have a stance on the verbiage of “authentications” vs. “opinions”? Do you do an authentication or a professional opinion or both? What’s on your COAs?
TT: What’s on the COA is under verification we will say that “signature compares favorably with known exemplars. It is therefore our opinion that this is a valid signature.” SCD: What’s your policy if you deem something questionable or not real and somebody disagrees with you? What’s the initial reaction? Do you ask to see it again?
TT: If you gave us strong proof that we turned it down based on information that wasn’t at our disposal at the time, or for some other reason, we would consider offering another certificate of authenticity. JS: We stand behind our work. We’re proud of every piece of work we put out. We both look at every single thing, and put a lot of diligence into it before we put our name on it. Obviously if somebody has a question, we’ll analyze it, but we stand behind everything we put out. SCD: If you’re in authentication long enough, at some point you’ll get something wrong, all authenticators have. Is there a policy in place for when that happens? Would it be a refund of the authentication price, or would you “buy the item back”?
JS: No, we’re not going to buy the item back because we’re not in the business of procuring memorabilia. We haven’t put a policy in place because frankly, we don’t feel there’s going to be a need for it. If, in fact, that does happen, we’ll take a look at the instance and handle it accordingly. Both of us have excellent reputations in the industry and we’re not going to do anything to take away from that, so we’ll take a look at everything on a case-by-case basis. SCD: The long-term authenticators have all gotten something wrong at some point, and you two haven’t been at this that long in an official capacity, so maybe you haven’t. Onto the question: Have you gotten one wrong and had to fix the problem?
TT: It hasn’t happened yet. We’ve been at it a couple months, and so far, so good. Yeah, sooner or later it will happen because you’re dealing with human beings. SCD: Do you buy and sell in the field(s) in which you authenticate, and what’s your response to those who say that an authenticator shouldn’t do that, that you need to be third party and objective?
TT: We’re not dealers, emphatically “no.” Our response would be, to those who say an authenticator should never be financially interested in the field in which they are authenticating, we emphatically agree with that.
JS: To go a little further, I frankly think it’s a conflict of interest for somebody in the authenticating field to have a financial interest in inventory. SCD: Are both of your names on your COA?
TT: Ninety percent of the time, yes. SCD: Do you both see each item, live in person?
JS: Yes, that is our policy. We’re not going to authenticate using a scan or copy. We need to see the item. SCD: Do you provide authentications for “common” players or entertainers, the backups? Do you have the exemplars you would need?
JS: We don’t, no. That would be a case where we’d take a look at it, and try to find it through research. Ted’s background in the baseball card field gives us a wonderful asset for finding those exemplars, but we’re not going to authenticate anything if we can’t find exemplars for it.
TT: If they never signed baseball card, then we can’t do it. But I have a pretty extensive baseball card collection, plus the books that contain all the Topps cards, that contain an awful lot of utility infielders and middle-innings relievers. We’ll take a look at them. SCD: When you authenticate a large collection, and you mentioned that you already have, do you look at every time, or do you large stacks at a time because they’re all very similar?
TT: Every item. SCD: Do you have a history in the hobby and an exposure to collections that helps you be an expert in the hobby?
TT: First of all, if you combine the two of us, we’ve been involved in the hobby for 70-some years. We’ve both seen some of the biggest collections ever, and been involved in liquidations of collections. In my years with Coach’s Corner, I’ve seen a lot of stuff go through there, considering I’ve written a story about every auction they’ve done for the last 10 years. I saw the Paul Hill Collection was one of the large but quiet collections that sold for a couple million dollars. I’ve been to the Halper collection, and I have a pretty fair collection myself.
JS: My exposure to collections has been with the two museums that I’ve been affiliated with, in Cooperstown and the one I’m presently affiliated with, the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. SCD: The next question relates to team-signed items and clubhouse signatures. What do you do when there are 20 signatures on a ball but a few of them are clubhouse? Do you still authenticate the ball, but put on the COA that so-and-so was a clubhouse signature?
JS: Yes, that would be the way we’d identify it. Rather than dismiss it and say it’s a forgery, we’d want to inform him that what he has is known as a clubhouse ball. We want the individual to know what they have, or what they are considering purchasing. But we don’t feel that it makes it a complete forgery.
TT: It’s an accepted fact and a long tradition in baseball that clubhouse signatures exist. Connie Mack stopped signing baseballs back in the ’30s, when a utility infielder by the name of Wayne Ambler started signing Mack’s name on A’s balls, and then it was continued by batting practice pitcher Dave Keefe, and they are both easy to spot, although one of the premier authenticators continually misses that.
Clubhouse signatures weren’t done to cheat anybody, they weren’t done to defraud anybody. When Marie DiMaggio signed Joe’s name to things, Joe wasn’t trying to defraud anybody, he was making somebody happy. Now, there’s a different value structure. But to dismiss that stuff out of hand is a mistake. It’s part of baseball collecting. SCD: Some collectors believe the status of a big-dollar client can impact the outcome of an authentication, and conversely the little guy might not get a fair shake. Does that happen in the hobby, and why won’t it happen with your service?
TT: Yes, it happens in the hobby, there’s no question about that. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Why won’t it happen here? Because we won’t let it. Jeff and I have too much integrity for that, and it’s more important to get it right than to make somebody happy.
JS: You have to be able to stand behind your credentials and your findings. Reputation is everything, especially in this business. SCD: Which of the other authenticators would you trust?
TT: I trust Jeff.
JS: That would be my answer, too (laughing). SCD: Do you have a working relationship with any of the other autograph authenticators, anybody that you recommend?
JS: We really don’t. Ted and I have sat on the sidelines and watched the authentication process develop. It used to be that if you obtained a baseball from a store, and you got a cert from them, that was all you needed. But with the advent of Operation Bullpen, and the way the third-party authenticators have sprung up, that was what really gave rise to us starting our business. We feel we have so much to offer, based on our knowledge and experience. SCD: I don’t know if you’ve been in the dueling authenticators situation yet, when you say something’s good or bad and somebody else says it’s the other way around. What’s your advice to collectors when they’re in that spot?
TT: Decide who you trust. I think it’s that simple. You can get people with dueling opinions, and it’s up to the collector to decide who they trust more. Do they trust what STAT has to say because Ted and Jeff have 75 years of experience in dealing with these things, or do they trust somebody who had a machine and said it was good?
JS: I would maintain the same philosophy that I used when I was selling autographs in Cooperstown. I would say that whenever you’re buying autographs, you should buy it from a person that you trust. SCD: The authenticators seem to disagree a lot. Does that make the process itself seem illegitimate? Doesn’t the continual in-fighting of the authenticators hurt the industry itself?
JS: What we are selling to a purchaser is a comfort level. Unless you actually stood there and watched Babe Ruth sign that baseball, you cannot with 100 percent accuracy indicate that, but it goes to knowledge and experience. So what you’re selling is a comfort level.
TT: As in everything else, when there’s a buck to be made, people jump on the train to make it, whether they have hobby experience or not. If they see an opening to make a dollar, they’re going to do that, and the field may have more than a few of those people in there. It’s up to the hobbyists to decide who they trust and who they want to deal with. It’s difficult to reconstruct what happens in the past, so what we need to do is establish levels of probability, and as with science, all of history is a matter of probability. Some things are more certain than others. SCD: You guys base your fees on the value of the item. Some collectors don’t like that, they’d prefer to have the fee related to how long it takes to authenticate the item.
TT: You have to be somewhere. Websites of the other authentication services are all over the place (with rate structure), and you have to be somewhere. We thought having a ceiling was important. And there has to be an equation relative to the value of the item. To charge somebody $15 for a $20 item doesn’t make any sense to me. People are looking for dollar-added value. A certified Babe Ruth autograph is worth more than one that just rolled in off the sidewalk. There has to be a system, and what are you going to tie it to other than value?
JS: We selected Tuff Stuff, because of the reputation and credibility in the industry, and the recognition of it. SCD: The editor appreciates that.
JS: We selected that before the interview.
TT: We gave a lot of thought to it, and Tuff Stuff is as good a source as there is. SCD: What enables you to tell if an autograph is secretarial, or an autopen?
TT: I’ve seen enough autopens in my life, and Jeff has too, and there’s a clear difference because they’re so perfect. And the secretarial, they sometimes go so far as to carry an initial, but they jump out at you.
JS: It’s knowledge and experience. There are little tricks that we have. We use light, and if it’s a flat item you use pressure on the paper to identify an autopen signature. SCD: Would you be willing to prove your findings in court?
JS: I would say yes, but I haven’t had an experience in that. My partner has.
TT: I’ve had this little cottage industry, since I left Fleer, of being an expert witness. In fact, I’m engaged right now in two different cases. So that is another service that STAT will offer. It’s another service that attests to my experience in the hobby. Lawyers are very careful and picky about choosing an expert. SCD: Don’t the disclaimers on a COA render them meaningless? Does the fact that the COA calls the authentication an “opinion” mean it doesn’t carry any weight?
JS: I would disagree with that. We are responsible if we’re wrong, to ourselves and our reputation within the business. That’s a big part of why Ted and I decided to do this. We wanted to give something back to a hobby that has brought us so much pleasure. SCD: You’ve told a guy that his item is clearly fake, no doubt about it. What’s your advice to him?
TT: Go back to whoever sold it to him and get your money back.
JS: And also go back armed with our certification. That gives him some backdrop to say, “I took this to a reputable authenticator.” SCD: What are the toughest signatures to verify, and who is the most forged?
TT: There’s a shopping list of the most forged, and it goes Mantle, Williams, DiMaggio, Ruth, Gehrig. Hank Aaron, I suppose.
JS: The older ones, because of the quality (the often-poor quality of the item and the signatures). It makes it difficult to zero in on the signatures. It’s harder to get the team-ball names on the older balls because of the quality of the ball; you have to identify all of the team members.
TT: I’m sure there are bad Ruths, Gehrigs, but it’s harder work to sign them on the older piece of paper and get the watery fountain pen, to age them and so forth. It’s very easy to grab a 1993 World Series baseball and stick Mickey Mantle on them. The newer ones are more readily forged, but the older ones are better forgeries. SCD: What do you think of clubs and autograph seminars for experts like yourselves?
JS: Clubs are good to spark interest and to educate people in the hobby. But as far as an educational course, frankly I’ll take my hands-on experience over that. SCD: Are either of you a member of the IACC/DA, the UACC, the Manuscript Society or anything like that?
TT: No. I have certificates and degrees hanging all over my wall, and they’re really good, but I’m by profession a teacher, and what makes me a good teacher is my experience, not the paper on my wall.
JS: It’s great for people who haven’t had the opportunity to have hands-on experience to go to school. But Ted and I have what we feel is much better, and that’s practical experience. SCD: Do you have a laboratory, or machines, or do you use loupes of different powers? What are the tools of your trade?
TT: We use magnification, but no, we don’t have machines. We use various lights and magnification. It’s about feel; that’s what forensics are. SCD: From where do you get your exemplars to know that they’re real? Are they out of a book, or signed in front of you?
JS: The majority of them come from actual signatures that Ted and I have obtained. If you look on our website under the pictures icon, you’ll see pictures of both of us representing some of the signings we’ve done. As a general practice, when I had a signing with a player, I got an item or two for my personal collection, not knowing that it would come into use with this business venture. So that’s where we have a tremendous amount. And as Ted mentioned before, we use the SCD handbook. We also watch what is showing up in SCD and enhance our exemplar file with that.
TT: We both have significant autograph collections to begin with. SCD: Do you ever conduct your evaluations without exemplars?
JS: The answer is no. We may took a look at it and feel pretty good about the conclusion, but we will never do the formal process without backing it up with an exemplar.
TT: I looked at a Ted Williams bat that I didn’t need an exemplar for to know it was phony. SCD: Exemplars from throughout a player’s career and life must be crucial and difficult to acquire, because their autographs change so much.
TT: We’re in the process of building that and making it more extensive, but thanks to the marvels of the early ’50s baseball cards and other publications of that era, we’re able to pick up some nice early signatures. SCD: Could you authenticate something, or more likely deem something fake or likely fake, from a scan only?
JS: No, we need to see the item, that’s just the policy.
TT: I know they do that on eBay. How do you know if the scan is good? SCD: Could you say something is probably not good, from a scan?
TT: Sure, you could say that, you could easier say it was fake than it was real. SCD: Some collectors believe the more “strict” authenticators don’t leave enough room for variances, or enough room for the stressed-out, signed-on-the-run autographs people might get at public events. What’s your take on that?
JS: That’s where you have to make a judgment. I’ve seen that in the hundreds of signings that I’ve been a part of. I saw it first-hand with Willie Mays; the autograph can vary toward the end of a long signing session.
TT: The thing I saw in my years at Fleer, was we’d send 1,000 cards to somebody and we’d send 25 or 30 percent of them back because it was just a scribble and we weren’t going to package them in our cards. They had tried to sign their name 1,000 times in a row, and they just can’t do it. SCD: As the new guys on the block, if somebody’s been trying to get something passed by the current authenticators, and it keeps getting rejected, you’re probably going to get tested by some stuff that has been rejected frequently by the others. Have you found yourselves being tested by some fairly obvious fakes in your first few months?
TT: What we have found is that people who have won things in recent Coach’s Corner auctions that didn’t have COAs have sent them to us, after the fact, to look at. I don’t know what that means. It might mean they read the flyer that came with the item (Coach’s has been promoting the service). But no, I haven’t seen things that may not have been passed by somebody else, and yet we’ve had an opportunity to look at a lot of exotic stuff. SCD: Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to mention now?
TT: We got into this because we saw a need for it. The initial acceptance has been a comfort level from our fellow collectors. We’ve received a glowing endorsement from Edward W. Stack, the retired president and chairman of the board from the Hall of Fame. We think there’s a need. We both love this hobby, and we think we can bring some good things to the hobby, and talk some sense and with passion to collectors.
JS: I don’t want to overuse the phrase “labor of love,” but that’s what this is really becoming. It’s a hobby, it’s a passion, but it’s also an opportunity for us to make a living out of it. This is not something we rushed into; it’s taken us several months to develop. I think our process is unique by not having a hologram on there. We’re in the early stages, but we’ve got an excellent foundation.