Buy what excites you! Although everyone probably would like to own a Babe Ruth or a Lou Gehrig signature, the cost of an authentic example of either may be prohibitive. If a person collects what he or she "loves" without regard to its value, the collector will derive maximum enjoyment from each purchase, and that enjoyment will be repeated every time the collection is reviewed or shared with others. And on the investment side of collecting, buy the highest value item you can afford, i.e., buy quality!
When you buy an autograph without the personal expertise to "self-authenticate," you should require due diligence of the source from whom the acquisition is being made. Ideally, all buyers would self-authenticate all their purchases, but this is not realistic. Most often the buyer is unable to authenticate material, and this underscores the importance of the level of trust you should have of the seller. The bottom line is this:
The less able the purchaser is to self-authenticate a purchase, the more trust in, and therefore the more dependence on, the integrity AND expertise the purchaser must place with the seller.
At the very least, all purchasers of material under these circumstances need to research the qualifications and reputation of the seller. This should be done through third parties and examination of the bona fides of the source from which you intend to make your purchase.
The reputation of the seller, as always, is EVERYTHING. When you are unable to authenticate the item yourself, research the dealer and only purchase from reputable sources. A reputable dealer should gladly provide you with background information on himself that can be easily corroborated.
Don't be afraid to ask a seller to provide a hobby resume and any third-party institutional hobby references they may offer. For instance, when shopping for a dealer, make some calls! Don't trust the dealer alone to provide you with credentials. An example of this might be to call the publication in which the dealer is advertising and ask the editor in chief what type of reputation the advertiser has. Ask if there are any historical and justifiable complaints against the dealer.
In short, research those from whom you will buy. Limit your sources for material and find a dealer or a handful of dealers you can trust and with whom you can build a relationship. Optimally, you will establish a long-time relationship with someone to help you build your collection. Likewise, reputable dealers recognize the value of long-term customers, and they will always value their reputations. That is how they stay in business. And because they are honest, fair, and good at what they do--that is, they are not only experts, but they are also trustworthyâ€”they will back their material and their earned reputations with an unconditional lifetime guarantee of authenticity for the material they sell.
Dealers and auctions are legitimate sources for material acquisition, but as the demand for and corresponding values of sports autographs have increased, so too has the amount of fraudulent material being traded. Forgers have three challenges:
They must reasonably copy the person's signature they are forging.
They must use materials that existed during the forged person's life. This includes writing instruments, ink, and the item that is signed.
They must market the product without bringing attention to themselves.
So when marketing their wares by way of a direct sale, forgers typically offer the item with some kind of magnificent story. For example: "My recently deceased uncle got this signed baseball from Babe Ruth himself when he was 11 years old, and he left it to me in his will." Forgers also typically sell their items at remarkably lower prices than what corresponding authentic samples would fetch. Keep in mind that this can be done easily, because their acquisition costs are nothing, or at least minimal. Thus the low price and the corresponding "story" are part of the marketing strategy designed to target the unsuspecting and unsophisticated collectors who are "bargain shopping" and whose research is typically limited to price comparisons.
If the price of an item seems too good to be true, it is quite likely to be just that. If you buy an autograph worth $1,000 for $100 and it's a forgery, you didn't get a bargain. You simply made a forger $100 richer with your contribution. Conversely, a genuine autograph needs no accompanying "story" because it will stand on its own meritâ€”it is authentic when it is signed, and remains so forever, regardless of how many times it changes hands.
Many forgers also "fence" their items through auctions, since doing so keeps their profile from the public. If they succeed, the items are sold and they make their money. If the item is questioned, it is simply returned to the consignor/forger who has remained anonymous to the public and is again free to fence the returned item elsewhere. Therefore, it is best also to research auction companies as you would dealers, and buy only from auction houses that have established and positive reputations. In reality, the only way an individual can guarantee that an item is authentic is to witness the signing himself. This is a fundamental challenge to collecting, especially to collecting vintage autographs, since most people who collect include signatures of deceased persons in their collections and the opportunity to watch this material signed personally is nonexistent. In short, keep in mind that buying any material not signed in front of you is based on the trust you have in the person or organization you buy it from, combined with any personal expertise you may apply to evaluate the item.
Sometimes sellers will offer a letter of authenticity with an autograph, but the potential buyer must remember that no letter of authenticity ever turned a forged autograph into an authentic autograph. Put another way, anyone selling a fake autograph does so under one of only two pretenses: The seller either knows or suspects that the signature is fraudulent, or he or she has been fooled by the fake autograph and believes that it is in fact authentic. Under either circumstance, the person selling the bad autograph would only be too pleased to provide a letter of authenticity; so what value does a letter of this kind really have? In the end, a letter of authentication is secondary to the reputation of the person from whom you make your purchase, because it is only as good as the reputation of the person who signed it. And the reputation of a seller must be based on two equally important things: integrity and expertise. Authentic signatures stand on their own merit without a letter, and reputable dealers stand by their material with or without a letter. It's as simple as that. In short, letters are over-rated. I have never witnessed or heard of a reputable dealer buying an autograph contingent on an accompanying letter because authentic material stands on its own merits.
Remember, third-party authenticators are only as good as their expertise. And while some are better than others, I know of none who haven't made their share of mistakes. While they do provide an outside opinion, they do so at an additional cost. If you deal with a reputable dealer or auction house, you will limit or otherwise eliminate your need to incur third-party authentication expenses.