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Old 03-24-2007, 12:10 PM
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Default How to Authenticate a Unique Item-the Limits of Scientific Testing

Posted By: Corey R. Shanus

In the discussion regarding the authenticity of the 1930 Ruth calendar card, a great question was posed -- if, as I and others have said, scientific testing can only establish what something is not, not what something is, how then does one authenticate a never-before-seen item? The answer is by corroborating evidence, which, depending on how much there is of it and its persuasiveness, may lead to a conclusions ranging from "I'm still really up in the air" (meaning a tremendous leap of faith is required to believe in the authenticity of the item) to "As a practical matter, there is no question the item is genuine".

Before I give some examples showing how this has come into play, let me very briefly explain what is meant when it is said scientific testing establishes only the negative, not the positive. Scientific testing looks for the presence of substances that were not in existence and/or commercially available when the item was purportedly made. If such substances are detected, then that must mean either the item cannot date to the period alleged (because the substance wasn't yet invented) or the item almost certainly does not date to that period (because the substance while invented was not yet commercially available). So in the case of a unique baseball card dating to, say, the late 19th century, even if the testing shows all aspects of its physical compostion are consistent with substances commercially available at the time of the card's alleged manufacture, an identical testing result can be achieved by a skilled counterfeiter making the card in his lab the day before the item is sent to the testing lab and using substances known to be commercially available in the late-19th century. However, if the testing detects the presence of a substance not even invented until, say, the mid-20th century, then one can say with certainty the card cannot date to the late-19th century. Hence the phrase scientific testing can only prove what something is not, not what something is.

Here are a couple of examples of how this comes into play pertaining to two never-before-seen items I actually own (thereby compelling me to deal with the issue of corroborating evidence) -- the Just So Young and an 1867 Trophy Bat. In the case of the Just So Young, that card is part of a known set and Young was member of the same team that depicts all the other known players. Accordingly, we are neither dealing with a never-before-seen issue nor a player not from the team that depicts all the other known players. If, instead of the player being Cy Young it turned out to be Amos Rusie (not a member of the Cleveland Spiders), then legitimate questions can be raised as what the heck is Rusie in a Just So issue and therefore maybe something fishy is going on. Second, the card came with six other Just So's and the provenance leads to an old-time family in the Cleveland area (where the issue was distributed). So putting this all together I had no practical questions as to the card's authenticity.

In the case of the 1867 Trophy Bat (given to the winner of the New England Baseball Tournament that year), the bat was described in a (i) 19th century book about Boston baseball written by someone with first-hand knowledge of the tournament and (ii) a period newspaper accounting of the tournament which specifically mentioned the presentation of the trophy bat. In addition, the bat was illustrated in a period piece of sheet music commemorating the winning team. Finally the bat had been owned for the past 50+ years by a woman who, besides having other period pieces pertaining to mid-19th century New England Baseball, was earlier in her life a caretaker for a person who was a descendant of one of the players who actually played in the tournament. So again the leap of faith required to believe in the genuiness of the item was de minimus. Had, on the other hand, none of this corroborating evidence existed, then regardless what scientific testing showed, quite possibly I would have regarded the bat as something too good to be true and either not purchased it or purchased it only at a substantially lower price.

So, getting back to the original question, authenticating unique items is as much an art as it is a science and sometimes, if there is no corroborating evidence, such items simply cannot be authenticated.

edited twice for grammar/spelling

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Old 03-24-2007, 12:15 PM
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Default How to Authenticate a Unique Item-the Limits of Scientific Testing

Posted By: barrysloate

One of the complicated aspects of the 1930 Babe Ruth card is a counterfeiter would have no problem at all getting 1930's era paper, little trouble finding ink from that period, and could probably even acquire an antique printer with little effort. As a result, any forensic testing would conclude that every aspect of the card is consistent with a ca. 1930 product- and it would still be a fake!

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Old 03-24-2007, 01:44 PM
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Default How to Authenticate a Unique Item-the Limits of Scientific Testing

Posted By: Peter Spaeth

I imagine these issues must come up fairly frequently in the art world. As to the Ruth, as a non-expert, and not being able to judge anything by the scan, the two points I found fairly persuasive at this stage are (1) the corroborating evidence suggesting Goudey did not use the trade name Big League Chewing Gum until 1933 and (2) the suggestion that if it was indeed a promotional item from 1930, it would be reasonable to think that a large number would have been made and therefore more than one would have survived.

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Old 03-24-2007, 02:18 PM
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Default How to Authenticate a Unique Item-the Limits of Scientific Testing

Posted By: davidcycleback

Notes on the subject:

1) 99.875 percent of fakes are obviously fakes, either to experts or general collecting population. They look wrong or were made with a modern printing process. For the average T206 computer fake on eBay, if you put the fake in with 20 real cards and gave it to a 15 year old who doesn't like baseball, she could pick out the computer print because it looks different than the others. I've seen unique items in auction that I knew were fake just looking at them-- often because there was something inconsistent. Ala an '1860s cabinet' that had mount style that didn't appear into the 1890s.

Most forgers aren't trying to fool Bill Mastro or seasoned collectors. They're trying to make a quick buck from a newbie. They're trying to sell a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth to someone who doesn't collect baseball cards, not a Goudey specialist.

2) Old cards were made with period printing methods which are obsolete today. The printing methods are identified by looking with microscope. For cards like the T206s or Allen & Ginters, they used rare inks that can be identified under a microscope. For known sets, like the T206s, a counterfeiter can only use modern printing methods, as only the modern printing methods could reproduce well the T206 image. In other words, if a counterfeiter used the original printing methods, the image would look horrible and no one would think the card was real. It's kind of like saying, "Let's forge a Rembrandt panting." Well, first you have to find someone who can paint as well as Rembrandt. If you hire Barney Fife to paint because he's willing, you'll have a painting but no one's going to mistake it or a Rembrandt. The best way to reproduce a T206 image is a computer printer, but an expert will identify it as a modern computer print whether or not Ty Cob looks nice.

3) If a card is from a known real set, you can compare the card in question in comparison to known real cards from the set. This is highly effective. Also, with popular sets like Goudeys and Old Judges, there will be many avid collectors and historians who have studied the set and will be able to offer good opinions about authenticity.

4) Provenance and general expert opinion is important. If a card or bat or ball has been known to have been around a while (20, 30, 50 years?), that doesn't prove its real but shows it's not a recent concoction. If Rob Lifson and Bill Mastro say the card appears genuine, it probably is. If an expert thinks there's something wrong with the card or issue, he'll probably voice his opinion. If a set is mentioned in a 1950 magazine article, that indicates the set isn't a modern concoction. On the other hand, if a T206 Joe Jackson pops up in the hobby Monday, a lot of people are going to wonder as the card has not been known to exist. If you own a Just So Cy Young, you at least know the set has been considered a genuine set for many years.

5) For some items, there are naked eye observable qualities that in and of themselves prove age. For example, with some types of photos and photo cards there are effects in the image caused by the chemicals in the paper and the effects can only appear after many years-- meaning the photo or card with the effect has to be many years old.

If someone showed me a newly discovered rookie year Ty Cobb or Greta Garbo high school photo that neither I or anyone else had seen before, I could assure them the photo was original and point out why. Part of points would include general characteristics and part would be physical qualities that appear only on photos that are many years old.

6) There are unique items were you can't be sure that it's genuine. But you also should be picking and chosing what you buy. If you are unsure about the history or identity, you can chose to not buy. I know about nothing about authenticating Ming vases, but that doesn't matter as I don't plan on buying one.

If a collectors says, "I have doubts about the age" or "How can any tell if something like this is real?," he can simply not bid on the item. If you want to buy a Hank Aaron autograph, and a lot of Aaron photos are forged but balls with Steiner/Aaron hologram because Steiner only does in person signings with people under contract, you're going to put your Aaron autograph allowance on the Steiner ball and not the photo from 0 feedback selleryou have worries about.

7) When I 'forensically' examine an item, I do scientific tests, but also include my general knowledge and common sense. I offer my opinion, which doesn't mean either "It's 100 percent authentic" or "It's 100 percent fake." In cases, if it's a computer reprint or such, I can say for sure it's modern, as they didn't have laser printers during the Civil War. In cases, I can say for sure it's genuine. In other cases I can give a substantive if not complete opinion-- "There's no question it's old, but I can't tell you what exact year" or "The photo is original, but I'm not an expert on Russian history and can't guarantee the guy in the image is Trotsky"

Someone once asked me, "Is this an original photo of my Aunt?," and I said, "I have no clue. I don't know what your aunt looks like."

8) If you're going to be worried about criminal genius forgers, don't worry about cards from known genuine sets like Goudeys or Old Judges or T206s. Worry about brand new unique item where there is no record or indication of the item existing before last Tuesday, or where people have long had strong suspicions about the entire set ... Duly note that I'm talking about making of an entire never heard of before card, in particular from never cataloged set, not acid induced variations on an T206 Magee or Slow Joe Doyle.

9) Expert collectors make their mistakes when they are working outside their areas of expertise-- whether in identification, authenticity or valuation. Joe Blow may be the most knowledgeable T206 person in the world, but will make a bonehead move buying a Shirley Temple doll. If someone came to me with a 1870s silver trophy bat and asked to authenticate it, I'd say "You've come to the wrong person."

One reason to deal with sellers you know and trust is that, even you aren't knowledgeable about the particular item, you know the seller is generally knowledgeable. If you buy the item from a total stranger, you have no one trust, not even yourself.

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Old 03-24-2007, 02:26 PM
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Default How to Authenticate a Unique Item-the Limits of Scientific Testing

Posted By: leon

Points well made so far, guys. Let me be devils advocate on the 1930 Ruth Goudey card, for a moment. For sake of argument why can't the item be a one-off prototype card? As I was speaking with Marshall last night I (or he, I don't remember) brought up the point about the trademarking of Big League Gum. Why couldn't it have only been a printer's idea that was put in a desk drawer after he came up with it? Then, 3 years later, he saw the card, showed it to management...they liked it and off to the races with the brand and trademarking. Is that too far fetched to be feasible? To state again, I don't think there's a snowball's chance of this card being real...but these points should at least be taken into account, pertaining to a possibility, for future reference of these kinds of items...

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Old 03-24-2007, 02:46 PM
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Default How to Authenticate a Unique Item-the Limits of Scientific Testing

Posted By: Corey R. Shanus

Is that THEORETICALLY possible (assuming the card passes scientific testing), yes? But given its non-1930s-looking appearance (at least so I've been told) and the expressed opinions of hobby experts, do you really want to have $19K riding on that possibility? Often times in the end when all the facts are in it comes down to how much of a leap of faith are you comfortable taking? It seems to me that even if the card does pass testing, unless something akin to the card containing a substance that was commercially available, say, only from 1910-1960 and since then has, as a practical matter, been unavailable, you'd still be taking one heck of a big one.

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Old 03-24-2007, 02:56 PM
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Default How to Authenticate a Unique Item-the Limits of Scientific Testing

Posted By: leon

In my mind there is no way that Bill Mastro, Josh Leland, PSA, SGC, Rob Lifson, Pete Calderon, Marshall Fogel (many of whom have personally held it), and several others I don't want to mention, would all be wrong on a single card. No way in hell. Does that answer your question? I told Steve this morning that he should refund Mark immediately. If the card is found to be good (it won't) then he'll have no problem selling it...and I will be first in line, instead of second.....

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Old 03-24-2007, 02:59 PM
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Default How to Authenticate a Unique Item-the Limits of Scientific Testing

Posted By: barrysloate

Prototypes are made, and often for economic reasons put aside and readdressed at some point down the road, so that is a fair point. But it is nothing more than a stab in the dark to try and find a reason why it could be real.

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