Illustration by Justin Mezzell

In the sports-memorabilia world, legitimacy is everything — and the AUTHENTICATION BUSINESS is booming.

Half a lifetime ago, a teenage boy approached a crooked-legged card table at a baseball-memorabilia show held in a ratty hotel along Route 46 in northern New Jersey. Its occupant was a middle-aged man. When the boy gestured toward an autographed 1975 Thurman Munson baseball card that was encased in hard plastic — one he’d eyed before — the man thought for a second and chirped, “75 bucks.” The boy pulled a mess of bills from his pocket, but he paused before handing them over. “How do I know it’s real?” The dealer responded with a look that was equal parts amused and insulted. “Would I be selling it if it weren’t?”

That teenage boy, otherwise known as “me,” learned a hard lesson that day: The word of surly, halitosis-­afflicted memorabilia men is generally not worth its weight in gold — nor painted yellow rocks. Years later, when I went to sell the card, the first potential buyer took one glimpse at it and recoiled in ­disgust. “I don’t know who signed that thing, but it sure wasn’t Thurman ­Munson.” To punctuate his point, he showed me three verified Munson autographs, none of which resembled the one on my card. I slunk away, more embarrassed than angry.

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The baseball-memorabilia market was exploding in the 1980s, just before I made that initial purchase. As with any booming market, problems quickly arose, many concerning the authenticity of the vintage-era cards and goods put up for bidding for the first time. If lifelong memorabilia dealers and big-name auction houses were getting burned, what chance did the casual fan have?

This was a question that vexed James Spence Jr. A collector whose father and grandfather both worked at the original Yankee Stadium, Spence transitioned from “weekend warrior” who frequented memorabilia shows to full-time dealer during the 1980s. In 1999, troubled by the lack of standards in the memorabilia business, he founded PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator)/DNA, an authentication service for autographs and memorabilia.

“So many people were simply relying on the word of the seller,” he says. “We came in and offered peace of mind. There was — and to an extent still is — a lot of bad stuff out there.” Spence left the company in 2005 and founded his own autograph-authentication firm, James Spence Authentication LLC (JSA), later that year.