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.