COA: True guarantee of authenticity?

Authenticity is the number one concern of most collectors, and it should be for all. In this column I’ll be focusing on autographs, but the information here holds true for any collectible that comes with a COA (Certificate Of Authenticity). Most collectibles don’t come with a written guarantee, but movie props and wardrobe, items owned by the famous, and various other pieces often depend on guarantees to insure their authenticity. Are such certificates truly a guarantee, however? What you’re about to read may surprise you.

The joy of owning an autograph is in knowing that it was signed by someone we truly admire. If that autograph isn’t authentic, the joy is gone and the signature is meaningless. A photo bearing a fake autograph has no value at all – monetary or otherwise. For these reasons it is of the utmost importance that all collectors take great pains to ensure they are purchasing the real thing.

Many collectors believe that a COA is all the guarantee they need. Are they a true guarantee of authenticity, however? The answer to this question is both “yes” and “no.”

A COA is simply a piece of paper that states that an autograph is authentic. Some are elaborately printed, some are rather plain, and some are even handwritten. The actual appearance of the certificate is irrelevant. An impressive COA can be worthless, while a rather mundane looking one can be a true guarantee of authenticity, or vice versa. Just remember that the appearance of a COA bears no weight whatsoever in whether or not it is reliable.

Most certificates begin something like this: “This autograph is guaranteed to be authentic (actually signed by the person(s) named).”

There is usually a lot more to the guarantee, but the sentence above is the key phrase. A complete COA may contain the above phase and continue as follows: “This autograph is guaranteed for the life of the item. It may be returned for the full purchase price if it is found to be other than authentic. The autograph must be accompanied by this receipt if returned for a refund. The autograph must be in the same condition as when it was purchased for a refund to be issued. Please note that refunds are only made if a piece if found to be other than authentic.”

Any good certificate should give a guarantee without time limit. In the above example “for the life of the item” provides the same guarantee. An autograph that is destroyed obviously can’t be returned for a refund. Beware any COA that limits the guarantee to any specific time period, especially if the guarantee only lasts for a few days. Such a guarantee should never expire.

The real value of a COA comes not in its wording, but is based on the reputation of its issuer. A certificate can include all the right phrases and still be worthless if the seller issuing it isn’t honest. Think about this for a moment. If a seller is dealing in non-authentic material, will he or she hesitate for a moment to issue a certificate with the fake autograph? Wouldn’t issuing a COA give the fake a look of authenticity and make it far less likely that the buyer will ever have the autograph checked out? It is important that certain phrases such as “without time limit” are in a COA, but if the seller isn’t honest, the certificate isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.

I’m extremely careful when making any autograph purchase, whether it is for my own collection, or to resell at some point in the future. When I’m looking to buy, whether it be from a dealer catalog or an Internet auction, I pay attention to the seller, not the COA. My main concern is whether or not the seller is a member of the U.A.C.C. (Universal Autograph Collector’s Club), The Manuscript Society, or P.A.D.A. (Professional Autograph Dealers Association). I know that each of these societies have strict guidelines that their members must follow when selling autographs. If the seller is a member of the U.A.C.C., for example, I don’t even need to know what it says on the COA, because I know that the U.A.C.C. requirements provide the guarantees I need.

When dealing with the dishonest, one must keep a lot of things in mind. I’ve just stressed the importance of the seller being a member of one of the three collecting societies above. What if a seller claims membership, but is not a member? Will someone who sells fakes hesitate to claim that he or she is a member of the U.A.C.C., when in fact he or she is not? Most likely the dishonest would be only too happy to claim membership, at least until they are caught. Luckily, the U.A.C.C. provides email address on its Web site for the specific purpose of checking to see if a seller really is a member. Back when I sold autographs at Internet auction, I included a link to the U.A.C.C. site and invited potential buyers to check me out. Buyers should always check out the seller in this manner. Honest sellers won’t mind at all.

Is it possible for someone to be a member of a respected collecting society and still sell fakes? The answer is sadly “yes.” Societies such as the U.A.C.C. work to weed out the dishonest from their ranks, and do a good job of doing so, but it does take time to catch those selling fakes. Complaints must be made and checked out before a member can be kicked out. Members can sell fakes, but they won’t be able to do so for long and remain members. This is a danger that buyers should keep in mind. Even society membership is not an ironclad guarantee of authenticity. It’s as close as one can come, however.

Are all non-society members dishonest sellers? Of course not! There are honest sellers out there who just don’t deal in enough autographs to make membership worth their time. A few years ago I purchased an ALS (Autographed Letter Signed) of J.R.R. Tolkien for over $1,000 from a non-society member. I did so without fear because I’d studied Tolkien material long enough to know the letter was authentic. Membership is a good guarantee of authenticity, but non-membership doesn’t always equal dishonesty. Do beware sellers who handle autographs in the hundreds without society membership, however.

Are COAs a true guarantee of authenticity? As we have seen the answer depends on the wording of the certificate, and most importantly, on the reputation of the seller. When it comes down to trusting a certificate or trusting in the reputation of the seller, remember that a COA is only a piece of paper. It’s not a true guarantee of anything in itself. It must be backed up by a seller who has a reputation for honesty. Rely not on a certificate – no matter how fancy. Rely on the seller who issues the certificate. That is the true guarantee of authenticity.

The Sander’s Price Guide To Autographs, Sixth Edition, by Helen Sanders et al is probably the best guide on autographs available. It’s filled not only with values, but useful collecting information. It’s the guide I use personally. Paperback, 620 pages, $24.95 from and other booksellers.