This is the first in a series of ‘Quick Tip’ columns written with the notion that a word of good advice from your grandmother remembered is worth more than a college textbook read and forgotten. The columns will provide an assortment of simple yet significant tips concerning the authenticity of trading cards, photos, prints, posters and other memorabilia.
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*** If a trading card has obviously scissors cut corners that the online seller describes as ‘natural rounding,’ the card is probably a fake.
Many sports card fakes on the market are homemade, printed on a normal computer printer. This includes counterfeits of Mickey Mantle rookies, T206 Hall of Famers and 1933 Goudeys. For these forgers one of the hardest things is to mimic natural corner rounding that happens over time. The forger often clips the corners at a straight diagonal then roughs them up a bit. Despite the forger describing the corners as having ‘natural rounding’ or ‘natural wear,’ many of the corners are obviously hand cut.
Of course genuine cards can have clipped corners, but any experienced card seller can tell the difference between clipping and natural wear. Even if there is the remote chance that card is real, why would you choose to make an expensive online card purchase from a seller who can’t identify obvious trimming? Shouldn’t you be purchasing from someone more competent?
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*** A photo with one of these stamps on back is old
Many collectors are hesitant to buy old sports photographs as they’ve heard there are lots of modern reprints out there. Luckily there are photographs easily identified as vintage by the stamping on back. If you see a Babe Ruth, W.C. Fields or Red Grange photo with one of the following company names stamped on back you can be confident the photo is many years old:
ACME Newspictures, International News Photos, Bain News Service, Underwood, Underwood & Underwood, International Newsphotos, Pacific & Atlantic and Keystone View.
Each of these photo services went out of business or changed its name in the 1950s or earlier, meaning its stamp can only appear on an old photograph. While it’s always possible that an enterprising young forger will some day make his own International News or ACME rubber stamps, I’ve yet to see forgeries of these stamps.
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*** Make sure that baseball tintype is a baseball tintype
The tintype was a distinct looking photograph popular in the 1800s. It has the photographic image on a thin sheet of iron resembling tin. 1800s tintypes show a wide variety of sport and non-sport subjects, with tintypes of baseball players ranking amongst the most sought after and expensive on the market.
The problem for beginners to the area is that many tintypes advertised as ‘baseball tintypes’ are genuine tintypes but do not picture baseball players. The tintype may show 1870s firemen who wore uniforms nearly identical to baseball players of the day. Or the seller with a case of wishful thinking may call a farm worker’s heavy work glove a baseball glove. These non-baseball tintypes are collectable but worth substantially less than the tintype showing real baseball players.
Along with learning what early baseball uniforms looked like, the best advice for identifying real baseball tintypes is to look for baseball equipment in the image. If you see a baseball, baseball bat and/or catcher’s mask, it’s a baseball image.
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*** When in doubt, assume a trading card proof isn’t a proof
The trading card hobby puts a premium on proof cards. Proofs are pre-production test cards the printers use to check graphics and text before the final print run. Vintage card proofs are often blank backed, sometimes on different stock than the final cards, often with hand cut borders and little pencil written crosses on the borders. Proofs can sell for good money as they are rare and offer a look at the creation of the cards.
The collector should be aware that many cards resembling proofs aren’t proofs. The manufacturers sometimes accidentally printed cards with blank backs and inserted them into the packs of gum or tobacco. These aren’t proofs, but printing errors.
There are also ‘cards’ that were long ago scissors cut from vintage advertising posters, tobacco albums and kids’ notebooks. As these cutouts have hand cut borders, blank backs and different than normal stocks, they are often mistakenly called proofs.
Collectors will also come across printer’s scraps, often of T206 baseball cards. These scraps came from a printer’s rejected sheet, often with poorly printed images, bad color registration and other graphics problems– which is why it was rejected, or scrapped, by the printer. These rejected sheets were rescued from the trash bin by workers, often to be taken home for the kids. The individual scrap cards that we see today were hand cut from the sheets. As the cards are hand cut, often oversized and usually with printing defects, they are often mistaken for proofs. As with the above mentioned blank backed cards, scraps are simply factory mistakes.
As you can see there are lots of non-proof cards that resemble proofs. When in doubt it’s best to bid on an unusual card assuming it isn’t a proof, because it likely isn’t. Scraps and other printing mistakes are collectable, but are much more plentiful and inexpensive than genuine proofs.
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*** Nearly all Polaroid photographs are unique and original
Polaroids aren’t made like other photographs. With most photographic processes a hundred or even thousands copies can be made from the original negative, often years after the image was shot. The Polaroid camera, on the other hand, produces a single photographic print minutes after the image was shot. While there are scarcely used methods of making Polaroid reprints, nearly all Polaroid photographs you will find are original and unique.
Polaroids come in different styles, but are easy to identify. The often have ‘Polaroid’ or ‘Fuji’ printed on the back. Fuji bought out Polaroid. Polaroids have white borders that have a different texture than the image surface. The white borders are matte, while the surface of the image is highly glossy. Amongst color photographic prints, this surface texture difference is unique to Polaroids
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*** If an Audubon bird print has a ‘J. Whatman’ watermark in the paper, it probably is original.
John James Audubon remains America’s most famous wildlife painter. In the 1820s-30s he had made limited edition 26×39 inches hand colored prints that reproduced his bird paintings. These ‘Birds of America’ prints are wildly popular today selling for about $1,000 to $100,000 each. The prints have been reprinted many times over the years. While there are a variety of methods used to identify the originals, the simplest is to hold the questioned print up to the light and look for a watermark in the paper. Most of the originals have a ‘J. Whatman’ watermark, and no known reprints have this watermark.
David Cycleback is an art historian specializing in the issues of authenticity. His website is www.cycleback.com.