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The Problem with Authenticators

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  • The Problem with Authenticators

    When everybody becomes expert, then there are no experts anymore
    John F. Berner EIC
    Originally published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.54, No.4, pg. 186

    The subject is COA's (certificates of authenticity) and authenticators. During the past twenty years, the artifact collecting community has seen a plethora of artifact authenticators come and go. A few of the early respected authenticators survived and they will continue to enjoy our respect.

    Seventy six persons claimed the title of "Artifact Authenticator" in 2000. What happened? The hobby did not have room for so many, and those with little or no respect, disappeared from the scene.

    What is the crux of this problem? To be a respected evaluator of any type of collectible, you must have a deep understanding, good identification of the subject and a wealth of experience from working with, examining the product and lastly, know good from bad!

    How does that relate to today? Some previously regional authenticators (those who specialize in a particular area, region or type of artifacts) recently ventured beyond their area of expertise. Now they will examine and make decisions on any artifact from anywhere for anybody. This reduced the value of respect of their work on current evaluations, and creates concern about their past work.

    No one person can know everything about everything! Another area of con*cern are those with a minimal amount of experience. Some were clever enough to upload a "dealer For Sale web site", and enjoy a few moments of success then proudly proclaimed authority as an expert authenticator. Ridiculous!

    I can't help but think about a party from the midwest who I thought was a fairly good examiner on flint items, and said that stone is stone no matter where from, then proceeded to make decisions on items out of his expertise. He found him*self the brunt of condemnation in a short while, and now most of those papers are respected by no one!
    What is the real culprit? My opinion is greed! It seems so simple. A few people might come up to you at an artifact show and ask your opinion. Suddenly, you think you have become an expert. Then you go home, look up your local printer and make your certificate (just a little different than someone who is respected), advertise your service and now you are one!

    At first you authenticate (or so you pretend) those items you are familiar with, then collectors send some you are not sure of, but you paper anyway because you don't want to return the money. You can't afford to say you are not sure, or don't know because you might lose face. Really! You already have. Experienced collectors will ignore your papers and only internet collectors who know no better will go there!

    Again more than 60 persons are papering! The mob of authenticators (or who think they are) are gaining momentum, but only for a little while because when everybody becomes expert, then there are no experts anymore!

    Used by Permission of the publisher
    To learn more about or to join the Central States Archaeological Society, click here:
    Last edited by painshill; 01-27-2016, 04:08 PM.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

  • #2
    COA Rant*
    Jon Dickinson
    Thursday, 06 June 2013 16:40

    *This work is incomplete. I pick it up every month or so, and type a few new lines. Any suggestions on completing it would be greatly appreciated.

    I expect people to strongly disagree with statements in my rant. I can only say that I everything in the rant is my personal opinion based upon my experience to date...
    Feel free to call me any names or tell me how wrong I am.

    The Certificate of Authenticity and Prehistoric Artifact Collecting
    Pioneers of Artifact COA’s

    The Genuine Indian Relic Society (GIRS) began a program in the 1970’s where they issued “certificates of authenticity” (COA) at artifact shows. The idea was to help newer collectors purchase authentic artifacts, and create a revenue stream for the organization. The process was fairly simple. Three esteemed members of the GIRS would volunteer at GIRS sponsored events to evaluate the artifacts. Famous collectors (now deceased) Gordon Hart and Earl Townsend were mainstays on the panel. For an artifact to earn the “authentic” stamp, all three panel members had to be in agreement. This system worked well, but raised eyebrows amongst a different crowd.

    In the 1980’s, Gregory Perino of Oklahoma became the first single recognized face to put out a COA. He was well versed in Oklahoma relics, and had a working knowledge of other areas. His ethics were without question, and people began to trust his evaluations. This trust led to a market value on his COA. Unfortunately, by the late 1990’s Mr. Perino lost his eyesight, but continued to accept money for his evaluations. A large conglomerate of fraud artists began to prey on him for his valuable COA’s. More and more Perino COA’s were produced for modern reproductions until the Perino COA became worthless. The attitude among learned collectors today is that a late stage Perino COA usually means that the piece is modern. In this regard, the COA is less than worthless, and the effect of the COA is exactly opposite of its intended purpose.

    COA’s of Today

    From the GIRS and Perino roots of the past, today there are well over 100 commercial artifact authenticators. The techniques vary widely from the ridiculous (smell tests and laser tests) to the more accepted (hand tests and microscopic tests). The “authenticators” range from well known to obscure artifact collectors. The explosion in popularity is due to three key factors. Most importantly, artifact collecting is an exploding hobby, with new collectors entering the market on a daily basis. The internet has also created an easy access market through the “Ebay Revolution”. Thirdly, the internet is still considered a scary place, and the COA gives the comfort that a learned expert is assisting your decision to purchase.

    There is a very interesting dichotomy that exists between collecting groups and their attitudes towards the COA.

    Today, the COA is one of the first lessons that many new collectors are made aware of. New collectors are constantly told “don’t buy unless it has a COA”, or “until you know what to look for, only buy with a COA.” The people giving this advice are either the people producing the COA’s, the people who collect with COA’s, or the sellers who use them to produce trust. The system itself might have a chance to work except for the inherent crookedness that the COA system causes.

    Why COA’s fail

    The COA is used as a selling tool by the artifact communities’ worst fraud artists. This is not a mutually exclusive statement. Let me explain. Not everyone who uses COA’s is a fraud artist. However, every fraud artist uses the COA. One needs only a little common sense to understand why this is true. To use an old con term, the COA creates a perfect “straw man”. Here is a hypothetical that explains how it works. Authenticator X produces a COA for a modern reproduction after Seller Y pays them for the COA. Seller Y knows the piece is modern, and has sent the piece to several authenticators until one finally passed the piece as authentic. This gives Seller Y the green-light to sell the piece as authentic. They sell to Buyer Z, who purchases the piece b/c of the COA. Sometime down the road, Buyer Z figures out the piece is modern. (most buyers never gain the knowledge or relationships with competent collectors to discover the piece is modern. More on this in Point of Reference section). He calls up Seller Y and informs him the artifact is modern. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART – Seller Y acts surprised and makes the statement “I am so sorry, I sent the piece to Authenticator X b/c they are the expert. I just sell the pieces and rely upon the opinion of Authenticator X. I will gladly refund your money.” Seller Y has effectively used Authenticator X as a straw man for his con. The end result is that Buyer Z respects Seller Y even more for returning the funds, and acting so upset that Authenticator X made a mistake. Buyer Z places the blame for the modern piece on Authenticator X, and tells everyone how great a guy Seller Y is.

    COA’s add value – The statement that COA’s add value is the most common reason given by people using an authenticator. From my perspective, COA’s only add value to worthless reproductions. Authentic artifacts do not need COA’s to sell for a market price. Ask yourself why a knowledgeable 25 year artifact dealer would use a COA. If the artifact was real, they would know a buyer who would pay a retail price for it. However, if the artifact was a reproduction, they would need a COA to add value.

    Supply v. Demand

    In the world of artifact collecting, there is a much higher demand for authentic pieces than supply. Basic economics dictate that in this situation, two things happen: 1) Prices go up for authentic examples. 2) Substitutes (modern reproductions) are created to fill demand. Within some styles and types of artifacts, the purchasable market may consist of up to 90% modern reproduction being sold as authentic. Some collectors buy for years without acquiring a single authentic artifact.

    Point of Reference

    The “point of reference” problem is the slippery slope of artifact collecting. Without a proper point of reference, a collector/authenticator/dealer will never understand the obvious differences between authentic and modern artifacts. A proper point of reference is the ability to study an absolutely authentic example of a type, and the ability to distinguish its characteristics from a modern reproduction. It remains a fact that modern reproducers cannot get anywhere close to the style of the ancients and natures processes after thousands of years in the ground. While this sounds simple, if a collector has never acquired an authentic specimen, they will compare pieces offered to them with reproductions already in their collection. With this type of analysis, modern reproductions will look like the modern reproductions. The problem is that both modern reproductions are represented as authentic. The snowball just gets bigger and bigger as it rolls down the hill. The point of reference problem is not limited to only collectors. In fact, Authenticator’s are the number one cause, b/c they create point of reference by deeming an artifact authentic. Any mistake, purposeful or not, an authenticator makes is amplified ten fold when the piece makes its way into the market. Every new, inexperienced, or ignorant collector who purchases the piece will use it as a point of reference for future examples. This author has viewed several of the well known authenticators caught in the point of reference trap. Usually, the problem starts when they branch out beyond their area of expertise (point of reference). After the fraudulent artifact seller group figures out the authenticator can be easily fooled by an artifact type, they will flood his business with examples. This is currently happening on a large scale to a very well known authenticator who used to specialize in one geographic area, and then decided to accept pieces from other areas.

    Fraudulent Authenticators

    The dirtiest COA scenario is the authenticator who doubles as a fraudulent artifact dealer. The best example of this problem can be seen in the court documents attached to this article. The sad ending to the story in the court documents is that the buyer took a settlement to get his money back, and the alleged offender went right back to his business. Anyone that mentions a word against the alleged offender, receives threats of libel lawsuits.

    A second scenario that dealer/authenticators take advantage of is the selling of their own artifacts with a COA. Many critics have pointed out a conflict of interest when the authenticator is “authenticating” and selling the same item. Similarly, ethics committees within appraisal societies disallow their appraisers to purchase items they were paid to appraise. In an open letter written to all commercial authenticators, this author challenged them with a partial solution. The idea is simple, and creates credibility. Any commercial authenticator that also sells artifacts should produce two different certificates. One would be your traditional COA for artifacts not owned and sold by the authenticator. The other would be a “certificate of origin” that states the authenticator sold the piece along with the information that the artifact is authentic. By distinguishing between pieces authenticated and pieces sold, the authenticator is putting their reputation on the line with every piece sold. Although I was on Mr. Perino in the opening of this rant, I did take this idea from him. Mr. Perino’s ethics were beyond reproach. I have noticed an extreme unwillingness to even mention on the dealers COA’s that they owned the piece with a simple “X: Authenticator.” The end result of the open letter is that not one of the dealer/authenticators even responded to the letter.

    Duplicated from the “Resources” section of and reproduced with permission.
    Last edited by painshill; 01-27-2016, 04:10 PM.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.


    • #3
      COA's (Certificate of Authenticity) Mostly Worthless
      Gary Fogelman

      Certificates of Authenticity perhaps meant something at one time, back when only one or two people were doing it, worthy people too, trying to provide a service in an honest and forthright manner. There are still a few that do this, but most you haven't heard of. The ones you have heard of, the ones with their names on every*thing floating around today? Those papers would best be of use in the hunting camp outhouse. The genre has been so polluted with fake papers, and fakes being papered, it's hard to wade through the mess.

      It's a shame that there is no main data information center for people to access for the latest news, information, etc. IAM does this very thing, but those that need this information the most are often the ones who feel they don't need it. In that regard it's almost tempting to say that some of these deserve what they get but then, that's just what the fakers and con artists use as justification for their actions.

      Last year in Vol. 31-4 we showed some fake bannerstones that were making the rounds. We knew they were fakes because Paul Frey had witnessed the guy making some and saw others he had already made. These were fashioned after the forms from the Koens Crispin site in New Jersey. Later, in Vol. 32-2 we again mentioned the fake bannerstones and also showed some fake Adena points. These were also mentioned in Vol. 32*3.

      An initial scam with the bannerstones saw a collector/dealer here in PA purchase a number of these, only to find out that he had been taken with the modern reproductions. I'm not sure how that turned out, if he got any of his money back or not, but it caused a lot of anguish and this guy later passed away.

      Meanwhile, we attended Bennett's Collector Rendezvous in 2012, and three showed up there, but now they had COA's! I alerted Jim about them and he pulled them from the auction. When the consignee was informed on why they were not sold, there was no fuss and no muss, for that guy already knew they were modern.

      I wrote about this then and opined that many offering COA's are selling out, and/or are in cahoots with each other. Some bad things are papered, and this is backed up by a COA from someone else! How many stinking COA's does a piece need? So, if these fakes are getting by these people, the ones who handle more than anybody else, are they really competent to be offering COA's???

      These same bannerstones then went through another auction house, with more COA's, and some people paid good sums of money. Keep ship*ping them around long enough and finally they will reach someone who is out of the loop, was never in the loop, or doesn't care to be connected with any loops. More's the pity. So the fakers and con artists get bolder.

      To wit: As noted, in Vol. 32-2 and 3 we showed some Adena points that were coming on the market, supposedly from the DelMarVa Peninsula, particularly from a site that produced the material that noted collector Earl Townsend ended up with. That assem*blage was well documented. Flint Ridge flint as a material used for this assemblage was very rare.

      But, all of sudden, there's a number of these being offered for sale, with Townsend collection attribution, and even Townsend-like writing on them. Recently 7 of these were shown on the cover of a forthcoming auction brochure for a major auction house in Ohio. I did hear that these were pulled from that auction. But, as seen above, that just means they will be shopped around elsewhere until they reach someone who is out of the loop, was never in the loop, or doesn't care to be connected with any loops. And get this, later in that same auction, what else should be offered? Yep, those darn fake bannerstones from PA, with more COA's.

      These authenticators set themselves up as experts, and believe me, most are. Once again, they've pretty much seen and handled it all. Yet, time and again, they paper bad things and then claim they were fooled too! This doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. If they're getting fooled all the time, they're no more expert than anybody else.

      But rest assured, they're not being fooled. The profit margin between selling a modern fake and a good old piece with a verifiable history is, quite literally, astronomical. With no one stepping up and taking someone to court, this will continue. The problem there is that it becomes a case of he says, she says so to speak, with each side rounding up their 'experts'. As most of you are aware, much of the 'justice' in this country isn't about right and wrong. It's about who can put up the most persuasive argument while following 'procedures'. All this takes $$$$$$$. The more money one has, the more 'justice' you get in our court system. For most, such an experience more or less ruins your life. Some, not wanting to face it, commit suicide. Some endure, like Art Gerber, but then suffer financially, socially and health-wise.

      Thus, for those that do get burned, it's easier to try and re-sell to someone to re-coup the loss, or take the loss and shut up. And so it goes.

      People take a liking to artifacts for various reasons. They come along at various stages of their lives. Most of us are fascinated with finding remnants of prehistoric cultures that inhabited this land before us, and learning how these remnants were made and used, and when. Some are, quite literally, miniature works of art in stone, and we appreciate that as well.

      Some take a liking to the value of things and a way to make money and some as a means of investing some money. It's a recipe for disaster when someone without knowledge jumps in with both feet and begins buying things up. They go to auctions and just buy, buy, buy. Naturally they end up with lots of stuff, some good, most mediocre or worse and they can never hope to recoup the value of what was expended as they overpaid in their eagerness to acquire.

      The worst scenario of all is when a person with no connections hooks up with a shyster dealer. And I've seen this; some will actually have cabinets or rooms full of bogus things, the most fanciful and sometimes gaudy things you can imagine. These were fed to them over the years as the seller became bolder with what he could get away with and what he could charge. The 'mark', being unconnected, ferrets things away and never finds out, or his heirs do, that the stuff is all modern.

      So, the best I can leave you with from this, and I've emphasized it before, is that you have a circle of friends to share things with and get opinions from. Try to get to artifact gatherings and shows. Visit historical societies and museums and other collectors. Get books appropriate to your area of interest.

      There's no reason you shouldn't buy some of these things. I realized early on there were things I would probably never find. I began by augmenting from local collections and collectors I knew. This helped build knowledge of the local artifact assemblages.

      Your area of expertise can be expanded from the local knowledge base into other areas. But always, gain some familiarity and knowledge of that/those areas before buying things.

      Reprinted with Permission of Gary Fogelman, Editor of Indian Artifact Magazine.
      Originally published in Indian Artifact Magazine, February 2014, VOL.33-1 page 20-21.
      To subscribe to this great Magazine, click here:

      Last edited by painshill; 01-27-2016, 04:12 PM.
      I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.


      • #4
        The Authenticators
        Pg.10, Vol.XXXI, No. 4, 1997, "Prehistoric American"

        In the beginning there were no fakes. When collecting began to take shape and museums sought examples for displays, the devious ones began in earnest, and so it began.
        "assistance detecting frauds" In 1902, a group headquartered in Dent, Texas and called the "Archeological Society" published a pamphlet which offered assistance in the "detection of frauds" and named spurious dealers.

        "local societies started in 1936" 1936 saw the beginning with the founding of the early Illinois Archaeological Society and in 1940 the Greater St.Louis society, now both part of the Central States Archaeological society. Ohio began in 1941, now the largest in the U.S.

        "arrival of fraud conunittees" Early on these societies recognized a need to sort out good from bad. Committees were appointed to inspect displays and give opinions. Offenders were admonished, but this did not stem the tide. An avid group of collectors started a new society.

        "enter the G.I.R.S. in 1964" Thirteen dedicated collectors founded the Genuine Indian Relic Society with the purpose of educating the public about fakes,and hosting opportunities to view authentic artifacts. The original publication called the "Redskin" is the predecessor of "Prehistoric American" now in its 31st year of publication.

        "certificates of authenticity" Gordon Hart, an avid collector introduced the idea in May 1970. This pro*gram continued through 1983. It was reinstated in 1987 and continued through 1995.

        "private authenticators begin" Today several private authenticators offer service of examination and pro*viding documentation of artifacts and state their opinion as to genuiness.

        "papers a must by 2001" I have often predicted that by the year 2001, "papers" to accompany the transfer of ownership of artifacts will be a must. Many collectors insist on multiple papers on important artifacts. Makes sense to me. Some are now seeking advice prior to finalizing their investment.
        I wish that when I started collecting someone would have been available to validate my acquisitions. Best you could hope for was a verbal "I think it looks OK!" Later you find out you bought a fake. Great. Some friends relied exclusively on published material. Many published items are fake. Some rely on auction catalogs. Ever read page 1? " Where is, as is"!

        "credibility is a key ingredient" Who is giving you answers. Paper is only as good as the signatory. What about recognition by peers. What about experience? No credible authenticator will sign a paper with doubt. Credible written opinions are paramount for the next future owner.

        “Used by Permission of the Author” and originally published in American Indian Artifacts; Genuine or Reproduction by Col. John F. Berner. Copyright © 2000 by American Antiquities, Inc.
        Last edited by painshill; 01-27-2016, 04:13 PM.
        I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.


        • #5
          Beware of wolves in sheep's clothing
          Pg.142, Volume 46, No3,1999, "Central States Archaeological Journal"

          Wolves abound everywhere and while you may not readily recognize them, they prey on avocational archaeologists and artifact collectors alike. These wolves have been known for their cunning since their introduction to mankind. Their stealth and ability to survive is why this species has endured. The pack feeds on profit and their ranks are overpopulating the internet.

          I am virtually a newcomer to Web browsing, I am amazed at the upstarts with Websites and the crassness of the opportunists. Within the past few days, I have seen the offering of some nine blades for $100,000 with purported documentation and reported COAs. (Certificates of authenticity as it is stated on the net). Now the story that accompanies this offering relates the discovery, yet nobody in the local area has ever heard of these artifacts which have been around for 16 years. Who in their right mind would spend six figures on a group of items on the internet auction, or consider making a bid? Because of the plethora of bad stuff, obvious fakes and skillfully made reproductions, a few good people have joined hands in pledging themselves as sellers of authentic and genuine artifacts.

          The obvious is not always obvious, some say they do not know and give you ample opportunity to make a decision. Three day deals don't cut it no matter how much paper or guarantees accompany the item. Ten to fourteen days is more reasonable.

          Do you wonder why I call them wolves? There is an old ancient American method of stalking prey by garbing oneself in a skin of a like kind. Don't you think you could sneak up on an unsuspecting grazing sheep in you approached wearing one of their coats? I think you could. Once in range, the prey is meal ...and that's what the crooks on the net are doing. They know the browsers are amateurs. Remember last year how the 17 year locusts enjoyed every piece of greenery. For wolves on the net, its a banquet 7 days a week.
          The other problem is one of value. Things on the net often have ridiculous values. At the best show in the country, some points would bring 15 to 25 dollars, the same crude pieces bring 75 to 150 dollars on the Web. And the buyers express exuberance over the fast delivery and the great values. What's Mr. Web buyer going to be told if he brings these great acquisitions to your show?

          Another concern is the new "paper boys". With the internet, tons of new "authenticators" have set up shop offering services of appraisal, authentication and claim membership in every society from California to New York City. Membership in one of the Central States 13 societies doesn't mean membership in all of them, or the GIRS, or any other organization.

          Most serious is the fact that these credulous COA's show up on the monitor screen and many are depicting obvious fakes so the new novice buyer gets it two ways! Credibility must be earned, and buying and selling a few points; an expert does not make! A final word of caution, if you think a wolf may be wearing sheep's clothing, better get yourself a club!

          “Used by Permission of the Author” and originally published in American Indian Artifacts; Genuine or Reproduction by Col. John F. Berner. Copyright © 2000 by American Antiquities, Inc.
          Last edited by painshill; 01-27-2016, 04:14 PM.
          I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.