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COA: What is their Value?

My Two Cents Worth by Robert Sterne

The recent article by Sherry Hansley in Vol. 33-2 of IAM presented some good arguments for the need for a method to certify authenticators. This article followed articles on the problems with validity of COAs. A num­ber of problems setting up such a board were presented by the editor including how to finance such a board, how to set up guidelines and stan­dards, and what to do with offenders.

   Like other professional boards, a licensed member might finance itself with license fees as well as a sur­charge on each COA issued. The sur­charge would have to be small enough not to interfere with free commerce or price licensed authenticators out of the market, yet large enough to support the board. Discipline might include probation, required supervision, or suspension of the license. This would need to be voluntary and set up in fashion similar to the BBB. Authenticators would apply for mem­bership if this became widely known and trusted. In the coin market, for example. there are a number of authenticators who charge fees for their services and the prices of such coin vary in the market according to public respect of the authenticator.

   The problem of validity of COAs is enormous. There would seem to be a conflict when the same person who sells the artifact is the same person who authenticates it. This conflict of interest is commonly the case at auc­tions of artifacts and other authentica­tors. Another problem with credential­ing is the problem of how to rate the ability of the authenticators. Some might be very competent, say in eval­uating Ohio or Kentucky artifacts, but not competent to evaluate artifacts from Missouri.

   Missouri artifacts present a chal­lenge for even the most competent authenticator. One of the best sources of information on Missouri artifacts can be found in the book, The Prehistory of Missouri by Michael J. O’Brien and W. Raymond Wood. Many Missouri flints are difficult to trace to source. There is a tendency for authenticators to label anything from Missouri as Burlington Flint when in fact there are numerous look-alike flints in the state. It appears that for the most part the Indians in prehistoric Missouri did not go far and used mostly local flints. In Missouri there are many large lanceolates that can be difficult to identify.

   It is my opinion that authenticators rely heavily on the story of the artifact presented to them instead of basing their examination on the artifact itself. For example, if an authenticator in Ohio was told the artifact sent to them to examine was found in Ohio, how many would identify a lanceolate as Sedalia? The same artifact is more likely to be identified as an Agate Basin. However, what if the person who sent the artifact bought it at a flea market and had the provenience wrong and it was in fact found in Missouri? How do the people who authenticate really verify where an arti­cle was found?

Enclosed are two COAs that may illustrate this problem. O’Brian and Wood point out that Sedalia points almost never show grinding. Agate Basin points, from Missouri, almost always have lateral edges and base ground. The two COAs illustrate all the problems mentioned above. There is a 5000 year separation between Agate Basin and Sedalia. There is a big price difference as well. This would seem to be important information if someone would think of buying such an artifact. The COA of one artifact shown in Figure 1 provides a history of being found in Iowa, being an Agate Basin, and being 10,000 years old. It was noted that the artifact had lateral and basal grinding. The other COA, shown in Figure 2, pro­vides a history of an artifact being found in Missouri, even mentions the name of the finder and states the arti­fact is a Sedalia dating to 5,000 years old. There is a problem that is readily apparent in these COAs that illustrates all the problems mentioned in this arti­cle. The problem is that both of these COAs were made on the same arti­fact!!!


To begin, read Sterne’s article on page 17. That article aptly illustrates one of the main problems with some authenticators: trying to judge artifact types or forms they are not familiar with. It also points out some of the problems I’ve been talking about.

   There has been some other activ­ity on the topic. I received a letter from a guy in Texas who had some ideas and input. I put him in touch with Sherry and by now they should be exchanging ideas. This guy is also in favor of having the AACA (Authentic Artifact Collectors Association) serve as the organization behind these certi­fication attempts.

   I’ve previously stated my concerns with this organization but maybe it’s changed. I’m probably not a good one to have involved in those attempts due to my past criticisms.

   Another guy called and said we won’t make any progress until the insurance companies get involved as they don’t like to lose money and may be willing to put up a fight against fak­ers. Yet another wrote and supplied an outline of how the organization might be structured and who would be involved.

   But none have gotten to the heart of the problem: By what legal authority will those chosen to serve on any panel or board be backed up with?

   This panel or board would have to be able to look at, what, the past work of those applying for certification? How would the panel determine just what artifacts or geographical area each person is qualified to judge? Even if insurance companies are involved somehow, they would have to rely on someone, somewhere, to make final judgements on artifacts.

   And then of course there would be the legal maneuvering, each side with their ‘experts’, and it becomes a he says-she says scenario. It’s what we have today basically. These things won’t stop until some of the culprits are brought up on charges and either heavily fined or serve some jail time.

   This won’t happen until some of those getting stung level charges and go after the culprits. This has happened, but unfortunately in each instance set­tlement has been made out of court, files are sealed, can’t talk about it, can’t expose the bad guys. After awhile the bad guys go back to doing what they were doing, knowing that not many are willing to go through all that.

   Speaking about the scams and fakes, here’s another way things work. I received a letter from a guy, let’s just say for the sake of argument he’s from…Indiana. He notes that there’ a good number of auctions in his state, but they’re not really consignment auc­tions as you might think. Instead, the auctioneers are buying the collections, and then over time putting things on the auction block.

   The writer notes that he has often observed another well known dealer, let’s say for the sake of argument he’s from…Ohio, attend the auctions and seems to be in cahoots with the auc­tioneer. He often bids on things to a point where the auctioneer seems sat­isfied and then backs off. Or, if the Ohio guy ends up with it, you will see it back in another auction before too long. Many of these things have COAs from the auctioneer and other well-known authenticators. It’s not hard to see these ‘cliques’ at the auctions.

   So there are various deep-rooted problems with cunning bad guys that know how to use various methods to do evil deeds. In a perfect world such people would be, and should be, shunned. Some of them deserve to be stoned as well, for they operate with no conscious at all, no concern for the fellow man except how much he can take from him.

   But they won’t be shunned. There’s too much of a good old boy system in place, and, as always, too much greed. That’s where we are now