by Steven R. Cooper – Central States Archaeological Journal – editor/ Who’s Who in Indian Relics – author / The Overstreet Guide to Indian Arrowheads – editor
The other week I attended one of the largest collector events of the year – the Collinsville Artifact Show. Arrowhead and artifact enthusiasts wandered the floor, talking, looking, trading and acquiring literally hundreds of prehistoric works. It was a wonderful gathering of several thousand. But it pales in comparison to the myriad of collectors who everyday engage on Facebook and buy on the internet. For many, eBay is the source of their collections.
The idea of a Certificate of Authenticity has been around for many years. An expert examines something and gives their unbiased opinion on whether something meets a certain criteria. In artifact/arrowhead collecting the criteria is threefold. 1. Is it ancient? 2. Is it altered? 3. Is it restored? Other criteria can sometimes factor in, such as who’s collection it resided in before, what it is made from and is it pictured somewhere? Sometimes an item is even given a grade of rarity.
The first COA’s were given out by supposed experts in their field. Frederick Dockstader, the curator of the Heye Foundation Museum started including them with purchases from the museum’s vast collection back in the 1970s. The G.I.R.S. (Genuine Indian Relic Society) soon followed, with a peer reviewed COA that required several experts to view an item. This later evolved into the model we have today – which are COA’s by various individual “experts.”
So what is an expert? Let’s start with a realistic view. NO ONE is an expert with all artifacts. With over 12,000 years of habitation across more than a billion acres of land in the USA, it is virtually impossible to know it all. Means of manufacture varied over time and changed from place to place. It seems obvious that someone who knows Tennessee chert would have a difficult time identifying and understanding the aging process with the beautiful agates from the Northwest. The field of knowledge is so vast that the regional expert is whom one wants to pass their opinion on a piece from their “region.” This doesn’t mean someone cannot give their approval on an artifact from way out of their area, but the possibility of error is much higher. It is important to know the qualifications of the individual who issued the COA before trusting it completely.
Another important thing to note is that COA’s are not expensive. Most run $25-$50, sometimes a pittance of the cost of a fine artifact. Should you really rely 100% on a $35 opinion for a $10,000 piece? The way around this is sharing the piece with others you know whom you trust. I say others, as it is best to share something you have doubt about with at least two other collectors. The more eyes the better, especially when it comes to very expensive artifacts.
A COA is a valuable tool, but it is not an insurance policy. If the arrowhead turns out later to be not as it is represented, the person who wrote the COA is not responsible
If you have attended the huge Collinsville Show, you easily have the ability to share your new acquisition with many other knowledgeable collectors. If you don’t it is your fault. BUT what if you are not buying at a show? Most acquisitions today are transacted on the internet. There are 10, maybe 100 times the activity on the internet than at a show. On the internet you cannot share something with another collector prior to purchase. You have to rely on the seller and their credibility and/or the COA that is presented along with the artifact.
Today there is a VIRUS on the internet, perpetrated by a few people utilizing garbage or bogus COA’s to lure in unsuspecting collectors. Usually these items are well below the actual value of the “real deal.” For example, a 5 inch long Clovis may bring $5K-$20K to a seasoned collector. So why would someone offer such a piece with the starting bid of $9.99? Would you sell a new Tesla with a starting bid of $9.99? Of course not! So why do people go after such a piece? The key words here are “lack of knowledge.” We ALL want a good deal….and a 5” Clovis that might be worth $15K for $9.95 is a bargain too good to pass up. Of course, offerings like these rarely go for the starting bid. Usually they sell for $300-$500. Still a bargain, that is, if they were a real prehistoric point. But they are not.
So besides a cheap price, what convinces someone to spend their money on offerings like this? The answer is a COA. Someone might ask – but doesn’t the COA essentially guarantee the purchase to be genuine? It might if it was a legitimate COA. But many of these sellers utilize “pretend or altered” COA’s. These can be real COA’s that have been doctored. Perhaps someone makes an artifact that resembles what was on a COA? Or they change out the picture on a legit COA? How about making up an individual who is an expert and having this fictional person be the authenticator? Or having a once legitimate collector go to “the dark side” and start issuing COA’s on anything and everything? I know of two such guys right now – who will say virtually “anything” is authentic in their opinion. Knowledgeable collectors laugh at these so called “papers” – but the novice or and/or internet only buyer can easily be fooled by these shenanigans.
One scam that some of these frauds use is offering pieces with multiple COA’s. You would think that 4 or 5 COA’s would guarantee that what you were buying was absolutely “real.” These frauds know this line of thinking, which is exactly why they use it. The uneducated collector suckers up for this and buys, buys and then buys some more. It is only when they decide to sell down the line that they discover they have been duped. Most people when they are duped are ashamed of themselves. They also do not want others to know they were so stupid, so they keep it all to themselves. Those perpetrating these fraudulent sales know this, and thus have little fear of the consequences of their actions. They also have an alibi. “Five people put their COA on the piece and you now think it isn’t real?” they might say to the buyer.
ALL COA’s are not created equal. A COA is not a guarantee, even from a legitimate authenticator. It is an expression in writing of one person’s opinion. Can a COA be helpful in making a purchase? Most certainly! If the COA comes from someone respected in the collecting community, then you have a starting point in knowing your purchase might be on-target. If it is from someone who is unknown or has a reputation of putting a COA on just about anything, you can be pretty certain what you are looking at isn’t worthy of any attention at all.
Is this a small problem? It in fact is a BIG BIG problem. If one looks at the online auction listings, there are hundreds of artifacts with dubious COAs. If you look closely, it is just a few sellers who are doing this. What do they have in common? They are offering rare things with prices well below the market value. It is easy to lure someone in with a well-made modern reproduction with multiple COAs, or the crooks would not do it! For instance, nn the legitimate artifact market you buy a bannerstone for say $2000 and sell it down the road for $2500; a 25% profit. In the fake artifact market, you have a banner made for $250 and sell it for $2500; a 1000% profit.
I know many think how anyone could fall for such stuff. If you look at online auctions you can see the sellers with illegitimate offerings have hundreds of sales, nearly perfect feedback and their offerings are well presented. Their lies about where things came from are well-crafted, sometimes even saying something is pictured in this book or that. They may select an old collector’s page in an early Who’s Who which has a photo where nothing is really identifiable. The ruse almost always works.
The outcome these sellers want is for you to come back again and again. You buy with the assurance of the multiple COA’s and the great prices. Pretty soon you have what appears to be a collection on the wall that rivals the “best” collections out there. Or so you think? It is not until the collection is shown to a legitimate collector or brought to a show where the truth emerges. I have seen it actually happen. For example, a collector bought 52 bannerstones (mostly quartz) from one person. They paid approximately $2000 for each one (that is $104,000). When shown to an expert, only 4 were actually prehistoric. The rest had no value at all. That is $96,000 thrown out the window. The buyer never confronted the seller. There was too much shame. They also never collected again.
At one time about 30 years ago it was thought the COA would be the godsend to artifact collecting. Finally there would be something to guarantee an artifact was actually prehistoric. Sadly, the opposite has happened. Today COA’s are either just printed on the seller’s own computer, or acquired from a bunch of people whose sole purpose is to COA anything for a buck. If you do 20 COA’s in one day for $30, you have made an easy $600. If you refuse nothing, people flock to you with their bogus-modern-mad-copies so they can pass them off as ancient. It is such a simple scam. And it works!!!!
So how do you defend yourself? That is a difficult question, because when determining authenticity it can many times be one person’s word against another’s. My first suggestion if you are an eBay buyer is go look at some listings. When you see a seller using any more than 2 COA’s on a piece look closer. If their other items all have multiple COA’s something most likely is wrong. Another thing to watch is who is making the COA’s? Some guys use goofy names like “Arrowhead Tim.” Never trust something like this! You might try googling the address on the COA? Is the authenticator even a real person? With google it is easy to answer these questions.
Remember crooks are clever. They will tell you this and that. They may say everything I sell has a lifetime warranty. I have heard stories about these warranties. If you come back, they take what you bought in trade towards another bogus item. So you are given garbage for garbage.
How do we stop this? First, it is time to report these guys OVER and OVER to eBay. In truth, eBay actually defends the buyer over the seller. You can return ANYTHING – even if the listing says no returns. You just tell the online auction that the item isn’t as represented (it is not prehistoric). Many times the seller has to even pay the return postage, even if their listing says you have too. Only through buyer complaints can a seller be booted off the online auction site.
But as we all know, a real crook will find a way. They just reappear with another name. These sellers live under the premise “there is a sucker born every minute.” So the real key is KNOWLEDGE. Join with other collectors by applying for membership in a Central States sponsored society. Attend a show and talk with others. If you have bought something that is bogus – don’t be ashamed – be MAD.
Collecting real prehistoric relics is really fun and rewarding. People are addicted for life once they get involved. You will meet people from all walks of life. There is a show nearly every weekend of the year somewhere. I have seen collectors drive 12 or more hours just to attend a certain show (myself included).
I must repeat myself from earlier. “Don’t get HAD get MAD.” If everyone did something to run these crooks off they soon would go out of business. They do it because it is easy money. They do it because they think they can fool YOU. Show them you are smarter than them. Reach out to others who collect. Don’t hide your purchases, share them. Share on FACEBOOK or at a show or in person. Trust the opinions of those who have collected for years. If one guy says something is wrong don’t get mad at the messenger. Also don’t immediately get rid of something. But if three guys tell you the same thing, take notice. Ask them why. Remember knowledge is everything.
The solution is , if we all became responsible collectors and banded together, we could most likely stamp out these crooks. Put your trust in real people, not just a COA. Learn what artifacts are really worth. Bargain prices should be a red flag! Start off collecting slowly and learn so you don’t make mistakes. Don’t buy 20 $500 Clovis points in a month! If you have made mistakes in the past, don’t continue to repeat them. RARE artifacts are expensive because there is a limited supply. Why is a certain bannerstone costly? The answer is because there are more collectors who want them than there is supply. When you see something at a low price you have to ask yourself, is the seller stupid? Most likely no! The odds are they are a wolf just waiting for you as a sheep to come snuggling up. Then they pounce and it is over. They have your money and you falsely think you got a deal.
The crooks are out there. In truth, there are not as many as you think. But these crooks have covered up eBay and other places with their bogus offerings, many times under different names. Some even have others selling for them posing as legitimate dealers. Most if not all are using bogus COA’s as the lure. We need to shut them down, destroy them and throw their trash back at them. Once they see there is zero demand for what they offer they will go away. It is up to us to make this happen.
Finally, if you think you have been a victim, speak out. Share your experience. Notify the online auction! Spread it on the forums that are all over the internet. Don’t let others get scammed too. If everyone would band together this problem would go away – and quickly too. The time is now to act. We need to help others, we need to help ourselves and we need to help our collecting community.