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.
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.