Does that Certificate of Authenticity Tell the Whole Story?

A simple example of a COA issued for a commercial coin collection. There is no signature or tells how many were actually made.

On a recent reality show dealing with pickers or auctions or pawn shops or whatever, an expert was brought in to evaluate an item. It might have been a movie prop in the form of a racing suit. Anyway, when the expert asked if there was any documentation, the seller proudly said, “Yes!” and handed over a wonderfully decorated, signed Certificate of Authenticity.

“Great,” the expert said, pleased. “You officially have a piece of paper.”

The seller was dumbfounded by that statement. Wasn’t a signed Certificate of Authenticity (COA) enough to show that the item wasn’t a fake? Well, it’s a start.

The short answer is that all a Certificate of Authenticity tells you is who issued it, what the item is and a declaration that the item is, indeed, genuine. Sometimes there is a printed signature and always there is a printed seal of some sort. Sometimes there will be a number of the piece itself (out of the total number of the item produced) shown as 1 of 325, for example. That’s usually it.

There’s not much to it, really. That may be fine for mass-produced specialty items like the coin set pictured here for an example, but for a unique antique or collectible, like the movie racing suit in question, a COA should do more. Ideally, every COA should feature: an accurate description; an image of the item from all sides; an inventory of its flaws; provide a unique code number; identify who is evaluating the piece; a short bio of the appraiser and the appraiser’s signature. The COA should not include value, since value changes over time.

Is a COA Necessary?

So, do you need a COA? It depends on who you ask. Sellers believe just having a COA—as a certificate, sticker, letter or card—is enough to give their item more credibility to a buyer. It’s even been suggested that an invoice listing the item as having been sold is enough of an authentication. Sellers and collectors disagree, the later believing a receipt does not convey provenance.

Again, for the commercially produced penny set, a short, mass-printed COA is enough to guarantee that at least that the pennies are real. That may be enough. But for other vintage items, their manufacture, design and condition will help determine authenticity. A COA only confirms it as such.

For example, I did an evaluation for a WorthPoint subscriber who had a 19th-century wash basin that the antique dealer insisted was only one of a set of two bought by Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Harrison. They were longtime friends before they were presidents, close enough, the dealer said, to want the same uniquely styled wash basin. The one the subscriber had, my client was told by the dealer, was the one used by Lincoln at the White House. The dealer gave him no letter or any provenance to back up the story and no COA was issued, yet the wash basin remained in the family for several generations and was known as “Lincoln’s wash basin” and so was expecting a rather high evaluation.

A Certificate of Authenticity issued by an archaeological consultant confirming an arrow point is, indeed, of the Early Archaic period. The certificate was issued after a $25 fee was paid.

During the evaluation, I could found no connection between Lincoln and Harrison, even peripherally, that would suggest they even lived nearby, much less be such close friends. Well, maybe the wash basins were indeed very unique. Our resident antiquities Worthologist, Christopher Kent, evaluated the wash basin as nothing more than a common, commercially available design of the period. In other words, the wash basins were hardly unique and they had no direct connection between two presidents.

This example should suggest that a well-worded COA may be important for vintage or historical items after all. It gives some recourse to the buyer when the item isn’t as it was represented and it enhances the reputation of the dealer who believes in the item enough to guarantee it.

Is a COA a Legal Document?

When purchasing artwork, prints, paintings, drawings or other artistic expression, a printed and signed COA is a normal business practice. This is the same with sports memorabilia, coins and currency, and comic books. Each are graded (a form of COA) by a reputable, recognized company and often slabbed in a hard-plastic enclosure.

Issuing a COA is not a legal requirement, but a deceptively written COA can become an issue in court. The signed COA that was issued will be used to determine intent and can influence any final decision. Did the appraiser intend the COA to speak to the item’s historic significance with enough detail to match the item closely or was it worded in such a way as to be deliberately vague?

Therefore, a written COA can be a basis for investigation, which is why many dealers may not issue a written one, relying on their own good reputation to back up what they sell.

Are there Alternatives to a COA?

In some cases, yes, there are alternatives to a COA. While a verbal guarantee isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, so to say, there are collector groups whose unique expertise can provide guidance on how to evaluate the item accurately. Check with Associated Collecting Clubs for a listing of about 1,500 collector clubs with expertise on everything from arms to zeppelins.

Another way to verify an item is revealed in the WorthPoint article by Worthologist David Pike who specializes in Japanese porcelain and memorabilia—“Don’t Throw Out the Box: Japanese Tomobako are Certificates of Authenticity.” He explains how it is customary for a Japanese presentation porcelain bowl, for example, to come in its own box, hand-brushed with decorative Japanese characters on the outside that serves as a unique Certificate of Authenticity for that particular piece. Lose the box, lose the authentication.

A tomobako lid with the accompanying calligraphy.

The interior of a Okamoto Kinzo kogo tomobako lid.

The lid of a cheaper tomobako with writing on the back.

A signed box lid that has faded from age.

Other examples of a COA that isn’t a printed certificate would include a signed, typed letter or a handwritten card from the original owner describing the item, how it was received and from whom they received it. This would help to establish provenance and is a good starting point for further investigation.

Better to Have than to Have Not

Any collectible that was issued a COA in any form, even a commercial one, should be retained with the collectible whenever possible. Without it, determining authenticity or value can be a bit more work on your part. Auction houses prefer the COA for paintings and artwork, graded items and high value antiques. For other collectibles, you will usually have to rely on an expert’s expertise to determine its authenticity.

Online reseller sites like eBay or Craigslist will not insist on a COA to list an item unless it has conveyed with the collectible. I’m told by an eBay reseller that all items they receive are sold “as is” with any family history simply added to the description. An auction company tells me that it may include the family story in its description, but insists on a written COA to verify the authenticity for more high-priced items, such as paintings or a unique historical artifact, before it goes to auction.

In the end, then, a COA will tell you what you know. What it doesn’t do is tell you what you don’t know, and what you don’t know can make all the difference in value and its place in history. That’s where your experience comes in.

So, the final question is: how much do you rely on Certificates of Authenticity and for what?

Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects, including vexillology, or the study of flags.

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