NFC Proves Authenticity, Ratings of Collectibles

By Claire Swedberg

Collectors Universe is offering an HID Global service for the collectibles it authenticates, grades and certifies, starting with coins and bank notes, and it can also provide content via smartphones.

The higher in value a collectible—a sports card, coin or autograph, for example—is, the more vulnerable it becomes to counterfeiting. With that in mind,  Collectors Universe, located in Santa Ana, Calif., provides third-party grading and authentication services to collectors, as well as retail buyers and sellers of collectibles. But even as the service helps to identify fraud, counterfeiters are attempting to fake the certification Collectors Universe provides, in addition to the collectables themselves.

The Collectors Universe app provides access to data regarding a specific item to authorized parties.

To combat this practice, Collectors Universe has adopted a solution utilizing Near Field Communication (NFC) RFID technology and cloud-based authentication services supplied by  HID Global. The solution is aimed at proving that collectible experts' certification, as well as the clear, tamper-evident holder in which each item is sealed, is the real thing. The technology is intended not only to prove that the company's grading service and the collectible are both authentic, but also to make this information accessible via the tap of an NFC-enabled smartphone.

For decades, Collectors Universe has provided authentication services focused on high-value coins, trading cards, currency, sports memorabilia and autographs, according to John Nelson, the company's CIO. The firm processes more than 20,000 items daily across all sites. Customers (either buyers or sellers) physically send coins, sports cards or other items in the mail to Collectors Universe for confirmation of authenticity, as well as for a condition grade. When their collectibles are returned in a sealed holder, they receive certification that the items were properly evaluated and graded and were found to be genuine. Grading consists of assigning the state of preservation that impacts the value of the item. If an item is not deemed authentic, no certification or holder is supplied.

At its Santa Ana headquarters, and at other offices around the world, Collectors Universe's experts look over objects for any indications of counterfeiting, then assign a condition grade ranging from 1 to 70 on the Sheldon grading scale for coins, or 1 to 10 on the sports card scale. "We assign that grade," Nelson says, "which lets people know a third-party view of the condition of that item." The employee then places the item in a sealed, clear plastic frame, along with the certification.

The collectibles industry faces numerous challenges, Nelson reports. Over time, counterfeiters have learned how to fake products entirely, or to modify items to falsely increase their value. Some falsify not only the products themselves, but also the Collectors Universe holder and the certification printed on it. "It's like an arms race," he states, with counterfeiters seeking new ways to trick collectors and vendors into paying top prices for fraudulent items. "When we started looking at solutions to solve that," and to make it easier for customers to access data via a smartphone, "we got in touch with HID Global."

Early this year, the company began deploying the resulting system for a limited number of items, and it has since implemented the technology across all of its coins and bank notes, as of Oct. 1. The solution includes the NFC tag, which is sealed inside the plastic framing container. HID's 13.56 MHz NFC RFID technology is compliant with the ISO 14443 standard and leverages HID's cloud-based Trusted Tag service to capture, interpret and store data about the item to which each tag is attached. Collectors Universe's app then provides access to data regarding a specific item to authorized parties.

Traditionally, certification and grading results were simply printed on the seal, whereas the data is now being collected digitally. Once certification is complete, the collectible undergoes a manual process of multiple reviews and quality-assurance steps. The hidden NFC tag's unique ID number is linked to details about the product and its grading, all stored in the cloud-based software.

HID's Trusted Tag service is used in a variety of industries for access control, attendance and onsite services (guard shifts, for instance), and also provide authenticity of data linked to a tagged product, as in the Collectors Universe use case. Data read from so-called "trusted tags" comes with security and privacy attributes that change with each tap, making the tags unclonable, according to Mark Robinton, HID Global's VP of IoT services. Once the digital record is created and linked to the NFC tag, the item is shipped back to the customer, who then has the option of reading the tag with or without the app.

John Nelson

A collector can tap his or her phone to the holder, and each tap will generate a unique cryptographic one-time URL that automatically launches Collectors Universe's proprietary Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) Cert Verification app, or opens a Web browser to display information about the authenticity of the coin or bank note. The page also displays population reports, estimated value and high-resolution images. Since each tap generates a unique URL, the information cannot be cloned or manipulated by a counterfeiter, Robinton explains. If the user has downloaded the Collectors Universe app, she or he can do more than that, though—for instance, saving the data or accessing additional content.

Over time, for example, the certification company intends to provide videos, text and other information related to some of its high-value items. If a collector has a Babe Ruth playing card, he or she could use the app to access information about Ruth or learn about the card's changing market value. "Although the data can be accessed without the app," Nelson says, "we recommend the app for a more secure experience." Because the technology can prove not only an item's authenticity but also the that of its certification, it provides a second level of security for collectors, he reports, making it a value-added service that the company's competitors do not yet offer.

Collectors Universe has offices in California, New Jersey, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The HID solution is being used for coins and bank notes sent to any of those sites. So far, the NFC service has been deployed only for bank notes and coins, though sports cards may be the next application. Pricing for services is based on the value of each item being certified and authenticated, Nelson says, and those who have the certification can usually gain a higher price for a collectible if they choose to sell it.

"We guarantee our authentication and grading," Nelson states. Since the NFC system was taken live, he says, Collectors Universe's customers have begun to try it out. "All the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. People have commended our approach of being proactive on this issue. It's an exciting technology."