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Fraudsters don’t stand a chance against Superman

Why the world of collectible comic books is virtually fraud-proof

Incidences of fraud and counterfeiting are escalating in most high-stakes collectibles markets — take art fraud, coin fraud and wine fraud, for example. But the vintage comic- book industry stands impervious even as comic book values soar.

Let me give you an example from my own experience.

You might remember back in 2000 when a very rare Superman comic book was stolen from actor Nicolas Cage’s Hollywood home.

That comic book was a 1938 Action Comics No. 1, the most valuable comic of all time. It not only marks Superman’s first appearance (first-appearance comics are generally the most highly valued), but it launched what would become the larger-than-life superhero genre we’re still enjoying today. It’s the Holy Grail of the comic-book industry.

The theft sent shockwaves through the collectibles industry. After all, there are only 100 surviving copies of Action Comic No. 1 known to exist, and Cage’s copy — which comic-grading authority CGC (Certified Guaranty Company LLC.) graded “9.0-Very Fine/Near Mint” — was among the top six highest-graded unrestored copies in existence. Similarly, graded copies have sold for as much as $1 million, $2 million and, yes, $3 million in recent years.

How do I know this? Because I’m the vintage comic book dealer who was fortunate enough to sell that particular Action Comic No. 1 to Cage in the first place, through my company. As fate would have it, I’d play a role in its recovery 11 years later, too. Here’s how it happened.

After Cage’s Action Comics No. 1 was stolen in 2000, it went underground. Initially, there were rumors — and hopes — that it’d resurface, but they never panned out.

By 2011, it had fallen off everyone’s radar. Then, out of the blue, a dealer in the business of buying and selling electronics in California approached me about selling an Action Comics No. 1 that had been found in a storage locker in the San Fernando Valley. Someone bought the locker’s contents, discovered the comic and asked the dealer, who wasn’t an expert, to sell it.

When the dealer contacted me — he wanted to know if I was interested, and what I thought it was worth — my curiosity instantly piqued. It’s not like there are many undiscovered Action Comics No. 1 floating around. They’re all accounted for. He emailed me some photos of the book. Even though comics don’t have serial numbers, I immediately knew it was Cage’s copy. I was on a plane to California the next day.

Every comic tells a story

In the art world, experts use high-tech tools like imaging cameras and spectrometers to verify authenticity. But the reason I knew the Action Comics No. 1 was Cage’s was remarkably low tech: I recognized a small distinguishing mark on its cover.

Every vintage comic book, no matter how pristine the condition, has at least a few small tells — marks, wrinkles, discolorations, etc. — that make it unique. After all, comic books were printed decades ago with very cheap paper and inks, and many were stored in less-than-ideal conditions. When you think about it, it’s amazing that we have as many well-preserved vintage comic books as we do.

High-end dealers and collectors know what these unique features are for hundreds of the rarest comic books. We carry the catalog in our heads. We also know at any given moment where the most valuable comic books are located, who’s thinking of selling one, who’s in the market to buy, etc.

That’s one reason why — unlike larger collectibles markets — fraudsters, thieves and counterfeiters can’t get very far in our small, rarified world.

The other reason has to do with the way comic books were produced in the first place.

Why comic books are impossible to counterfeit

Admittedly, collectibles and counterfeiting have gone hand-in-hand for centuries — perhaps as far back as ancient Rome. While modern forensic authentication processes have made it easier to spot art forgeries, they still slip through the cracks and onto the market every so often.

And counterfeiting in other collectibles markets — such as coins, wines, even autographed sports memorabilia — is going like gangbusters right now.

Look at the booming fake wine market, now estimated to be a $3 billion industry. Some fraudsters are refilling empty bottles of expensive vintages with bargain wines and passing them off as originals. Others are counterfeiting labels for “unicorn” (non-existent) wines. Wine fraud has become so rampant, many collectors are taking wine authentication classes or hiring experts to vet their purchases. Wine authentication is now a cottage industry.

Then there’s Chinese counterfeit coin rings. Not long ago, faux silver coins were easy to recognize. But in just a few years, coin-press technology has become so sophisticated, even high-end collectors are falling for fakes. Just last month, a New Jersey coin dealer was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for running a massive fraud scheme. More than $46 million worth of fake gold and silver coins from China were found in his home.

On the other hand, forging credible counterfeit comic books is all but impossible.

For one thing, how would one begin to duplicate the original production quality of vintage comics, which was, as I mentioned, incredibly poor in the first place? Both the papers and inks used by the industry were dirt cheap, which, ironically, makes them harder to reproduce decades later.

Also, until the mid-1980’s, comic books were printed on poor-quality letterpress printing presses — most of which were destroyed decades ago along with the original printing plates and most of the original hand-drawn art. Fraudsters can’t convincingly recreate them.

And even if by some long shot all the components and vintage printing processes could be replicated, any counterfeit they produced would need to be realistically aged. The most valuable comic books were created during comics’ Golden Age, 1935-1945 (think Superman, Batman, Captain America, Marvel Comics), and Silver Age, 1956-1970 (Spiderman, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers).

Admittedly, we’ve seen two notable attempts to counterfeit modern, or Bronze Age, comic books: Cerebus No. 1 (1977) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles No. 1 (1984). Why did counterfeiters pick them? Both were printed with unusual black-and-white interiors, which the fraudsters assumed would be easier to replicate. After all, 99% of the comics produced in the last 80 years feature full-color interiors. Regardless, industry professionals quickly spotted the counterfeits, and no one ever profited from them. Case closed.

More investors are turning to collectibles as an alternative. And at the first signs of an economic downturn, stocks become less attractive and tangible collectibles more so.

The first million-dollar comic sale occurred in 2010 (full disclosure: my company handled the transaction). Since that threshold was broken, the industry has seen a number of million-dollar transactions.

Speaking of investments, let’s return full circle to Nicholas Cage’s Action Comics No. 1. Did he get his comic book back? Yes, he did. However, he’d sell it later in 2000 for a record-breaking $2,161,000. It was the first comic to sell for more than $2 million (a record that stood until 2014, when a different Action Comics No. 1 sold for more than $3 million).

Can’t fight these fraud-squashing superpowers

It’s true that most of the collectibles industries deal with their share of fraudsters and villains. But while the comic-book world has given us some of the most spectacular bad guys of all time, from Joker to Magneto to Lex Luthor and beyond, it’s remarkably impervious to real-life dirty tricksters.

You can’t pull one over on Superman or Batman. Turns out, vintage comic books have their own superpowers.

Stephen Fishler is CEO and cofounder of the world’s-largest vintage comic book dealership, Metropolis Collectibles, and its online auction house, He holds five Guinness World Records for most-expensive comic book transactions.