Autograph Fakery: Two Firms Monopolize a Lucrative Business
Illustration by Matthew Billington
There aren't many places more sublime than Augusta National Golf Club on an early April morning. Dew sparkles on the greens, delicately raked sand traps beckon, and the best golfers on Earth stroll around the fairways, imagining the strokes they hope will lead to the Masters' green jacket.
April 9, 1997, was one of those mornings. Just outside America's most famous course, Scott Maurer set up his tent and helped a couple of other employees from the South Miami shop where he worked to hang racks of autographed photos of greats like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and up-and-comers like Tiger Woods. Over the past decade, the company where Maurer worked as director, Gotta Have It Golf, had become one of the nation's biggest dealers by selling thousands of signatures like these.
Before they could finish setting up, though, a pair of cops from the local Richmond County department strolled up and slapped handcuffs on Maurer and three other employees. They were all under arrest, the cops told the stunned men, for forging golf stars' signatures. The arrests soon made headlines from Sports Illustrated to Golf Digest, as Woods' sports agency declared that the stars were getting tough on fake autographs.
It was a sensational story with one big problem: Claims the signatures were fake would prove exceedingly difficult to prove, a fact that sparked a fiery two-decade legal battle that ended only last week in a Miami courtroom with a six-figure judgment against Tiger Woods.
The feud illustrates a deeper conflict that's roiling America's booming memorabilia market: the role of paid "authenticators" whose say-so drives the value of collectibles. Two companies in particular have come to dominate the niche industry of "verifying" celebrity autographs.
Today, few autographs are bought or sold without the blessing of either Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) or its competitor, James Spence Authentication (JSA). Business is so good that they use garbage cans to hold the cash they collect from reviews at hobby conventions. eBay, the world's largest facilitator of memorabilia auctions, endorses both companies to its customers. Nothing seems beyond their expertise, from Frank Sinatra's scrawl to baseballs defaced by Mickey Mantle.
And there's good reason their blessing is so coveted. An unauthenticated signature from Babe Ruth might sell for $250, with bidders wary of its pedigree. But with PSA's endorsement, the same Ruth shoots up to $2,900.
Yet PSA, JSA, and independent experts — like the one that Woods and Palmer used to bolster the arrest of the Miami memorabilia dealers — all have the same problem: They sometimes get it wrong. While the specialists say their services have cleaned up an industry rife with fraud, critics say their "expert authentication" is little more than pseudoscience used to generate millions in profits at collectors' expense.
"A third-party authenticator can't honestly tell you they can verify any signature, yet they are the single biggest factor in whether you can sell many autographs," says Michael Rypel, director of acquisitions and examination at the Miami store at the center of the Woods lawsuit, which is now called Millionaire Gallery. "To me, it's criminal what they're doing, but no one seems interested in doing anything about it."
There's little doubt the world's expanding taste for memorabilia — particularly autographs — has produced an industry that's rampant with fakery. The FBI's Operation Bullpen sting in the late 1990s showed how bad the problem had become when it swept up massive forgery rings around the country.
The investigation gained steam when an investigator for baseball card company Upper Deck, which had an exclusive deal with Michael Jordan, noticed Jordan's signature on items he knew Jordan had never signed. Agents uncovered forgers passing everything from "signed" NFL helmets to baseballs autographed by Mother Teresa. The merchandise bled into virtually every state, leading to more than 60 search warrants and dozens of arrests.
All told, the bureau estimated that more than $100 million was spent on fraudulent goods —some via unwitting outlets like QVC, others through complicit dealers. The agency still estimates that as much as 90 percent of the sports collectible market is bogus, says Rypel.
All those fakes stunned the billion-dollar memorabilia industry and created consumer paranoia: How could anyone be really sure that Jordan, and not a fry cook, had signed a pair of Nikes?
The answer was obvious to David Hall, a hobbyist who founded a coin-grading service in the 1980s before branching out to sports cards in 1991. In 1998, Hall's company, Collectors Universe, decided to launch PSA/DNA, an autograph-authentication service that would help alleviate concerns about forgers.
"I think that the beginning of the third-party companies really started commensurate with eBay," says Bill Panagopulos, an auctioneer who operates Alexander Autographs in Maryland. "There were so many fraudulent dealers on there that someone saw the opportunity to make money."
Thanks in part to aggressive marketing and consumers shaken by the Bullpen headlines, PSA blossomed, offering to stamp items with invisible "DNA" ink and providing "Letters of Authenticity" from a panel of experts. The company's prices range from $20 to look at Nicolas Cage's signature to $500 for its judgment on a Babe Ruth.
But there is no such thing as autograph school, says Panagopulos, and no degree can prepare you for the nuances of Ty Cobb's scribbling. Authenticators become proficient by looking at tens of thousands of signatures, analyzing habits, letter sizing, and a confident hand.
Real signatures appear effortless. Forgers often use chemicals to age ink or paper and can display a slow and halting rhythm in duplicating penmanship. Authenticators consider how signatures change as a person ages and use handwriting samples known as exemplars to check for fraud.
Sometimes judgments can be made in moments; other evaluations can take days or weeks. Most experts have a narrow field of personalities they know well enough to critique.
But there seems to be no ceiling to PSA and JSA's abilities. In 2010, a dealer submitted the "signature" of Cheetah, the chimpanzee that was purported to have appeared in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan serials of the 1930s. Despite the likelihood that they had no exemplars on file for primates, JSA deemed the scrawl authentic.
As it turns out, Cheetah was an impostor whose owner duped the public before a 2008 Washington Post article uncovered the truth: Weissmuller's chest-thumping costar was long deceased.
"I don't remember the particulars of that," James Spence says of his endorsement. "I'm not prepared to answer that. I'd have to refresh my memory. I think it was done tongue-in-cheek."
JSA would have needed only to perform a cursory Google search to put the chimp's penmanship in context. But the conveyor belt of submissions makes that unlikely. Spence says his company sees 300,000 to 350,000 autographs a year. PSA has evaluated more than 3 million signatures since 1999, with nearly 400,000 of those in 2013 alone. Although both companies list roughly a dozen experts on their respective websites, neither makes it clear what their credentials might be or whether they have others on call.
An undisclosed percentage of those signatures are witnessed, meaning the companies have a representative eyeing a celebrity or athlete signing something. The rest are submitted via auctions, dealers, or collectors, leaving the companies to determine their validity.
But if just one quarter of submissions need evaluating — a conservative estimate — that means the companies are processing 75,000 to 100,000 a year. That's hundreds a day, some of which need to be evaluated by multiple experts.
"Nobody can really make any determination on anything that could be a decent forgery in that kind of time," says Kenneth Rendell, an expert in historical autographs who helped debunk forged Adolf Hitler diaries in the 1980s.
"I tell people that collecting sports memorabilia is like watching pro wrestling. You need a suspension of disbelief."
The inconsistency of authenticators' judgment can burn collectors and dealers alike, as a South Carolina man named Steve Sterpka discovered.
The CVS Pharmacy manager had spent weeks sifting through 15 boxes of Upper Deck baseball cards, hoping to encounter one of the coupons for rare collectibles the company randomly inserted to entice customers. In this case, Sterpka was after the signature of a famous historical figure — George Washington, maybe, or Babe Ruth — that had been paired with a single lock of the person's hair. One collector fortunate enough to score an Abraham Lincoln sold it at auction for $24,000.
The odds were not in Sterpka's favor: Only ten of the Hair Cut Signatures were available. He'd spent $1,500 to purchase a case of 768 cards. With just 48 remaining, it appeared to be a lost cause.
Then he saw it: a card redeemable for Charles Lindbergh's signature and a strand of the famous aviator's hair.
"Oh, my God," he recalls thinking. "I can't believe what I've got in front of me."
He contacted Upper Deck. The company sent him a 2.5-by-3.5-inch piece of cardboard featuring Lindbergh's scrawl and a follicular sample. The back of the tiny treasure congratulated its new owner:
"You have received a trading card with an [sic] historical strand of Charles Lindbergh's hair that includes an autograph of Charles Lindbergh. The memorabilia was certified to us as belonging to Charles Lindbergh. The cut autograph was independently authenticated by a third party authenticator."
That last bit of language is where Sterpka's problems started. Upper Deck had the Lindbergh signature evaluated by PSA before purchasing it from a wholesaler. It was later authenticated by JSA, making for a more profitable "dual certification."
But what happened next would be a crash course in the new climate of memorabilia-collecting, where letters of authenticity are more valued than the alleged pieces of history to which they're tethered — even if that history was created yesterday.
PSA issued a Letter of Authenticity to Upper Deck in 2008, asserting that the Lindbergh signature it planned to purchase from wholesale dealer Brian Gray was genuine. (It is unknown who supplied Gray with the autograph: He ignored requests for comment for this article.)
An enthusiastic Sterpka contacted Beckett Select Auctions, which offered to sell his card on eBay and advertise it through its extensive network of hobbyists. Beckett suggested Sterpka submit the signature to JSA. Though it already had PSA's endorsement, a higher price might be realized if both companies were in agreement.
JSA deemed Lindbergh's autograph to be authentic. Sterpka and Beckett put the card on eBay with a starting price of $10,000.
Their optimism did not account for the moment that independent Lindbergh expert Dan Clemons would lay eyes on the auction, chuckle at the amateur nature of the autograph — an uncrossed "a," an open-looped "g" — and immediately deem it one of the worst forgeries he had ever encountered.
"Look at the flaked ink on the 'C,'" explains Clemons, offering an impromptu lesson on the Lindbergh in question. "And the top part of the curl on the left-hand side of the 'L'; it's a little, skinny pen, then thicker again as it comes up. Don't you see? That's someone coloring in the bottom part of the curl. Don't you see?"
Most laypeople do not see. But Clemons, who has the erudite cadence of an antiquarian bookseller, became friendly with Reeve Lindbergh, Charles' daughter, in the 1980s. Bit by bit, with access to piles of her father's handwriting, he picked up the nuances of Lindbergh's signature. He soon began to authenticate items when the estate would get requests. Later, he began to scour eBay and look for forgeries.
When he came across Sterpka's auction, he sounded the alarm to eBay's fraud division. The site removed the card. An irritated Sterpka tried to relist it, only to have it taken down again. That's when Clemons phoned him.
"Within ten minutes," Sterpka says, "I was convinced it was a forgery."
Confused, Sterpka appealed to Upper Deck, sending the card along for examination. But Upper Deck remained convinced that the Lindbergh autograph was genuine.
Sterpka decided to seek another opinion, sending the card to RR Auction, a Beckett advertiser and home to several autograph experts. RR forwarded it to PSA for inspection.
Though PSA had deemed the signature legit just a year before, it issued a new letter signaling retreat. "After a thorough examination of your item," it read, "we regret to report that your item did not pass PSA/DNA authentication."
Sterpka picked up the phone and called an attorney, igniting a lawsuit against PSA's parent company and Upper Deck for fraud and negligent misrepresentation.
His lawyer arranged for Clemons to offer a deposition. "I came loaded for bear," says Clemons, who has thick notebooks citing examples of Lindbergh's handwriting quirks from childhood to just before his death.
By this time, PSA had done another about-face, once again declaring the signature genuine. "They said the second one was inadvertently issued," says Douglas Jaffe, Sterpka's lawyer. "It made no sense."
The depositions Jaffe took offered a look inside the turbulent submission process Sterpka's card was subjected to. Testimony revealed no one at PSA could identify who examined the autograph the second time. PSA principal authenticator Steve Grad said he had no personal involvement beyond signing the rejection letter.
"A mistake was made," Grad repeatedly told Jaffe.
Though the company now claimed the Lindbergh was authentic, it still offered $6,000 to settle. Sterpka's lawyer wanted Upper Deck to match it, but Upper Deck refused, betting that Sterpka could not prove his charges.
He couldn't. Last November, a judge shot down Sterpka's suit, noting that both companies believed the signature to be genuine and therefore could not have intentionally committed fraud.
The result left Sterpka confused. "I've got two documents from the same company saying two different things," he says. "How did I lose this case?"
The Miami golf dealers' decades-long court fight began with an in-house authenticator hired in the mid-'90s as part of an effort by IMG, the sports agency that represented Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer, to attack supposed autograph fraud. It illustrates the perils of relying on an expert who claims he can divine frauds from real autographs.
The day before the arrests at the 1997 Masters, a private investigator mailed a few autographed photos ordered at the stand run by Gotta Have It, a South Miami shop owned by businessman Bruce Matthews, to an expert. Comparing them to a few dozen signatures he knew to be from the golfers, the expert proclaimed Gotta Have It's products to be "probable forgeries."
There are several problems with this strategy. For one thing, the "comparison autographs" are signed by the golfers sitting down in a controlled environment, while many of the autographs sold by dealers like Gotta Have It are scrawled in a rush for fans in a crowd. "We easily shut that down with our own authenticator," Rypel says of the expert's testimony. "We had witnesses who saw them sign these autographs on the course."
While IMG told national media the arrests showed stars getting serious about fake signatures, Rypel says the crackdown was more about Woods' trying to get control over a blossoming market for his autograph. The "expert" who proclaimed that Gotta Have It's were fake was simply aiding that strategy, he says.
"They were successful in shutting down a lot of dealers," says Rypel. "The very next day, we had people wanting their money back. A guy in Japan who had spent $50,000 with us wanted all of it back. It hurt our reputation very quickly."
When Palmer, Woods, and Nicklaus filed a federal lawsuit against Matthews and his company, the Miami businessman quickly filed a countersuit. The golfers and the shop eventually reached a deal with a mediator in January 2001: The three golfers would provide a few hundred officially authorized signatures a year to the dealer to resell, with profits being shared all around. (The criminal charges in Georgia against Maurer and the others were also dropped.)
But less than a year later, Woods and Palmer reneged on the deal, Rypel says. "Out of the blue, they just stopped," he says. "We didn't hear from them for eight months."
That's when Matthews filed a new suit in Miami-Dade County alleging a breach of contract. That court fight lasted more than a decade, with Woods' company again pulling out its trope of claiming an expert had caught Matthews' firm, now renamed Millionaire Gallery, selling bogus signatures. Again, Matthews' experts testified otherwise in court.
The battle came to a head this March, with Woods himself coming to Flagler Street to plead his case to an all-female jury. (Palmer had settled out of court earlier.) Matthews' attorney speculated his appearance was a classic attempt to awe the jury with celebrity. "They thought there would be this celebrity awestruck reaction," lawyer Eric Isacoff told the Daily Business Review.
They weren't. On March 12, they awarded Matthews' company $668,000. The company has asked the judge to tack on more than $500,000 in interest. (Woods is expected to appeal the ruling.)
"This whole thing started with a third-party authenticator claiming our autographs were fake," Rypel says.
There's no doubt the authenticating business is often impenetrable to outsiders. "A certificate," Rendell says, "is only as good as the person signing it."
But PSA's letters typically bear the preprinted names of several employees and consultants, with no indication of who verified the item in question. Above them is a real signature that's often impossible to decipher, does not have a printed name underneath, and may be from an individual who had nothing to do with evaluating the submission.
"In some cases, one person looks at it," says PSA President Joe Orlando. "In other cases, three or four might. People are buying based on the brand, not on who looked at it or how many people looked at it. [That signature] could be me, or it could be one of the authenticators. It's a finishing touch to let people know it came from our facility."
This lack of transparency often creates confusion over who looked at what and whether their expertise was sufficient for the task. Human error is inevitable, and neither company makes any claim to the contrary. Yet both seem to permit mistakes that lack any reasonable explanation.
In 2007, a Philadelphia Fox News crew attended a memorabilia show at which JSA set up a booth to evaluate autographs, including those produced by baseball player Sal Bando, who was sitting just a few tables away.
A Fox artist forged Bando's signature with minimal practice; JSA approved it without incident.
"That was a former employee of mine," Spence says of the Bando auditor. "I believe he was caught off-guard. I wasn't in the building at the time. They sort of blindsided him with the whole thing.
"I hear that over and over again. No one wants to hear about the good we've done. When someone brings that up — if that's the worst thing they can point to, I'm doing pretty well."
It is not necessarily the worst thing. In 2011, Heritage Auctions offered a letter signed by boxer Thomas Sayers and endorsed by both JSA and PSA. When boxing historians pointed out that Sayers was virtually illiterate — he'd signed a document with an "X" the following year — the auction listing was corrected to reflect that PSA and JSA both believed it to be genuine but could no longer offer certificates "due to a lack of exemplars."
But if no exemplars were available, historians reasoned, what did they compare the signature to in the first place?
Spence says he cannot recall the Sayers incident. Heritage sold the letter for $10,755.
Another Heritage auction, for a 1939 Baseball Hall of Fame induction program, featured a signature by slugger Nap "Larry" Lajoie. It was endorsed by PSA and JSA, despite the likelihood that it was executed while Lajoie was either intoxicated or forgot how to sign his own name. More likely, an inept forger made a mistake, putting a third "R" in his nickname to spell "Larrry." It sold for $41,000.
Then came the instance when PSA authenticated a souvenir letter of surrender signed by Nazi Karl Dönitz after Hitler's death gave him the keys to the Reich. PSA erroneously read the signature as being that of Chester Nimitz, a United States admiral who presumably would not be in a position to surrender German forces, nor in any position to sign a commemorative letter dated 1976. Nimitz died in 1966.
Orlando asserts that no system is perfect, but he is unwilling to offer specifics, growing particularly agitated at the mention of Sterpka. "I don't like the nature of your questions," he says, declining to answer any more.
None of these mistakes appears to have slowed business. A cursory eBay search on any given day will reveal more than 200,000 items bearing a PSA or JSA stamp. As the world's largest auction destination, eBay even cautions its buyers that autographs or memorabilia not endorsed by the two companies "may not be authentic."
Officially, eBay's reach has helped to legitimize their expertise. Unofficially, the former head of eBay's memorabilia-fraud division thinks PSA and JSA "suck."
"Of all the things I've said, they chose the least eloquent thing to quote," sighs John Gonzales, eBay's director of calculated fraud. Until 2012, Gonzales was in charge of overseeing memorabilia on the site. His 2010 comment, part of an email to a dealer, was leaked online. Four years later, his opinion hasn't wavered.
"They haven't shown me anything," he says. "If anything, it's gotten worse."
eBay has no formal relationship with either company. But Gonzales often asked PSA lead authenticator Steve Grad to review suspicious items.
"I took him at his word," Gonzales says. But when Grad would look at JSA items and disagree with their opinion, Gonzales found it odd: If authentication was bound by strict rules of signature patterns and careful analysis, why would the two companies diverge?
"It told me," he says, "that it was more art than science."
A baseball signed by Walter Johnson and approved by JSA was priced at $80,000 before being removed after experts unaffiliated with PSA or JSA raised concerns. Another ball bearing 1920s left-fielder Goose Goslin's autograph — offered for $29,999 — had to be taken down for the same reason.
Though Gonzales maintains that PSA's Grad is "a total expert," he believes the sheer volume of submissions makes it difficult to maintain any reasonable level of quality control.
"A lot of times, they will just go through stuff so fast, they won't have time to review it properly," he says. "It should be a [letter] of opinion, not authenticity."
Gonzales was soon faced with a choice. If he ditched the companies altogether, he would essentially be winding the clock back to 1999, when forgers ran unchecked.
"I contemplated getting rid of them," he says. "The relationship is difficult to justify. On their best day, they're inept. But I came to the conclusion that they're the lesser of two evils. It's chaos otherwise."
The companies maintain that any dissent stems in part from dealers disgruntled by the fact that they can no longer pass bad merchandise. "I'd love to hear the argument that anyone would be better off without the third-party authenticators," Orlando says. "It's an imperfect system but so much better than what the industry had previously."
Between trading cards, autographs, and other collectibles, PSA parent company Collectors Universe reported $14.2 million in service revenue for its last operating quarter. In 2013, it made Forbes' list of America's Best Small Public Companies.
"They get a lot of stuff right," Panagopulos says. "At the end of the day, it's a judgment call. But they don't like to admit when they're wrong."
If PSA and JSA begin to publicly acknowledge mistakes, critics insist, collectors who have thousands of dollars invested in certified merchandise might begin to doubt the validity of their collections. As it is, with their investments going up in value year after year, there's no incentive for change. In the authenticity business, pretty good has become good enough.
"Something needs to happen on a legislative level," says eBay's Gonzales. "There needs to be some kind of improvement, some kind of formal education or testing. Right now, it's the closest thing we have to alchemy. Their piece of paper turns another piece of paper into gold."
Rypel agrees that reform is necessary. Though a focus on authentication has helped get some fakes off the market, he says the firms' power has become great to the point that they seem to "throw a dart and if they like you, it's real, and if not, it's a fake."
One easy change, he says, would be for auction houses to stop demanding "authenticator" imprints on obviously legit signatures, like those that Millionaire Gallery buys straight from a celebrity.
"When we have paid the celebrity directly, that's provenance," Rypel says. "I promise you, more than ten times a day... I have customers asking, 'Will this pass PSA/DNA certification?' Our answer is, 'Why would you need it when it comes straight from the source?'"
Questions about authentication may get more complicated yet. "Cut" signatures like the Lindbergh — those clipped from documents that might offer identifying (or damning) details — remain popular. Worse, Panagopulos sees the current crop of celebrity and athlete autographs as little more than a spastic wave of a pen, with no distinguishing characteristics to examine.
"Modern stars sign with a scrawl, not like Lincoln or Washington used to," Panagopulos says. "It's almost impossible to detect a Kevin Costner, which is a 'K' with a straight line." A glimpse of Meg Ryan's signature — little more than a pen scratch — invites questions about what subtleties could possibly be detectable, even to a trained eye.
As one of the few remaining independent and high-end dealers, Panagopulos is largely exempt from such debates. He prefers the old-school method of being an expert in your own inventory and guaranteeing it.
Panagopulos has the infamous Nimitz/Dönitz surrender signature framed in his office. "It reminds me," he says, "that I have a little bit of talent."
Sterpka's Lindbergh card was held by his attorney during four years of litigation. He got it back in December.
"I want to believe it's real," he says, "but I know it isn't."
Still, he intends to sell it. "The court said I couldn't prove it was a fake."
Nash believes Sterpka could still profit, even with the controversy. As long as PSA and JSA have endorsed it, it will forever remain a liquid commodity.
The potential for resale is unlikely to matter to either Clemons or eBay. The former says he's done policing the site; Gonzales contends that the people currently overseeing the memorabilia division aren't as vigilant as he was. In the end, he was left with one lesson in the current state of the autograph trade.
"It doesn't have to be authentic," Gonzales says. "It just has to be authenticated."
Managing editor Tim Elfrink contributed to this story.
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