Signature business: Behind the lucrative autograph industry

How a squad of self-appointed experts took over the billion-dollar autograph industry

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 alleged autograph of Charles Lindbergh
courtesy Steve Sterpka
The alleged autograph of Charles Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh expert Dan Clemons
Courtesy Dan Clemons
Charles Lindbergh expert Dan Clemons

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 a 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 nonetheless 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 ANSWER — IF ONE EXISTS — lies somewhere in the impenetrability of the authenticating business.

"A certificate," Rendell says, "is only as good as the person signing it."

But PSA's letters typically bear the pre-printed 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.

John Reznikoff, who consults on historical autographs for both PSA and JSA, would be a prime candidate to offer an informed perspective on Charles Lindbergh. Grad told Sterpka's lawyer that he had "deferred to Mr. Reznikoff's expert opinion" when handling the Lindbergh.

Today, Reznikoff says it's "possible" he looked at the Lindbergh. But in his own deposition, he said he had no knowledge of having looked at the signature prior to the lawsuit.

Reznikoff sells autographs via his own University Archives offices in Connecticut, sometimes offering items that bear PSA or JSA endorsements. Other off-site consultants work for auction houses or have their own shingle, many of which market PSA- or JSA-branded merchandise. It's all a bit incestuous, but Reznikoff doesn't admit to any conflict of interest.

"It's a conflict if I'm the only one looking," he says. Orlando says no consultant has the power to pass or fail autographs independent of PSA's full-time experts.

But the genial Reznikoff has his own history of mistakes. In the mid-1990s, he and a paralegal named Lawrence Cusack offered a series of documents purported to be from Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, detailing their affair and Kennedy's alleged Mob ties.

Reznikoff believed them to be genuine. They enlisted a third party, Tom Cloud, who sold the documents to wealthy contacts. According to a 1997 New Yorker article — one that Reznikoff dismisses as containing numerous factual errors — between $5 million and $7 million was collected.

Yet further investigation revealed that some of the letters used typewriter ribbons unavailable in the era. Moreover, an envelope supposedly from Kennedy included a zip code — two years before zip codes existed. The documents were forgeries.

When police became interested, Reznikoff wore a wire, recording Cusack admitting to the fraud. Cusack went to prison; Reznikoff walked.

Reznikoff admits he couldn't spot the fakes, which would seem problematic for someone purporting to be a historical-document expert for the two biggest authentication companies in the marketplace. He insists that the Kennedy incident was early in his career and that it drove him to learn more about autograph analysis. (He's also a prominent dealer of celebrity hair, and considers it likely that the Lindbergh strand on the Upper Deck card originated with him.)

Reznikoff's other significant gaffe came on Pawn Stars, the History Channel's reality series set in a Las Vegas pawn shop. Brought in by store owner Rick Harrison to opine on a Godfather screenplay signed by "Al," Reznikoff suggested it bore all the telltale signs of Al Pacino's signature.

Harrison was wary. "I didn't buy it," he says. "I just felt uncomfortable."

The segment was forwarded to Al Ruddy, a producer of The Godfather. Ruddy immediately recognized the signature as his own. The highly visible flub left Harrison "a little" upset. "But mistakes happen," he says.

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