Signature business: Behind the lucrative autograph industry

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

Reznikoff says he is not allowed to discuss the series — which has made minor celebrities of authenticators — but he "never claimed to be an expert in entertainment." He also says other experts on the show still consult with him on items; Harrison says Reznikoff is no longer involved.

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 Fox Philadelphia 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.

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

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.

PETER NASH BELIEVES the authentication companies have turned the autograph market into a commodities trade, where legitimacy is immaterial as long as it's endorsed. Nash is the proprietor of Hauls of Shame, a blog dedicated to documenting every real or perceived mistake made by authenticators.

"Collectors don't collect the item," he says. "They collect the letter from PSA or JSA. They don't even care if they know it's fake. It's like a stock."

He once noticed that a ball purportedly signed by Ty Cobb was manufactured years after Cobb's death. And that PSA identified a Kato Kaelin signature as belonging to Kate Hudson. Nash has logged dozens of other errors — some easily corroborated, others open to interpretation.

Nash's supporters believe he's a watchdog fed up with incompetence and support his inflammatory posts. Others believe he and other bloggers are simply being petty, exaggerating the hit-miss ratio of the companies.

"He's looking for attention," Spence says. "He's a con man."

As watchdogs go, Nash is somewhat neutered by his past. Previously known as Prime Minister Pete of the hip-hop group 3rd Bass, now co-owner of a Boston sports bar, the onetime collector was sued by Robert Lifson, owner of REA Auctions, for failure to pay back a loan he had taken out against the value of baseball memorabilia he had planned to put up for consignment. Nash hadn't delivered everything he promised, Lifson alleged, and what he did was coming under suspicion of not being legitimate.

Lifson won a judgment of $760,000, most of which was collected when he sold Nash's items and — with the court's permission — cautioned buyers that he couldn't guarantee their authenticity.

Without mentioning names, PSA president Orlando believes dissenters have an "agenda" in criticizing his company.

The claim is not without merit. Others who have taken to the internet to wage war on PSA or JSA often fall back on unsubstantiated innuendo. Steve Koschal operated the inflammatory site until the threat of litigation forced him to shutter his doors.

Koschal once ran a story asserting that Lance Armstrong's agent had trawled eBay and found hundreds of fake jerseys endorsed by PSA. Bill Stapleton, Armstrong's agent, says no such audit ever took place. Another time, Koschal reported that a consultant turned down a pile of signatures, then turned around and offered to buy them. Asked who his source was, Koschal said he could not recall.

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