Signature business: Behind the lucrative autograph industry

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

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."

AMONG 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's 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."

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

If PSA and JSA begin to publicly acknowledge mistakes, critics like Nash 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.

It may get more complicated. "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."

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."

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