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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9 comments
alisnikol
alisnikol

This is an awaited post from long time, thanks for aware us. I recommended it for everyone who are searching for something new and creative article and information, really helps me. Keep sharing, looking forward for your next post. 

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blue55
blue55

JSA is known for making mistakes, or approving signatures if you are in with employees. It is ridiculous that people solely base their decision on if an item is authentic or not based on what these companies say. A little research can go a long way and save you money. 

tim.brackett
tim.brackett

I've never really got the point of autographs. I guess if someone famous only autographed like three things and it was way rare and there was a very, very unique story behind each autograph I might be interested. But, on the off-chance I meet someone famous the last thing want to do is ask for an autograph. It just makes no sense to me. I met one of my favorite musicians last fall and I just shook her hand and told her I enjoyed her music. She said thank you. Good enough for me...

alexanderautographs
alexanderautographs

Personally, Greta, I thought the article was great, and not just because it quoted me. I've been reading The Voice since before you were born, and it's always stood up for the little guys being ripped-off by corporate giants. The article was well-researched, fair, and informative. And I'm glad it even kept YOUR attention.

Greta von Otto
Greta von Otto

Oh, whoopie, another boring cover story that no one cares about. What would you expect from the paper that generates it's revenue from pimping, has the most stupid comments of any site, and thinks they're cleaver by shadow blocking conservative posters!

AlexK
AlexK

@alexanderautographs I agree with you, it was a well written article and something that I was unaware of.  As someone who enjoys the hobby of collecting, I personally found it disheartening that the autographs that are in the hobby boxes/packs could be a fake.  I always went on the assumption autos especially older ones were genuine, but now it makes me question the legitimacy of the card companies.  

djson1
djson1

I hope you're not planning to put a sarcastic comment on each article that YOU think is boring. You must have a lot of time.  I thought this article was very informing since I'm in the hobby myself. If you're not in the hobby, why would you even bother to read it?

GretavonOtto
GretavonOtto

@djson1  

Like you said, you thought the article was very informing because you're in the hobby yourself. You and 2 other people, according to the comments. LOL And, if you don't like sarcastic comments, don't read mine, cause I don't take this stuff seriously. It's City Pages after all.

AlexK
AlexK

@GretavonOtto @djson1
I found it quite informative.  Isn't it a tad counter productive though that you post your displeasure about how you thought the article was boring? Most normal people who don't like the content of an article tend to just not read it or even ignore it all together?

 
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