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

Certifiable: How a squad of self-appointed experts quietly took over the billion-dollar autograph industry
Courtesy Steve Sterpka
Lindbergh expert Dan Clemons annotated the trading card for his deposition, explaining the numerous errors he alleged the signature contained.

At his cluttered kitchen table in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, surrounded by hundreds of trading cards and discarded foil wrappers, Steve Sterpka finally found what he'd been looking for.

A dealer submitted the "signature" of Cheetah, the chimpanzee who appeared in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan serials of the 1930s. JSA deemed the scrawl authentic.

The CVS Pharmacy manager had sifted through fifteen 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.

PSA provided a letter of authenticity endorsing the Lindbergh signature in May 2008. They reversed course when it was asked to evaluate the Lindbergh again over a year later. This time, the autograph was deemed a likely fake.
Courtesy Steve Sterpka
PSA provided a letter of authenticity endorsing the Lindbergh signature in May 2008. They reversed course when it was asked to evaluate the Lindbergh again over a year later. This time, the autograph was deemed a likely fake.
Charles Lindbergh expert Dan Clemons.
Courtesy Dan Clemons
Charles Lindbergh expert Dan Clemons.

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.

Today, few autographs are bought or sold without the blessing of either Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) or its competitor, James Spence Authentication (JSA). The two companies have come to dominate the market, verifying hundreds of thousands of signatures each year.

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 the scope of their expertise, from Frank Sinatra's scrawl to baseballs defaced by Mickey Mantle.

There's a 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 and JSA have one problem: They sometimes get it wrong.

PSA once evaluated a James Earl Jones autograph and labeled it the handiwork of James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin.

JSA gave its thumbs-up to a trading card signed by pioneering boxer Jack Johnson. The card was made in 1948. Johnson died in 1946.

Both companies endorsed a letter signed by turn-of-the-century baseball player Ed Delahanty. Neither appeared to notice that he misspelled his own name as "Delehanty." Moreover, Jerry Casway, the player's biographer, pointed out that Delahanty was in Cleveland on the same day he allegedly wrote the letter, which was postmarked in Philadelphia. It still sold at auction for $35,000.

None of this was known to Sterpka, who liked to collect sports cards with his father and had only a passing familiarity with autographs. He was the prototypical consumer: a hobbyist who trusted someone else to make sense of the swooping letters of notable people long dead or far out of reach.

All Sterpka knew was that he owned a coveted Lindbergh. Upper Deck had it 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.

The FBI's Operation Bullpen sting of the late 1990s swept up massive forgery rings around the country. The investigation gained steam when an investigator for Upper Deck, which had an exclusive deal with Michael Jordan, noticed Jordan's signature on items that 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 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.

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