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But there is no such thing as autograph school, says Panagopulos, and no degree can prepare you for the nuances of Ty Cobb's scribbling. Authenticators become proficient by looking at tens of thousands of signatures, analyzing habits, letter sizing and a confident hand.
Real signatures appear effortless. Forgers often use chemicals to age ink or paper, and they can display a slow and halting rhythm in duplicating penmanship. Authenticators consider how signatures change as a person ages and use handwriting samples known as exemplars to check for fraud.
Sometimes judgments can be made in moments; other evaluations can take days or weeks. Most experts have a narrow field of personalities they know well enough to critique.
But there seems to be no ceiling to PSA and JSA's abilities. In 2010, a dealer submitted the "signature" of Cheetah, the chimpanzee purported to have appeared in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan serials of the 1930s. Despite the likelihood that they had no exemplars on file for primates, JSA deemed the scrawl authentic.
As it turns out, Cheetah was an imposter whose owner duped the public before a 2008 Washington Post article uncovered the truth: Weissmuller's chest-thumping co-star was long deceased.
"I don't remember the particulars of that," JSA's James Spence says of his endorsement. "I'm not prepared to answer that. I'd have to refresh my memory. I think it was done tongue in cheek."
JSA would have needed only to perform a cursory Google search to put the chimp's penmanship in context. But the conveyor belt of submissions makes that unlikely. Spence says his company sees anywhere from 300,000 to 350,000 autographs a year. PSA has evaluated more than 3 million signatures since 1999, with nearly 400,000 of those in 2013 alone. While both companies list roughly a dozen experts on their respective websites, neither makes it clear whether they have others on call or what their credentials might be.
An undisclosed percentage of those signatures are witnessed, meaning the companies have a representative eyeing a celebrity or athlete signing something. The rest are submitted via auctions, dealers or collectors, leaving the companies to determine their validity.
But if just one quarter of submissions need evaluating — a conservative estimate — that means the companies are processing 75,000 to 100,000 a year. That's hundreds a day, some of which need to be evaluated by multiple experts.
"Nobody can really make any determination on anything that could be a decent forgery in that kind of time," says Kenneth Rendell, an expert in historical autographs who helped debunk forged Adolf Hitler diaries in the 1980s.
"I tell people that collecting sports memorabilia is like watching pro wrestling. You need a suspension of disbelief."
PSA issued a letter of authenticity to Upper Deck in 2008, asserting that the Lindbergh signature it planned to purchase from wholesale dealer Brian Gray was genuine. (It is unknown who supplied Gray with the autograph; he ignored requests for comment.)
An enthusiastic Sterpka contacted Beckett Select Auctions, which offered to sell his card on eBay and advertise it through its extensive network of hobbyists. Beckett suggested that Sterpka submit the signature to JSA. Though it already had PSA's endorsement, a higher price might be realized if both companies were in agreement.
JSA deemed Lindbergh's autograph to be authentic. Sterpka and Beckett put the card on eBay with a starting price of $10,000.
Their optimism did not account for the moment that Dan Clemons would lay eyes on the auction, chuckle at the amateur nature of the autograph — an uncrossed A, an open-looped G — and immediately deem it one of the worst forgeries he had ever encountered.
"Look at the flaked ink on the C," explains Clemons, offering an impromptu lesson on the Lindbergh in question. "And the top part of the curl on the left-hand side of the L; it's a little, skinny pen, then thicker again as it comes up. Don't you see? That's someone coloring in the bottom part of the curl. Don't you see?"
Most laypeople do not see. But Clemons, who has the erudite cadence of an antiquarian bookseller, became friendly with Reeve Lindbergh, Charles' daughter, in the 1980s. Bit by bit, with access to piles of her father's handwriting, he picked up the nuances of Lindbergh's signature. He soon began to authenticate items when the estate would get requests. Later, he began to scour eBay and look for forgeries.
When he came across Sterpka's auction, he sounded the alarm to eBay's fraud division. The site removed the card. An irritated Sterpka tried to relist it, only to have it taken down again. That's when Clemons phoned him.
"Within ten minutes," Sterpka says, "I was convinced it was a forgery."
Confused, Sterpka appealed to Upper Deck, sending the card along for examination. But Upper Deck remained convinced that the Lindbergh autograph was genuine.
Sterpka decided to seek another opinion, sending the card to RR Auction, a Beckett advertiser and home to several autograph experts. RR forwarded it to PSA for inspection.
Though PSA had deemed the signature legit just a year before, it issued a new letter signaling retreat. "After a thorough examination of your item," the letter stated, "we regret to report that your item did not pass PSA/DNA authentication."