Not everyone shares Gonzales' resignation. Peter Nash, for example, 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.

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.

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 Nice of the hip-hop group 3rd Bass and 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 came 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.

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."

Between trading cards, autographs and other collectibles, PSA's parent company Collectors Universe reported $14.2 million in service revenue for its last operating quarter. In 2013 it made Forbes' list of America's Best Small Public Companies.

"They get a lot of stuff right," says Alexander Autographs' Panagopulos. "At the end of the day, it's a judgment call. But they don't like to admit when they're wrong."

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.

"Something needs to happen on a legislative level," says eBay's Gonzales. "There needs to be some kind of improvement, some kind of formal education or testing. Right now, it's the closest thing we have to alchemy. Their piece of paper turns another piece of paper into gold."

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." A glimpse of Meg Ryan's signature — little more than a pen scratch — invites questions about what subtleties could possibly be detectable, even to a trained eye.

As one of the few remaining independent and high-end dealers, Panagopulos is largely exempt from such debates. He prefers the old-school method of being an expert in your own inventory and guaranteeing it.

Panagopulos has the infamous Nimitz/Dönitz surrender signature framed in his office. "It reminds me," he says, "that I have a little bit of talent."

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."

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