Johnny Manziel Autographs Are a Horrible Investment

Back in February, I noticed something odd. Amazon and eBay were flooded with autographs from Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. The Amazon autographs were almost all from the same outfit that is notorious for selling zillions of forgeries of everyone from Muhammad Ali to Michael Jordan, so I assumed those were all fake. By the way, I’ve reported these fraudsters to anyone and everyone and no one seems to care — more on these criminals in a future blog post.

The eBay autographs were a different story. It’s normal for college football superstars to be bombarded with autograph requests from dealers like me when they practice on campus, go on regular season road trips or bowl game trips, attend award banquets etc. Sometimes they sign, sometimes they refuse.

It wouldn’t have surprised me to see several dozen Manziel autographs on eBay, with a few fakes mixed in with real ones, but it was the quantity (hundreds) and the quality that surprised me. These autographs were obviously not signed in a big crowd of people at the airport. They were too legible, some had inscriptions, and many were authenticated by JSA or PSA/DNA.

All signs pointed to Manziel doing a sit down signing of some sort. Which would be fine for a player with no more college eligibility . . . but not Manziel, who had only played one season at Texas A&M. If he accepted compensation for an autograph session, he’d have blatantly violated NCAA regulations.

Surely Manziel knew that. I picked up the phone and called my friend syndicated columnist Bill Wagner (Babe Waxpak) and filled him in. He in turn thoroughly investigated the situation. In March, his article was published in many newspapers and it included quotes from me and Manziel’s dad Paul.

Paul Manziel denied that his son had participated in any paid signings and claimed that most of the autographs on the market were fake. I wouldn’t call Paul a liar, since It’s certainly possible that Johnny did a paid signing without his father’s knowledge.

I said in the article, “If Manziel did any kind of signing for a dealer, it would be unprecedented for a player with remaining eligibility, clearly would be outside the auspices of Texas A&M and would be exactly what someone in his position would be strongly advised not to do — devalue his own autograph before he’s even able to profit from it himself.”

Today’s report from ESPN contains strong evidence that Manziel indeed did at least one large paid signing in Florida in January in front of multiple witnesses. I wish I had known how stupid and shortsighted Manziel was before I provided that quote. We’ll soon see if the NCAA rules him ineligible for 2013, as they should.

Sure, you could argue that the hypocrites at the NCAA who cut billions of dollars in TV contracts with networks like CBS and ESPN should let “student-athletes” like Manziel make whatever they can on their likenesses and autographs. That’s not the point. The point is, Manziel was either aware of the regulations and naively thought no one would find out, or was unaware of the regulations.

Either way, Manziel demonstrated incredible stupidity and lack of judgement. Not exactly the qualities you want to display prior to launching your career in the NFL, which is already smarting from recent negative incidents from the likes of Jovan Belcher, Dez Bryant, Josh Brent, Pacman Jones, Aaron Hernandez, etc. Manziel indeed is a special talent on the football field and may someday (perhaps sooner than anticipated) match or even exceed the early NFL success enjoyed by Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton or Russell Wilson. Then again, he may not. This latest news is a massive red flag for me, to say nothing of NFL front office personnel.

It’s true that all Heisman winners will forever be able to profit from their signatures to some extent. However, there is a large group of recent winners whose autographs have minimal value because they were NFL failures: Gino Torretta, Rashaan Salaam, Danny Wuerffel, Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch, Jason White, Matt Leinart, and Troy Smith. In 5 years or less, I wouldn’t be surprised if Manziel’s name is added to that list, which makes his current autograph prices massively inflated. If Manziel is declared ineligible and never plays another down for Texas A&M, the Aggie faithful will turn on him instantly (some have already). Then, if Manziel doesn’t succeed in the NFL, Johnny Football probably will be better known as Johnny Failure.

PSA/DNA Authenticator Thinks Mail Request Autographs Are as Good as In Person Autographs?

Yesterday I got involved in a brief e-mail exchange with PSA/DNA Consultant Authenticator Bob Zafian that shocked me. He contacted me about a certain prominent former government official whose autograph I have that Bob was interested in auctioning. As we discussed the potential value, I mentioned that I had only seen this person once at an unannounced appearance. In an attempt to downplay the value, Bob replied by saying that this official responds to mail autograph requests sent to their employer and book publisher.

I was stunned. Maybe I’m old school, but I believe it’s very dangerous for autograph dealers to sell autographs obtained through the mail (excluding arranged signings). I answered, “I never, ever sell an autograph obtained through the mail. Surprised that you do.” Zafian said, “Why is that?” I said, “Do you have any idea how many celebrities, politicians and sports stars use autopens? And if they use autopens, they use multiple templates. Almost undetectable to the naked eye.”

Zafian’s response: “Well I know a little bit about autographs.  I know how to tell an autopen from a legitimate signature, it’s not that difficult if you know what you’re looking at. and I know how to investigate and research autographs.” I said, “If you say so. Your buddies at PSA/DNA are largely incompetent. They have ‘authenticated’ numerous autopens and laser reproductions.”

Sure enough, I just checked eBay, and as of today (August 21) there are 38 Gerald Ford autographs that are PSA/DNA “authenticated.” I wrote about this issue previously. I’ll bet that at least 30 of the 38 were signed by an autopen. Yes, including the baseballs and golf balls. So maybe Zafian needs to be promoted to Principal Authenticator if he’s really that good at spotting autopens. Because obviously PSA/DNA needs all the help it can get in this area. They are utterly incompetent.

Plenty of Blame to Go Around for the Fake Autograph Market

Thousands, perhaps millions of people have been screwed by fake autograph sellers over the years. From buyers who spend their money on completely worthless signatures, to legitimate sellers like myself who have to compete with these criminals every day, all of us are victims.

I’ve been thinking about this lately and realized just how much blame there is to go around for this problem which never seems to get much better:

The forgers. Obviously, without the perpetrators themselves, this problem would not exist. These scumbags probably tell themselves that their crimes are victimless (false) and that they’ll never get caught (maybe true, maybe not).

Law enforcement agencies. Look, I get it. Fake autograph fraud isn’t as serious as terrorism or drug trafficking or bribery. But it’s still a crime and it’s a pretty big business. The FBI’s Operation Bullpen and follow-up Operation Foul Ball sting operations took place MORE THAN A DECADE AGO. Sorry, that doesn’t cut it. That sends a clear signal to forgers that the FBI doesn’t care, whether that’s true or not.

Third party authenticators. If you’ve read my blog, you know how I feel about these companies. James Spence (JSA) and PSA/DNA have good reputations that are entirely undeserved, in my opinion. Both companies are, at minimum, unacceptably sloppy and/or incompetent. Global Authenticated (GAI) is much worse — they appear to be corrupt to the core. It’s notable that the FBI didn’t bother enlisting any of these companies to assist in their investigations, which is why none of them are mentioned anywhere on their Bullpen or Foul Ball web pages. In fact, on the San Diego FBI’s Operation Bullpen page, it states, “The counterfeit market has been able to flourish because of the role played by authenticators who fraudulently (or mistakenly) certify forgeries as genuine signatures.” Third party authenticators like to claim they are part of the solution, but in fact they are part of the problem.

Marketplaces. The debut of eBay led directly to the growth of the autograph market, both legitimate and fake. eBay literally created thousands of new autograph dealers, many of whom were dishonest. It took eBay a long, long time to get a handle on this problem, and they made many missteps along the way. However, it’s clear that eBay now is very much aware and concerned about this problem and has removed countless fake autographs and fraudsters from its site. Are there still plenty of fakes on eBay? Yes, of course. But compare eBay’s aggressive actions in recent years to the blissful ignorance of Amazon, which has been notified many times about all the fakes on their site and hasn’t taken any action to the best of my knowledge. The same goes for all the smaller marketplaces.

Celebrities and their agents. If I’m a famous entertainer or sports star, I guess I have more important things to worry about than people faking my autograph. But it’s still stunning that while so many of them such as Andrew Luck care if their images are used inappropriately, they don’t seem to care that people are forging their autographs and making money selling them. Anthony Daniels, who played the droid C-3PO in all six Star Wars movies, is about the only celebrity I know who obviously DOES care. If the celebrity himself or herself is too busy, then his or her agent should consider getting involved in cracking down on forgeries.

Companies that do paid signings. When I was working for Beckett Publications about 20 years ago and still very naive and uneducated about autographs, we published a magazine about Michael Jordan and featured some items signed by him. Or so we thought. We got a call from Upper Deck Authenticated, which had an exclusive contract with MJ, complaining about us inadvertently showing fake Jordan autographs. UDA, more so than other companies that do paid signings, has been fairly aggressive about protecting their contracts by going after fakes, though not as much lately it seems. However, as far as I know, companies such as Ironclad, Mounted Memories, Steiner and TriStar Productions have done almost nothing about this problem in recent years even though they are arguably affected more than anyone. As the author of this article notes, the highly questionable Derek Jeter autographs “authenticated” by GAI are killing the market for real Jeter autographs certified by Steiner.

Customers. People who buy fake autographs and never realize it are not at fault. Your average person is fooled fairly easily and never discovers they’ve been had. However, sometimes customers who buy a fake later realize it, and often do nothing about it, or just pledge never to buy autographs ever again. That doesn’t help matters. What they should do is to file complaints with the FBI, their state’s attorney general, the Better Business Bureau and the marketplace (if applicable).

Dealers. I do my best to educate my customers on how to avoid being burned, but I know a lot of legitimate autograph dealers who don’t bother. I also know a lot of autograph dealers who rely exclusively on third party authenticators to back the authenticity of their autographs. That’s just plain irresponsible and lazy, especially considering how many mistakes these companies make. You’re the one selling the autograph, so it should be YOUR reputation that’s on the line, not some third party authentication company’s.

The problem with fake autographs will never completely go away, but it could be minimized if more people took action themselves instead of considering it to be someone else’s responsibility.

Don’t Bother Sending Wayne Gretzky Autographs to PSA/DNA (or Anywhere Else)

I’d be lying if I said I was a big NHL hockey fan. My adopted city of San Diego has never had an NHL team. Even the local minor league team, the Gulls, went defunct in 2006. I did live in Dallas when the Stars moved from Minnesota, and obtained dozens of autographs in person from the Stars and visiting teams during the 1990s.

One player I never got in Dallas was Wayne Gretzky, obviously considered to be one of the best players in NHL history. I always had bad luck with him in Dallas. One year he signed for everyone, and I mean everyone, on his way to morning skate — but I was at work. On the way back, he assumed that everyone had gotten him multiple times and refused to sign despite my pleas.

But after moving to San Diego I more than made up for that bad luck. The first time I got him was at a roller hockey rink grand opening in Escondido (just north of San Diego) around 1998 or 1999. In 2000 he hosted the LAPD Golf Tournament and signed up a storm. Since then I’ve seen him at other golf tournaments and he’s been pretty good about signing at all of them. What’s interesting is how inconsistent his autograph is. In an earlier blog post I wrote about how my favorite NFL player Dan Marino’s autograph was impossible to authenticate due to inconsistency. If anything, Gretzky’s autograph is even more inconsistent than Marino’s.

On AutographsForSale.com I currently offer 46, yes 46, different Wayne Gretzky autographed items from cards to photos to magazines to pucks to jerseys, and even a glove. I am quite sure that is a much better selection than any of my competitors. A few are from Upper Deck Authenticated, one is from a paid signing by Gartlan, one is from a paid signing with Gateway cachets. The rest were obtained in person by me or someone on my behalf (most at golf tournaments, but also at the team hotel when Gretzky was coaching). None were bought on the open market. They are all 100% authentic.

Yet if you compare the signatures, there are sloppy ones, neat ones, shorthand ones and full name ones. The best ones (mostly but not all from UDA) you can read the 99 he usually writes below his signature. On the rest sometimes there is just a single 9 visible or sometimes nothing legible at all down there. Which brings me to my main point. What business does PSA/DNA have accepting money to evaluate the authenticity of a signature that differs so much, even when signed at the same event? The answer? None. (Yes, I know that I have a Gretzky autographed 1999 NHL All-Star Game ticket certified by PSA/DNA — I got that signed at the LAPD Tournament and PSA/DNA graded it for free as partial compensation for an extremely valuable unsigned ticket that they “lost.”)

With a Gretzky autograph, the difference between a PSA/DNA sticker and a UDA sticker is about the same as the NHL career point totals of Wayne (2857) and his brother Brent (4).

Gerald Ford’s Autopen Tricked PSA/DNA (and Me)

Recently I received an e-mail from someone trying to sell me a few autographs of high profile celebrities including Michael Jordan, Gerald Ford and a few others. As a rule I never buy a Michael Jordan autograph unless it’s from UDA or I personally witnessed Jordan sign it. MJ’s autograph is among the most forged in the world, and inconsistent enough to make authentication after the fact almost impossible, similar to Dan Marino (I wrote about this in detail in a previous post).

The Gerald Ford autograph, on a letter referring to the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy alone, was in thin blue marker and dated (Ford served on the Commission). The seller said he had sent this letter and a book to Ford’s library and they got them signed for him. Knowing that former presidents were notorious for using autopen machines, I was of course concerned about this possibility.

So I checked eBay for similar items. Lo and behold, there was one almost exactly like it “authenticated” by PSA/DNA. The signatures were a perfect match, indicating that both letters were signed by an autopen machine. The dates were different, but a little research determined that some autopen models are programmable. This is yet another black mark on PSA/DNA’s reputation. Isn’t the first job of an autograph authentication company to determine first of all, whether the autograph was signed by a human? Epic fail — especially since someone was fooled into paying $200 for it.

This discovery made me question the three Gerald Ford autographs that were listed for sale on my website, two on cachet envelopes and one on a golf ball. Although none of the three signatures were the same, they were very similar to the letters. Furthermore, I discovered that Ford, like many former presidents, used dozens of different autopen templates, and that some autopen models worked on three dimensional objects such as baseballs and golf balls. I immediately removed all three Ford items from my website as suspected autopen signatures. I’ll bet that 99% of Ford autographs offered on eBay and elsewhere are autopenned.

 

I sent an e-mail to my prospective seller with my findings and, no surprise, received no response. I now wonder if this person had e-mailed several autograph dealers knowing what he was peddling was of questionable authenticity. I’m glad I didn’t get burned, and I’m glad I was able to remove my questionable Ford autographs before someone bought them.

The bottom line is that former presidents and other dignitaries use autopen machines for a reason. They don’t have the time or desire to hand sign anything except the most personal correspondence. No, they obviously don’t care that these items will later be knowingly or unknowingly offered as real hand-signed autographs. If you mail an item to someone who has been known to use an autopen, that’s what you’ll get returned to you.

Many years ago, when she was still First Lady, Hillary Clinton personally appeared at a book signing for “It Takes a Village” in Dallas in which buyers met Clinton but received pre-signed books. Lo and behold, it was later discovered that none of the books were signed by Hillary, but her autopen machine. I’m not sure who made the decision to defraud buyers like that, but I consider it unacceptable. She got enough flak that on her next book tour, for “An Invitation to the White House” she personally signed the books with beautiful full name autographs.

Book Recommendation: Autograph Hell by Charles Irion

I am ashamed to admit that I wasn’t aware of a 2008 book titled Autograph Hell until seeing a post on the website AutographAlert.com. Autograph Hell, which I read cover to cover in two days, was written by Charles Irion, a passionate autograph collector who became disillusioned when he discovered how much of his prized collection turned out to be questionable or definitely fake.

Irion examined the role of third party authentication in the autograph industry’s huge problem with fraud, and summed it up with the subtitle of his book: “It doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be authentic,” an actual quote from an autograph dealer. If the quote makes no sense to you now, it will after you read the book.

Like most collectors, Irion built his collection with a variety of methods, including in person. And like many collectors, Irion was shocked when some autographs that he obtained personally from the celebrities were judged as “not authentic” by third party authentication companies. Irion also discovered corruption and favoritism and conflicts of interest with these third party authenticators. If you’ve read my blog posts, you’ll see that Irion’s discoveries mirrored many of my own. Irion’s book confirms and strengthens my belief that third party authentication is one huge scam that, regardless of the intentions of those companies, has done more harm than good to the autograph business.

In other chapters, Irion summarizes the FBI’s Operation Bullpen (which was the title and subject of an entire book written by Kevin Nelson) and provides a detailed and revealing history of autograph collecting, and associated fraud. I had no idea that autograph collecting dates back centuries, and so does autograph forgery! Believe it or not, autograph forgery is directly linked to one of history’s most infamous serial killers, Jack the Ripper. Not only that, but celebrity complaints about autograph hounds bugging them dates back several decades.

The bottom line is if you’re an autograph collector or autograph dealer, you owe it to yourself to read Autograph Hell. You can buy it directly from the author from his Autograph Hell website, and he’ll even sign it for you.

FBI Investigation Looms Over the 2011 National Convention

A month and a half from today, sports memorabilia collectors and dealers from all over the country will convene at the 2011 National Sports Collectors Convention in Rosemont, just outside Chicago. The location may be appropriate, because the Chicago office of the FBI has been investigating the sports memorabilia business for the last four years and may be ready to announce its findings any month now. FBI agents have questioned numerous individuals at the last few National Conventions and it would surprise no one if they showed up in Rosemont as well.

The FBI’s investigation began with 2007 allegations that Mastro Auctions (based in suburban Chicago) was involved in shill bidding, card doctoring and other fraudulent activity. Mastro Auctions, which was the industry’s largest auction house, shut down in 2009 as its reputation went down the toilet. The FBI investigation has been thoroughly reported by Michael O’Keeffe at the New York Daily News.

If the investigation results in indictments, which seems likely, the sports memorabilia business will suffer a major black eye. But how big? It seems unlikely the FBI would spend four years looking into the actions of just one auction house. In fact, a, August 2008 article by O’Keefe regarding Mastro Auctions notes that “federal agents investigating fraud in sports collectibles questioned employees of Professional Sports Authenticator, the hobby’s top card grading service” and regarding the famous T-206 Honus Wagner card graded 8 by PSA sold for a record $2.8 million in 2007, “a former PSA authenticator has said the company knew the card had been doctored.”

It has been frequently alleged within the hobby that PSA has given preferential grades to its best customers, such as Mastro Auctions, and by the same token, PSA/DNA is much less likely to decline to authenticate autographs submitted by its best customers. To see just how tight PSA was with Mastro Auctions, note that four years after the fact, on PSA’s website there is STILL an article boasting about Mastro’s big sales in 2007.

I don’t have any first hand knowledge of what will come of the FBI investigation, but I do know this. It’s been more than a decade since the last big FBI bust, Operation Bullpen. This business unfortunately has more fraud going on right now than back then, thanks to the internet and a general feeling by fraudsters that the FBI doesn’t care about this business in a post 9/11 world. Just look at all the obviously bogus autographs that Amazon.com is flooded with, for instance. Regarding third party autograph authentication companies such as GAI, JSA and PSA/DNA, it’s long been my suspicion that individuals within those companies have knowingly cooperated with forgers.

I believe the length of this investigation means that the more the FBI has dug, the more fraud they’ve found. A major FBI bust in this business will temporarily hurt sales of all dealers selling sports memorabilia, including me. However, I will be the first to tell you that I can’t wait for it to happen. I hope all the scumbag competitors I’ve run across on Amazon.com and elsewhere on the internet get busted. Then they can practice forging signatures from behind bars.