An autograph from a famous athlete or a favorite movie star might be hanging on your wall right now. People are willing to pay big bucks for those kinds of keepsakes. But how do you know if that prized signature, is the real thing? We bought a half dozen autographs then put them to the test. Our investigation uncovered just how quickly you can throw your money away when you're trying to buy a piece of fame.
They are heroes on the screen and on the field. Fans scream the name of celebrities, and line up for them to sign it. The competition for celebrity autographs is fierce because those signatures sell. And the crooks know it.
"The forger doesn't care about you," said Steve Grad, principal authenticator at Professional Sports Authenticators in Santa Ana, California.
"They don't care if this is for a birthday present. They don't care if it's for a wounded veteran. They don't care if it's for your grandma" Grad said. "They want to make the money."
We took our money online and bought a half dozen autographs from sports, TV and the movies, and headed out to PSA, one of the top certification companies of celebrity memorabilia in the nation. It's a place where experts like Grad go high tech, using electronic microscopes and computerized light analyzers, to determine if an autograph is real, or fake.
"What this does, it gives me the ability to look at the ink," Grad said of the machines.
Grad said the best forgers track down aged ink and antique paper to pull off the con. Others just use a sharpie and a little artistic talent.
So we asked him if the autographs we bought were real, or fake. In his opinion, 4 out of 6 were bogus, including autographs from basketball legend Michael Jordan, baseball slugger Albert Pujols, and Sex and the City Star Sarah Jessica Parker.
We paid about $300 for those four autographs. But when Grad put them side by side with the ones in his data base of 140,000 famous signatures he said the slant, shape and sizing didn't match up.
"I don't even think the person that did this one on the photo knew what her autograph looked like," Grad said referring to one of the Sarah Jessica Parker autographs.
"They do anything to make money," Grad said.
So how big a business are fake autographs. The answer is in San Diego, home to the largest forged memorabilia bust in American history.
"The group that we were targeting was making over $100 million a year," said retired FBI special agent Jeff McKinney, a lead investigator for Operation Bullpen. In 2000, Operation Bullpen brought down a counterfeit ring that sold forged baseball autographs coast to coast. The heads of the crime network went to prison and the FBI seized more than $500,000 cash and about $10 million of forged memorabilia.
McKinney said that didn't take the pen out of criminal's hands.
"If you arrest the person selling drugs there's going to be somebody else that takes his spot because there is money to be made," McKinney said. "And it's the same thing with memorabilia. As long as there's the demand then it will continue to be a problem."
Part of the problem for consumers is that expert opinions on what's real are just that, opinions. Remember that Albert Pujols autograph? The one Grad said was a forgery?
"Sizing, slant, pressure, it just reeks to death of being bad," Grad said.
The seller, told us it's Grad, who's got it wrong. When he was told Grad refused to certify the Pujols autograph, the seller wrote "authentication of a signature is a subjective opinion and not exact science. This autograph was obtained in person. I handed the helmet to Albert, he signed it and handed it back."
In response, Steve Grad's boss, PSA President Joe Orlando, wouldn't guarantee Grad's analysis was correct.
"Our experts, just like any experts, don't get it right every time," Orlando said. "But if Steve was emphatic the autograph was fake it says something."
Grad was emphatic.
"Whoever did this, I'd say they massed produced it in one day," Grad said of the Pujols autograph.
But Grad says the only sure thing in the world of celebrity autographs is the one you get yourself.
In fact, Grad says even certificates of authenticity from companies like PSA are sometimes forged. Both Sarah Jessica Parker autographs came with certifications from other companies.
One autograph we bought, that Grad says, was real? A signed Muhammad Ali photo which grad said was worth about twice what we paid for it.
For tips on how to identify fake autographs, click here.
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