Real signatures appear effortless. Forgers often use chemicals to age ink or paper and 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.

"Within ten minutes," Sterpka says, "I was convinced it was a forgery."

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 that was 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.

PSA reversed course when it was asked to evaluate the Lindbergh again more than a year later; this time, the autograph was deemed a likely fake.
Courtesy of Steve Sterpka
PSA reversed course when it was asked to evaluate the Lindbergh again more than a year later; this time, the autograph was deemed a likely fake.
Charles Lindbergh expert Dan Clemons annotated the trading card for his deposition, explaining the numerous errors he alleged the signature contained.
Courtesy of Steve Sterpka
Charles Lindbergh expert Dan Clemons annotated the trading card for his deposition, explaining the numerous errors he alleged the signature contained.

As it turns out, Cheetah was an impostor whose owner duped the public before a 2008 Washington Post article uncovered the truth: Weissmuller's chest-thumping costar was long deceased.

"I don't remember the particulars of that," 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 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. Although both companies list roughly a dozen experts on their respective websites, neither makes it clear what their credentials might be or whether they have others on call.

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."

The inconsistency of authenticators' judgment can burn collectors and dealers alike, as a South Carolina man named Steve Sterpka discovered.

The CVS Pharmacy manager had spent weeks sifting through 15 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.

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. Upper Deck had the Lindbergh signature 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.

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 for this article.)

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 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 independent Lindbergh expert 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.

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