"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?"

PSA erroneously read the signature as being that of Chester Nimitz, a United States admiral.

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.

Clemons's annotated trading card.
Courtesy of Steve Sterpka
Clemons's annotated trading card.

"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," it read, "we regret to report that your item did not pass PSA/DNA authentication."

Sterpka picked up the phone and called an attorney, igniting a lawsuit against PSA's parent company and Upper Deck for fraud and negligent misrepresentation.

His lawyer arranged for Clemons to offer a deposition. "I came loaded for bear," says Clemons, who has thick notebooks citing examples of Lindbergh's handwriting quirks from childhood to just before his death.

By this time, PSA had done another about-face, once again declaring the signature genuine. "They said the second one was inadvertently issued," says Douglas Jaffe, Sterpka's lawyer. "It made no sense."

The depositions Jaffe took offered a look inside the turbulent submission process Sterpka's card was subjected to. Testimony revealed no one at PSA could identify who examined the autograph the second time. PSA principal authenticator Steve Grad said he had no personal involvement beyond signing the rejection letter.

"A mistake was made," Grad repeatedly told Jaffe.

Though the company now claimed the Lindbergh was authentic, it still offered $6,000 to settle. Sterpka's lawyer wanted Upper Deck to match it, but Upper Deck refused, betting that Sterp­ka could not prove his charges.

He couldn't. Last November, a judge shot down Sterpka's suit, noting that both companies believed the signature to be genuine and therefore could not have intentionally committed fraud.

The result left Sterpka confused. "I've got two documents from the same company saying two different things," he says. "How did I lose this case?"

The Miami golf dealers' decades-long court fight began with an in-house authenticator hired in the mid-'90s as part of an effort by IMG, the sports agency that represented Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer, to attack supposed autograph fraud. It illustrates the perils of relying on an expert who claims he can divine frauds from real autographs.

The day before the arrests at the 1997 Masters, a private investigator mailed a few autographed photos ordered at the stand run by Gotta Have It, a South Miami shop owned by businessman Bruce Matthews, to an expert. Comparing them to a few dozen signatures he knew to be from the golfers, the expert proclaimed Gotta Have It's products to be "probable forgeries."

There are several problems with this strategy. For one thing, the "comparison autographs" are signed by the golfers sitting down in a controlled environment, while many of the autographs sold by dealers like Gotta Have It are scrawled in a rush for fans in a crowd. "We easily shut that down with our own authenticator," Rypel says of the expert's testimony. "We had witnesses who saw them sign these autographs on the course."

While IMG told national media the arrests showed stars getting serious about fake signatures, Rypel says the crackdown was more about Woods' trying to get control over a blossoming market for his autograph. The "expert" who proclaimed that Gotta Have It's were fake was simply aiding that strategy, he says.

"They were successful in shutting down a lot of dealers," says Rypel. "The very next day, we had people wanting their money back. A guy in Japan who had spent $50,000 with us wanted all of it back. It hurt our reputation very quickly."

When Palmer, Woods, and Nicklaus filed a federal lawsuit against Matthews and his company, the Miami businessman quickly filed a countersuit. The golfers and the shop eventually reached a deal with a mediator in January 2001: The three golfers would provide a few hundred officially authorized signatures a year to the dealer to resell, with profits being shared all around. (The criminal charges in Georgia against Maurer and the others were also dropped.)

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