But less than a year later, Woods and Palmer reneged on the deal, Rypel says. "Out of the blue, they just stopped," he says. "We didn't hear from them for eight months."

"It's almost impossible to detect a Kevin Costner, which is a 'K' with a straight line."

That's when Matthews filed a new suit in Miami-Dade County alleging a breach of contract. That court fight lasted more than a decade, with Woods' company again pulling out its trope of claiming an expert had caught Matthews' firm, now renamed Millionaire Gallery, selling bogus signatures. Again, Matthews' experts testified otherwise in court.

The battle came to a head this March, with Woods himself coming to Flagler Street to plead his case to an all-female jury. (Palmer had settled out of court earlier.) Matthews' attorney speculated his appearance was a classic attempt to awe the jury with celebrity. "They thought there would be this celebrity awestruck reaction," lawyer Eric Isacoff told the Daily Business Review.

The trading card purported to bear the signature of aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Courtesy of Steve Sterpka
The trading card purported to bear the signature of aviator Charles Lindbergh.
PSA provided a letter of authenticity endorsing the Lindbergh signature in May 2008.
Courtesy of Steve Sterpka
PSA provided a letter of authenticity endorsing the Lindbergh signature in May 2008.

They weren't. On March 12, they awarded Matthews' company $668,000. The company has asked the judge to tack on more than $500,000 in interest. (Woods is expected to appeal the ruling.)

"This whole thing started with a third-party authenticator claiming our autographs were fake," Rypel says.

There's no doubt that the authenticating business is often impenetrable to outsiders. "A certificate," Rendell says, "is only as good as the person signing it."

But PSA's letters typically bear the preprinted names of several employees and consultants, with no indication of who verified the item in question. Above them is a real signature that's often impossible to decipher, does not have a printed name underneath, and may be from an individual who had ­nothing to do with evaluating the submission.

"In some cases, one person looks at it," says PSA President Joe Orlando. "In other cases, three or four might. People are buying based on the brand, not on who looked at it or how many people looked at it. [That signature] could be me, or it could be one of the authenticators. It's a finishing touch to let people know it came from our facility."

This lack of transparency often creates confusion over who looked at what and whether their expertise was sufficient for the task. Human error is inevitable, and neither company makes any claim to the contrary. Yet both seem to permit mistakes that lack any reasonable explanation.

In 2007, a Philadelphia Fox News crew attended a memorabilia show at which JSA set up a booth to evaluate autographs, including those produced by baseball player Sal Bando, who was sitting just a few tables away.

A Fox artist forged Bando's signature with minimal practice; JSA approved it without incident.

"That was a former employee of mine," Spence says of the Bando auditor. "I believe he was caught off-guard. I wasn't in the building at the time. They sort of blindsided him with the whole thing.

"I hear that over and over again. No one wants to hear about the good we've done. When someone brings that up — if that's the worst thing they can point to, I'm doing pretty well."

It is not necessarily the worst thing. In 2011, Heritage Auctions offered a letter signed by boxer Thomas Sayers and endorsed by both JSA and PSA. When boxing historians pointed out that Sayers was virtually illiterate — he'd signed a document with an "X" the following year — the auction listing was corrected to reflect that PSA and JSA both believed it to be genuine but could no longer offer certificates "due to a lack of exemplars."

But if no exemplars were available, historians reasoned, what did they compare the signature to in the first place?

Spence says he cannot recall the Sayers incident. Heritage sold the letter for $10,755.

Another Heritage auction, for a 1939 Baseball Hall of Fame induction program, featured a signature by slugger Nap "Larry" Lajoie. It was endorsed by PSA and JSA, despite the likelihood that it was executed while Lajoie was either intoxicated or forgot how to sign his own name. More likely, an inept forger made a mistake, putting a third "R" in his nickname to spell "Larrry." It sold for $41,000.

Then came the instance when PSA authenticated a souvenir letter of surrender signed by Nazi Karl Dönitz after Hitler's death gave him the keys to the Reich. PSA erroneously read the signature as being that of Chester Nimitz, a United States admiral who presumably would not be in a position to surrender German forces, nor in any position to sign a commemorative letter dated 1976. Nimitz died in 1966.

Orlando asserts that no system is perfect, but he is unwilling to offer specifics, growing particularly agitated at the mention of Sterpka. "I don't like the nature of your questions," he says, declining to answer any more.

None of these mistakes appears to have slowed business. A cursory eBay search on any given day will reveal more than 200,000 items bearing a PSA or JSA stamp. As the world's largest auction destination, eBay even cautions its buyers that autographs or memorabilia not endorsed by the two companies "may not be authentic."

Officially, eBay's reach has helped to legitimize their expertise. Unofficially, the former head of eBay's memorabilia-fraud division thinks PSA and JSA "suck."

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