"Of all the things I've said, they chose the least eloquent thing to quote," sighs John Gonzales, eBay's director of calculated fraud. Until 2012, Gonzales was in charge of overseeing memorabilia on the site. His 2010 comment, part of an email to a dealer, was leaked online. Four years later, his opinion hasn't wavered.

"They haven't shown me anything," he says. "If anything, it's gotten worse."

eBay has no formal relationship with either company. But Gonzales often asked PSA lead authenticator Steve Grad to review suspicious items.

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.

"I took him at his word," Gonzales says. But when Grad would look at JSA items and disagree with their opinion, Gonzales found it odd: If authentication was bound by strict rules of signature patterns and careful analysis, why would the two companies diverge?

"It told me," he says, "that it was more art than science."

A baseball signed by Walter Johnson and approved by JSA was priced at $80,000 before being removed after experts unaffiliated with PSA or JSA raised concerns. Another ball bearing 1920s left-fielder Goose Goslin's autograph — offered for $29,999 — had to be taken down for the same reason.

Though Gonzales maintains that PSA's Grad is "a total expert," he believes the sheer volume of submissions makes it difficult to maintain any reasonable level of quality control.

"A lot of times, they will just go through stuff so fast, they won't have time to review it properly," he says. "It should be a [letter] of opinion, not authenticity."

Gonzales was soon faced with a choice. If he ditched the companies altogether, he would essentially be winding the clock back to 1999, when forgers ran unchecked.

"I contemplated getting rid of them," he says. "The relationship is difficult to justify. On their best day, they're inept. But I came to the conclusion that they're the lesser of two evils. It's chaos otherwise."

The companies maintain that any dissent stems in part from dealers disgruntled by the fact that they can no longer pass bad merchandise. "I'd love to hear the argument that anyone would be better off without the third-party authenticators," Orlando says. "It's an imperfect system but so much better than what the industry had previously."

Between trading cards, autographs, and other collectibles, PSA parent company Collectors Universe reported $14.2 million in service revenue for its last operating quarter. In 2013, it made Forbes' list of America's Best Small Public Companies.

"They get a lot of stuff right," ­Panagopulos says. "At the end of the day, it's a judgment call. But they don't like to admit when they're wrong."

If PSA and JSA begin to publicly acknowledge mistakes, critics insist, collectors who have thousands of dollars invested in certified merchandise might begin to doubt the validity of their collections. As it is, with their investments going up in value year after year, there's no incentive for change. In the authenticity business, pretty good has become good enough.

"Something needs to happen on a legislative level," says eBay's Gonzales. "There needs to be some kind of improvement, some kind of formal education or testing. Right now, it's the closest thing we have to alchemy. Their piece of paper turns another piece of paper into gold."

Rypel agrees that reform is necessary. Though a focus on authentication has helped get some fakes off the market, he says the firms' power has become great to the point that they seem to "throw a dart and if they like you, it's real, and if not, it's a fake."

One easy change, he says, would be for auction houses to stop demanding "authenticator" imprints on obviously legit signatures, like those that Millionaire Gallery buys straight from a celebrity.

"When we have paid the celebrity directly, that's provenance," Rypel says. "I promise you, more than ten times a day... I have customers asking, 'Will this pass PSA/DNA certification?' Our answer is, 'Why would you need it when it comes straight from the source?' "

Questions about authentication may get more complicated yet. "Cut" signatures like the Lindbergh — those clipped from documents that might offer identifying (or damning) details — remain popular. Worse, Panagopulos sees the current crop of celebrity and athlete autographs as little more than a spastic wave of a pen, with no distinguishing characteristics to examine.

"Modern stars sign with a scrawl, not like Lincoln or Washington used to," Panagopulos says. "It's almost impossible to detect a Kevin Costner, which is a 'K' with a straight line." A glimpse of Meg Ryan's signature — little more than a pen scratch — invites questions about what subtleties could possibly be detectable, even to a trained eye.

As one of the few remaining independent and high-end dealers, Panagopulos is largely exempt from such debates. He prefers the old-school method of being an expert in your own inventory and guaranteeing it.

Panagopulos has the infamous Nimitz/Dönitz surrender signature framed in his office. "It reminds me," he says, "that I have a little bit of talent."

Sterpka's Lindbergh card was held by his attorney during four years of litigation. He got it back in December.

"I want to believe it's real," he says, "but I know it isn't."

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