COUNTERFEITING ELVIS ITEMS has been going on since at least the early ’60s when the FBI believes that mob-related organizations printed millions of copies of several best-selling albums from the 1950s and early ’60s. Other records include fine reproductions of the Sun 45s and 78s, various pieces of memorabilia, and fake sets of the 1956 Topps bubble gum cards. And faking Presley’s signature has been big business for decades.
Fake autographed memorabilia being sold at charity fundraisers sounds like the act of a misanthrope at best, a sociopath more likely. Cheating those who are spending their money knowing that it will go to help others is rather dastardly.
This is really not something that even gets discussed much, especially by those folks putting on these events.
Whenever I found an item signed by Elvis Beatles Dylan Stones Zeppelin etc., I simply assumed that it was somebody decorating their possession with their own handiwork.
And yet, “Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fakes and frauds and forgeries are sold every year through charities,” says Steve Cyrkin, editor and publisher of Autograph Magazine. “And the charities don’t know about it.”
What follows is more or less the complete (if slightly modified) article “Fake rock memorabilia sold at charity fundraisers” by Hagir Limor (Fox19Now, February 26, 2014). Normally, I don’t pay attention to autographs, as they do not interest me as a record collector, but this needs more attention.
I have separated the text from Mr. Limor’s piece by placing it between horizontal lines.
So, read on …
This postcard was provided to retailers for Easter 1967 and given away customers at stores across the country. That is, this was a piece of RCA Victor promotional material.
We trust the people we work with
“In Cincinnati, one of the largest fundraisers of the year takes over the entire floor of the convention center. The Rusty Ball benefits 162 local charities and attracted 3,300 donors this year. For its six-year run, the Ball has featured a large assortment of autographed music memorabilia: guitars, framed CDs or albums, and posters featuring the signatures of all the members of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Guns N Roses, and other such top acts as Bruce Springsteen and Elton John.
‘We give to the charity on a regular basis every year and love it,’ said Matt Ring, [who] shelled out $830 for an electric guitar signed by the entire original lineup of the Rolling Stones.
Many certificates of authenticity are just as fake as the items and are only as good as the person who put their name on it.
‘At the end of the day, the money’s going to a great organization and great people,’ said Chris Beebe. He [paid] $700 [for a] framed Bruce Springsteen BORN TO RUN album, $780 [for a] electric guitar signed by Springsteen and the entire E Street Band, and $517 [for a] Van Halen 5150 album signed by the entire band.
Fox19 showed those signatures and others sold at the Rusty Ball to two leading national experts, who judged the items to be forgeries. That includes items that came with certificates of authenticity.
The event’s organizer says he and all the charities represented at the event had any idea any items might be fake. ‘We’ve researched who we do business with as an organization. We trust the people we work with. They guarantee the things they’ve submitted to us and it’s a trust that’s real, so to hear that these certificates or items with certificates could be not legitimate, that’s the disheartening part,’ said Steve Fritch.
His popular ‘80s cover band the Rusty Griswolds originated the Rusty Ball ‘to help as many folks in our community in one night as possible. It is our hearts that make this thing happen.
There is no way for anyone who was not present at the signing of this album jacket to know whether or not they are genuine signatures of Van Halen’s band. The best an expert can do is offer an educated opinion.
How we evaluated the items
The autograph authentication business is all about opinion. Head online and you can find disparaging comments about just about everyone involved in the business, often from insiders speaking about their competitors. Fox19 sought out authorities recognized by major auction houses or memorabilia dealers and whose names came up repeatedly as possessing impeccable reputations.
We took high-resolution photos of memorabilia bought at the Rusty Ball. We first showed more than a dozen items to Cyrkin. He’s studied signatures for more than a decade, starting as a collector before becoming publisher and editor of Autograph Magazine. He’s served as an expert for national news magazine shows among other venues.
All the autographs were signed by the same person, same pen stroke, same pressure, plus the signature does not have the shape or form of what a real one would look like.
‘None of the signatures that you sent me were real, in my opinion,’ said Cyrkin. ‘I didn’t see one real autograph.’
To be doubly sure, we turned to the man [that] Cyrkin calls the world’s top authenticator of modern music autographs, Roger Epperson. [He] authenticates music autographs for Christies and Bonham’s, two of the world’s top auction houses. He also served as the music autograph authenticator for PSA/DNA, the largest authentication service in the United States.
Matt Ring brought in that Rolling Stones guitar signed by the entire band. Epperson looked it over and said all the autographs ‘were signed by the same person, same pen stroke, same pressure, plus the signature does not have the shape or form of what a real one would look like. This one’s definitely not authentic.’
Same thing with Chris Beebe’s three items. It was a process that repeated throughout the day with item after item: Guns N Roses. Elton John. Led Zeppelin. Pink Floyd.
There is no way for anyone who was not present at the signing of this album jacket to know whether or not this is the genuine signature of Bruce Springsteen. The best an expert can do is offer an educated opinion.
Pulling on heartstrings
Dr. Joe Gromada bought that last one, an electric pink-colored Pink Floyd guitar with band signatures [that] Epperson called forgeries. Gromada’s not only a donor—but he also runs one of the charities benefiting from the Ball.
‘We have a foundation, and it’s [for] my son who died of cancer a year ago,’ said Gromada, ‘So we have used the Rusty Ball for a couple of years for a fundraiser, and it has been very lucrative for the foundation, upwards of $5,000 each year.’
Gromada’s surviving son is a huge pink Floyd fan, so the doctor decided to spend $2,100 for the guitar to give as a gift to his son while supporting the cause. ‘It has some legitimacy through the event and also something that has an emotional context to it, my son dying and my other son wanting this guitar. I’m disappointed to learn this. I still believe in the Rusty Ball. The fact that they’ve been hoodwinked a bit is sad.’
‘We as an organization don’t feel good about our patrons being disappointed,’ said Fritch. ‘Anyone that’s ever come to the event, we’ll make things right for them. So if they see this story and they have some concern, they can contact us.’
A PSA/DNA Certificate of Authenticity. Convincing yes, but who watches the watchers? I mean, who vouches for the authenticity of this certificate of authenticity?
Un-authentic certificates of authenticity?
On the backs of many of the signed guitars and framed albums, an attached envelope held a precious letter: the certificate of authenticity. ‘It’s crucial that it comes with that certificate,’ said Gromada. Without it, ‘I don’t know that I would have paid even the original amount that they asked.’
The other buyers also repeatedly pulled out their certificate of authenticity s when they brought their items for Epperson to evaluate. Both Cyrkin and Epperson say those certificates of authenticity are just as fake as the items. ‘The letter of authenticity is only as good as the person who put their name on it.’
The majority of those certificates came from a company that holds online auctions every month selling thousands of signed sports, entertainment and music acts’ memorabilia, Coach’s Corner. For weeks, we asked for an interview and finally set up a meeting with the general manager, Lee Trythall.
Even though we showed Trythall a clearly labeled Coach’s Corner certificate of authenticity, he insisted, ‘We don’t authenticate. We sell items already authenticated.’ Instead, he says they ‘certify that the item is real.’
When we asked how he knows the signaures are real, he said. ‘We don’t. I’m not stupid enough to know all 4,000 lots are real, but most are.’
For those that are not, he says buyers have thirty days to return the items and get their money back. In the case of charity auctions, most often the ultimate buyers can’t meet that 30-day time frame, and all of the buyers in Cincinnati said they counted on the certificates they got, never questioning that their goods might be fake.
We then showed Trythall some of the same photos of items our experts evaluated. He looked them over and said they ‘may be authentic; to me it’s not an obvious forgery.’
Trythall touted 23 years in the memorabilia business with never an official inquiry by a public agency. Our public records search confirmed that fact, but we also found that eBay has banned Coach’s Corner, refusing to allow it to sell on the site, and the Better Business Bureau has issued the company an ‘F.’
Guess which group this pink guitar belongs to? And guess whose autographs (there are four of them) ain’t legit?
Supply and demand
Trythall says his company auctions items it consigns from individual sellers on a massive scale—3,000 to 4,000 pieces a month. Epperson says it’s impossible to sell that many real items because they’re very limited, particularly signatures of entire bands like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.
Cyrkin adds that those who own such memorabilia buy it to keep it, so it rarely goes on sale. Trythall disagrees and says these items are plentiful and easy to get.
He says that’s why his company is able to sell memorabilia for hundreds of dollars apiece. But Epperson says real items cost much more. He says Ring’s $800 Rolling Stones guitar would go for $6,500 if it was real, and Gromada’s $2,000 Pink Floyd guitar is ‘way too cheap. They’re that difficult to get. They’ve not been together for a long time. They don’t like each other. Now one of them is dead.’
In a business based on opinion, Trythall questions Epperson’s. ‘I don’t believe any authenticators. I don’t know how he would know that.’
Epperson certainly passed a test the day of his Cincinnati appraisals: among the memorabilia sat a guitar signed by the band Journey. Fritch personally had watched the band sign it. It was the one item Epperson judged to be authentic.
Multi-million dollar industry
Epperson and Cyrkin say the fake memorabilia business is much larger than the real memorabilia business, targeting charities around the country and around the world. ‘Of course the last thing a charity wants to do is to sell fakes to one of their wonderful donors,’ said Cyrkin.
Fritch says his organization is changing its procedures as a result of this investigation and will try to get out the word to all charities holding silent auctions. ‘In the world of charitable giving and people giving of themselves, there are people in the world who will take advantage of that, and I think this story exposes some of those companies,’ he said. ‘Our goal going forward is to find out who we can trust.’ ”
This postcard was provided to retailers for Easter 1968 and given away customers at stores across the country. That is, this was a piece of RCA Victor promotional material.
You can never know an autograph is legitimate
A friend of mine in Cincinnati has a business of buying and reselling tickets to entertainment and sports events. He interacts both professionally and personally with scads of entertainment and sports figures. As he does donate genuine autographed items to local charities, he is far more sensitive to this issue, and so he called this piece to my attention. I am reprinting it here and very briefly addressing the issue.
In my price guides for O’Sullivan Woodside and Goldmine published back when man and dinosaur were cooperatively conquering the west, I did not address the issue of evaluating autographed records, as it was to me a separate field of collectables—autographs versus records.
My stance was made elsewhere in print (Goldmine magazine) and it was very caveat emptor (“buyer beware”): unless the artist is signing the item to you and in front of you, you can never know that anyone’s autograph is legitimate!
During my years of actively buying records for resale, I came across many autographed records (almost always LPs) and decided that if a piece bore the signature of a Gale Garnett or a Joe Jeffries—fine singers but hardly near the top of the list of Highly Collectable artists—it was probably legit. (Who’d fake one if there was no financial gain?)
But whenever I found an item signed by Elvis Beatles Dylan Stones Zeppelin etc., I simply assumed that it was somebody decorating their possession with their own handiwork.
Perry Cox’s Beatles price guide has been around addressing the issues of fake signatures by the Fab Four longer than most collectors have been paying for fake autographs. He actually identifies and names the various girls that worked for the Beatles faking their autographs on photos and memorabilia back in the ’60s!
(In his various Beatles record collectors price guides, Perry Cox has included an entire chapter devoted to the many fake Beatles autographs authorized by Brian Epstein back in the ‘60s to meet the staggering demand for autographed photos that the Fab Four received each week in the mail. He has even identified the various secretaries who were authorized to do each Beatles’ scrawl year by year.)
I will never know how correct I was, nor will I ever care. I always advertised the piece as being signed but stated that I could not verify the signature nor did I ever expect it to increase the value of the item being sold.
In my books I essentially suggested the same thing to sellers (if you don’t KNOW it’s real, don’t advertise it as such) while warning buyers to beware if you don’t KNOW it’s real, don’t pay for it as such). Ms. Limor’s article above drives home the point decades later!
The above are all genuine signatures that Elvis gave to RCA Victor for use on various promotional items, including bonus photos packaged with albums and the regular Easter and Christmas postcards given away at retail outlets during the ’60s. These are easily copied from those items and forged onto other items.
Fake RIAA gold record awards
Two final observations: many of the RIAA Gold Record Awards offered for sale are not “authentic” (real!) in the sense that they were authorized and paid for by the record company or artist for their legitimate use (like giving them as rewards and gifts to those involved in the record’s success or family or friends).
Many of these Gold Records that have found their way onto the marketplace in the past thirty years were in fact ordered from the authorized manufacturers (who made them under the table and against their contractual obligations to the record companies and the RIAA) and paid for by “rare record” dealers to sell to collectors!
Three Babe Ruth autographed baseballs that sold for as much as $300,000 in the past few years. According to hand-writing experts, each was signed by a different hand, none of them the Bambino’s. And these came from a collection associated with the hall of Fame in Cooperstown!
Fake autographs of sports stars
Type “fake rock autographs” into Google and you get 236,000 results. Type “fake sports autographs” and more than 1,000,000 (a million) results pop up. One might assume that the incidence of fake sports autographs is considerably more common than of rock musicians or that it attracts a helluvalot more attention from collectors. Type in “fake historical autographs” and there are 743,000 results.
That venerable site eBay has had a warning regarding counterfeit signatures for several years: “How to spot a fake autograph!!!!” by 1.million.dollar.man. The editorial opens with this paragraph, which echoes the article above, including my decades-old caveat:
“Heads up for all eBay bidders—there are lots of fakes for sale, and you should really read here what to watch out for! Some sellers can be trusted, but there are way too many more that are deceptive. Some use wording such as UACC (Universal Autograph Collector’s Club) member, or “COA Included” (Certificate of Authority).
When anyone that has money to spend can join the UACC—which does not mean they are honest or reliable—and anyone that has a computer and printer can make a phony COA.
Some sellers state the item contains a signature of a celebrity, but they don’t actually state the celebrity signed it themself, or their wording leads you to believe the autograph is real when the seller did not actually state this!
Many people have written a famous person’s name on an item and sellers believe the celebrity signed it, when in reality it was not signed at all, it is just a name written by a fan. If you have a question of the seller’s wording, ask them BEFORE BIDDING.”
This postcard was provided to retailers for Easter 1969 and given away customers at stores across the country. That is, this was a piece of RCA Victor promotional material.
Fake Elvis autographs and others
After completing the article above, I did some more research, just looking for some numbers. Here they are from “Fake celeb autographs outnumber the real” by Colleen Long, Associated Press (February 11, 2005).
“Only 6% of all autographed Beatles memorabilia is authentic, according to PSA/DNA Authentication Services, a California-based organization that examines collectibles. Only 24% of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley signatures PSA/DNA has examined were genuine, and only 33% of more than 10,000 [Tiger] Woods and Michael Jordan autographs they scrutinized were real.”
According to FBI agent Timothy Fitzsimmons, “The forgers sometimes go to great lengths to get items authenticated. Sometimes, forged signatures were even identified as real ones, and the real ones as forgeries.”
There were also secretaries who were hired and trained to sign Elvis’s name to photos and letters to fans. These are easily copied from those items and forged onto other items. For example, the signature that resides at the top of this page as a header may be genuine or not; I don’t know nor do I care, as my point is made either way: caveat emptor!Only 24% of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe signatures and a paltry 6% of autographed Beatles memorabilia are authentic according to PSA/DNA Authentication Services, Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: This autograph from 1957 (?) was signed by Elvis on the back of a fan’s personal check from the Preston State Bank in Dallas, Texas.
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, the number of scams pulled on Elvis collectors may be unparalleled in the entertainment business. The few times that I made it down to Memphis during the regular August commemoration events, I was appalled at the number of dealers pulling the wool over the eyes of customers.
I know almost nothing about autographs; I republish the article below as a warning against spending large sums of money on autographs—even those sold by reputable dealers with authentification from reputable experts.
Again and ever, buyer be wary …