In 1904 legendary Apache warrior and chief, Geronimo, a longtime “Prisoner of War” in the United States — and 19th century media darling — was sent to the St. Louis World’s Fair where he probably became the first celebrity to sign autographs for a fee.
Geronimo, who was happy to be out of the government’s confinement, was an instant hit at the fair, rode a horse in the daily parades, participated in the fair’s rodeo and willingly (but for a price) posed for pictures and signed autographs. He signed for fees ranging from a dime to as much as 50 cents. From that he got anywhere from a couple of pennies to a dime — the rest went to the show promoters.
Geronimo’s signature was done in block letters, carefully printed, by the then-70-year-old Indian warrior. Today, in the autograph market place, his signatures are considered rare and go for anywhere from $6,000 to $20,000, depending on condition and what was signed. But there’s bad news too. Since Geronimo’s signature was quite neat, quite simple and very easy to replicate, that’s exactly what the forgers have done. His signature is frequently forged and sold to willing collectors for far less than the going price. Many buyers pay the lower price and think they are getting a steal. And they are. But it’s them who are being stolen from.
During the 1990s, the FBI identified a major problem threatening the entire sports and celebrity memorabilia market. The Chicago Division of the FBI initiated a sports memorabilia fraud investigation (called “Operation Bullpen”) targeting a group of individuals who forged, fraudulently authenticated, and distributed athletes autographed memorabilia (including Michael Jordan — throwing the market in to total chaos). The case resulted in the conviction of fourteen individuals in five states involved with forging and distributing forged memorabilia. Information developed by the FBI’s investigation suggested that the problem was national in scope and, indeed, it was.
While it is impossible to definitively estimate the percentage of forged memorabilia, most industry experts concede that more than half (and possibly as much as 75 percent) of the most sought-after athlete and celebrity autographed memorabilia is forged. Industry experts estimate that the autographed memorabilia market in the United States is well in excess of $1 billion per year.
I spent several years in the sports memorabilia hobby at both Fleer and Scoreboard and for the past 15 years have worked as a private autograph consultant/authenticator for a small list of influential clients nationally. It is safe to say that better than half the signatures presented to me are bogus. The way it works is that if they purchase an autographed piece — either privately or at auction — they will not pay for it until I have a chance to decide (and certify) the item as good. Just recently a Texas-based client sent me 18 items. I was able to certify seven of them, the rest were returned.
Despite the fact that Geronimo’s sale of his autographs as a marketable commodity seemed like a good idea in 1905, the actual collecting of them (for profit) really didn’t gain much traction until the latter part of the 20th century. Their accelerating values were closely tied to the exploding sports card and memorabilia business.
Babe Ruth, the most recognizable name in sports worldwide, willingly gave away his signatures to anyone that asked. The Bambino was known to have taken bushel baskets of baseballs with him when a made appearances at event so that no one who wanted his autograph would go home without one. Though there were probably close to a million autographs willingly signed by Ruth (no records exist) during his career, people today pay premium prices for even the worst conditioned ones.
And therein is the same problem as with the old Indian chief. Ruth’s signature contained eight letters. His Catholic school penmanship taught him to sign neatly and his signature is instantly recognizable. The opportunists decided that they could copy the Babe’s signature and make some money out of it. And they did. Did they ever.
Writing implements in the Babe’s day were pretty much pencils and fountain pens. Pencils on a baseball didn’t work and water-based ink in a fountain pen looked great on a leather ball, but ink fades over the years (and gets absorbed by the leather). To find a pristine one, it had to have been kept in darkness (in a drawer) over the years — and yet bright shiny too-good-too-be-real examples surface all the time.
A few months ago a couple from Lancaster, Pa., brought a legitimate Ruth signed baseball to me. (It was a vintage ball, showed actual game use.) The woman’s father had acquired it in person at an exhibition game in North Carolina in the 1920s. The problem? The fountain pen-signed signature on the ball had faded badly so the woman’s father had traced over the original with a ballpoint pen. When asked what they should do with it? I suggested that maybe they could go have a catch. It was pretty much worthless.
In my next column I’ll talk about the tricks used by the forgers and how you really need to be careful when you are making that big money purchase of a celebrity autograph.