Buyer Beware: FOX28 investigates the autographed memorabilia mar - Fox 28: South Bend, Elkhart IN News, Weather, Sports

Buyer Beware: FOX28 investigates the autographed memorabilia market

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This Paul McCartney signed Fender guitar was provided for the auction from Charity Fundraising Experts This Paul McCartney signed Fender guitar was provided for the auction from Charity Fundraising Experts
Steve Grad is the principal autograph authenticator at PSA-DNA Steve Grad is the principal autograph authenticator at PSA-DNA
Charity Fundraising Experts has an A- from the Better Business Bureau and the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs shows zero compaints against the business Charity Fundraising Experts has an A- from the Better Business Bureau and the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs shows zero compaints against the business
We don't know how much the Montessori Academy made at the auction. The school's development director hasn't responded to our emails since our March interview We don't know how much the Montessori Academy made at the auction. The school's development director hasn't responded to our emails since our March interview
In March, FOX28 was invited to stop by the Montessori Academy at Edison Lakes in Mishawaka to preview their annual Windfall Auction.  "We've got an autographed Johnny Depp photo," Development Director Lauren Shewman said as she pointed to some of the items scheduled to be auctioned at their event on March 22.  "One of our crowning jewels, obviously, is the Paul McCartney signed Fender Guitar."

We started to look into the McCartney signature during the days following our interview.  The school says the celebrity auction items were provided by a company called Charity Fundraising Experts out of New Jersey.  We sent a picture of the signed guitar to several authentication companies.

"In our professional opinion this example is not likely genuine and was not signed in the hand of Sir Paul McCartney," wrote a representative from Global Authentics, LLC.  A rep for Professional Autograph Authentication Service also told us the signature was "not likely genuine." Roger Epperson, with Roger Epperson Authentication, Ltd., said it was one of the worst McCartney signatures he'd ever seen.

We presented the info, along with a print-out including a picture of the auction item next to a Paul McCartney signature we know to be authentic, to The Montessori Academy's Development Director, Lauren Shewman.  "I could never comment on that," Shewman said as we showed her the print-out.

Shewman said Charity Fundraising Experts has an A from the Better Business Bureau (BBB's website lists the grade as an A-) and the New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs shows zero complaints against the business.  "So the concerns that have been raised, we are going to present to those who are attending the auction and to our school community at large and let them know that we have some concerns that have been brought forward and also give them the research we have done," she said.

We don't know how much the school made at the auction.  Shewman hasn't responded to follow-up emails we sent following our March interview.

FOX28 News also tried to contact Charity Fundraising Experts, the supplier of the Montessori's auction items. We didn't get a response from the company's owner to our request for comment.

During our interview, Shewman was critical of the authenticators we talked to about the guitar.  "Everybody that we have talked to said nobody worth their salt would authenticate something via a picture, that it's something that needs to be done face to face, so I don't want to participate in the conjecture of, 'I looked at a photograph and was able to say that it was false or not.'"

Steve Grad is the principal autograph authenticator at PSA-DNA.  You may also know him from the program "Pawn Stars" on the History Channel.  His company is one eBay recommends to customers looking to authenticate memorabilia on its site.  "In the case of the McCartney, it spoke volumes immediately," he says. "I didn't need to hold that in my hands to tell it wasn't going to pass.  It was pretty obvious.  It was poorly done. Whoever had done that specific signature had literally no idea of what McCartney signed like, his tendencies, how he used a pen, or anything like that."

Grad bases his evaluations on years of experience, but even he admits authenticators can, and sometimes do get it wrong.  "Is this a perfect science?  No.  We never advertise it as a perfect science, but we are the best at what we do," he says.

Grad warns the market is saturated with fakes.  After the FBI's investigation called "Operation Bullpen" that culminated in a bust in 2000, experts estimated forged memorabilia comprised over $100 million of the market each year.  Recently in Chicago, an auction of Jesse Jackson, Jr's seized items was scraped after questions were raised about the authenticity of a Michael Jackson Signature.

Just last year in Chicago, Bill Mastro, a man called a "disgraced sports memorabilia kingpin" pleaded guilty to fraud.  In the late 90's two Milwaukee-area men were charged with selling hundreds of fake Brett Favre autographs.

Grad says most mistakes are made when the buyer is in a rush.  "Educate yourself and know what you're doing before you jump head first into something like this, otherwise there's no doubt, no question you're going to get burned," he says.  

In the end that's exactly what the Montessori Academy says it wanted to prevent from happening.  "We want to make sure that we are being completely transparent and acting in an ethical manner and protecting our community as well.  We don't want to put them in danger at all, so we want to make sure they have all the info and let them decide how they would like to proceed," Shewman said.

Charity Fundraising Experts is just one of a number of companies offering items purportedly signed by celebrities. A simple search on Google, Amazon or eBay turns up hundreds of signed items for sale. There were 16 McCartney guitars alone on Amazon at the time of our search.  What's not so simple is finding any agency making sure that the buyer is getting the real deal.  We talked to federal, and state law enforcement or consumer agencies and none could or would say they are involved in monitoring the memorabilia industry.
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