What is going on in the autograph industry?

By Peter J. Nash

March 4, 2015
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It’s not a baseball memorabilia dispute but every baseball collector will be familiar with the names of the characters getting dragged into the RR Auction class action lawsuit. The litigation, initiated by collector Michael Johnson, has been brewing for over three years in Santa Barbara Superior Court and the lawsuit is on track to receive California class certification in the next few weeks. Take a look at your PSA/DNA LOA’s and you’ll see the facsimile signatures of the so-called experts who have been dodging subpoenas in the case for months now including PSA PresidentJoe Orlando; Pawn Stars regular Steve Grad, and John Reznikoff. Even the former kingpin of the memorabilia and auction industry, Bill Mastro, is on the list to be deposed as he awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to mail fraud last year in a Chicago Federal Court.

Orlando and Grad are still currently evading service of subpoenas while the deposition of PSA authenticator Bob Eaton has been up on a video link at the RR Auction lawsuit website since January. Grad’s video-taped deposition is highly anticipated in the hobby considering he fabricated his professional bio and was exposed lying under oath about his education in another litigation. The deposition of Eaton, who is also the owner of RR Auctions and claims to do $25 million annually in revenue, is a must-see for anyone who buys, sells or collects autographs. One collector who watched the video told us, “It’s hard to believe that a PSA/DNA LOA with his name on it could be worth the paper it’s written on after watching that video.”

Eaton’s name and facsimile signature were recently reported as having been removed from PSA/DNA LOA’s and sources have confirmed that recently issued PSA certifications make no mention of Eaton. In his deposition Eaton said he was no longer affiliated with PSA and that his company no longer offers a “lifetime guarantee” or even letters of authenticity on items they sell. Eaton couldn’t recall who prints his monthly auction catalogs and also couldn’t remember filing lawsuits within the hobby and against former employees.

Bill Mastro was instrumental in bolstering the careers of authenticators (l to r) Steve Grad, John Reznikoff and Roger Epperson. Epperson was recently exposed for authenticating a large group of Michael Jackson forgeries some of which ended up in RR auction sales. Many of the forgeries were sourced to actor Corey Feldman but the actor denied ever owning them and claimed a photo accompanying the forgeries had his head photo-shopped onto the image (right).

Eaton also said he had no knowledge of his “entertainment expert” Roger Epperson authenticating or consigningMichael Jackson forgeries to his auction house despite evidence suggesting that he did. Eaton’s consignment director, Elizabeth Otto, however, admitted under oath that Epperson and PSA experts Grad, Reznikoff and Eaton consign their own authenticated materials to the New Hampshire auction house. Otto also stated that the autograph submission protocol at RR and PSA/DNA is “anonymous” and that experts do not know the identity of consignors, but sources indicate that internal RR documents contradict Otto’s testimony.

Otto also said that Bob Eaton was not on the “PSA payroll” or compensated by PSA for having his name and signature appear on PSA LOAs but she could not directly answer why Eaton would work for PSA without compensation. In her deposition Otto also claimed that William Boehm, another associate of Bill Mastro whoplead guilty and is also awaiting sentencing in the Mastro case, had acted as the webmaster and outside IT consultant for the auction website. RR’s Vice President Bobby Livingston went a step further in his deposition and said that Boehm was a freelancer who worked for RR and “oversees the function of the auction software.”  Boehm was working for RR after he was indicted for lying to FBI agents about destroying auction bidding records and company computers for Bill Mastro.

As one collector told us after watching all of the RR video testimony, “This class action lawsuit really shows the behind the scenes collusion between the auction houses and the third-party authenticators.”  Another veteran collector said, “This very well could be the beginning of the end for PSA/DNA.” But if that’s the case, what is the RR Auction class action really all about and how is PSA/DNA involved in the litigation? And why are the lawyers who represent PSA and its parent company, the publicly held corporation Collectors Universe (CLCT), also representing Bob Eaton and RR Auctions?

The RR Class Action lawsuit website details the items purchased by Michael Johnson which were rejected by PSA/DNA including alleged autographs of The Eagles, Eric Clapton and the Moody Blues.

The original underlying claims made in the lawsuit relate to collector Michael Johnson’s RR auction purchases of over $100,000 of autographed Rock n’ Roll memorabilia including album covers, guitars and drum heads allegedly signed by the likes of Vanilla Fudge, Pink Floyd, The Eagles, Paul McCartney, Cream, Eric Clapton, theMoody Blues and the Rolling Stones. According to the complaint and the lawsuit website, Johnson had all of the material sent to PSA/DNA for letters of authenticity to be issued, but all of the items were deemed non-genuine by PSA and expert Steve Grad.  After he was notified that the items he won from RR were failed, Johnson complained to Eaton and RR vice president Bobby Livingston and subsequent email exchanges between Livingston and his boss show that Eaton called Johnson a “nut case.” The exchanges also reveal that RR had discussions with PSA which resulted in another email exchange which referred to Johnson’s items and stated: “PSA-Now They Are Real.”

A portion of an email between RR owner Bob Eaton and VP Bobby Livingston reveals that PSA/DNA reversed its opinions on the items they failed. The RR email states, "PSA-Now they are real."

The email exchanges were turned over to Johnson’s attorneys in discovery and they reveal the inner workings of the auction house’s authentication process and the incestuous relationship between RR and PSA/DNA, the company that auction house owner Bob Eaton has served as an expert for and is listed on hundreds of thousands of letters of authenticity. RR didn’t immediately refund Johnson’s money and in doing so, RR and Eaton opened up the door for the filing of the class action lawsuit amid claims that many other California residents who bid on items in RR’s auction sales were also the victims of fraud and deception that stemmed from the authentication processes utilized and manipulated by RR and PSA/DNA. A closer examination of the email threads turned over by RR also reveals that the documents received in discovery may have been doctored or fraudulently altered to delete information which included direct email exchanges between RR and PSA/DNA including its President Joe Orlando and senior authenticator Steve Grad.  Adding to the controversy and conflicts of interest is the fact that RR and PSA/DNA are represented by the same attorneys, Keith Attlesey and Suzanne Storm of the California lawfirm Attlesey & Storm.

While Bob Eaton's name and signature have been removed from PSA/DNA LOAs, he still appears as an expert on Jimmy Spence's (inset) website for his company JSA.

While Eaton still appears as an expert on Jimmy Spence’s website for the authentication company JSA, his name and signature appear to have been removed from the PSA/DNA LOAs after he was noticed for his deposition back in October. The last LOA we could find with his facsimile signature was issued in November of 2014.  Eaton’s name had appeared on PSA/DNA LOA’s under the Collectors Universe umbrella for over a decade since he joined PSA in late 2003.  Prior to 2004, the PSA/DNA letters only included the names and signatures of Jimmy Spence and Steve Grad but by 2005 Spence had left PSA and the new LOA’s issued by the company included the names of Grad, Reznikoff, Zach Rullo, Roger Epperson and Eaton as the members of the “PSA Authentication Team.”

It is interesting to note that Eaton and the PSA team authenticated scores of Babe Ruth forgeries that were sold by Mastro Auctions and MastroNet during that same time period and it is no surprise that Bill Mastro, the godfather of the third-party authentication system, is listed on the class action website for an upcoming deposition.  It was Mastro who was instrumental in installing Jimmy Spence and ex-Mastro employee Steve Grad as the lead authenticators for PSA/DNA and it was Mastro and his MastroNet partner Rob Lifson who devised language and regulations in the MastroNet catalogs between 2000 and 2003 which insulated the auction house from liability for selling forgeries and successfully set up a system to market and distribute forgeries throughout the hobby with little recourse for collectors.

Bob Eaton was included as a PSA/DNA expert on all LOAs issued by Collectors Universe from 2005 until 2014. After Eaton was noticed for his deposition in the class action lawsuit, his name stopped appearing on PSA/DNA LOA's as evidenced on a January 2015 LOA (right). Eaton's facsimile signature appears on a 2005 PSA/DNA LOA certifying a Babe Ruth forgery as a genuine signature (right) .

There has been little in-depth reporting about the Johnson case and the “hobby press” hasn’t really acknowledged the legal wranglings.  Most of the chatter about the case has surfaced on autograph forums and long-time PSA supporter, Steve Cyrkin, made the most notable public comments about the case recently before he was added to the class action website’s list of individuals scheduled to be deposed. Cyrkin addressed the lawsuit and said:

“If you’re perplexed why this lawsuit was filed, since R&R offered to refund Johnson’s money and all grading and shipping fees, this may make it easier to understand:  There’s a California law covering signed sports memorabilia, Calif. Civil Code 1739.7, that specifies 10-times losses plus legal fees and costs for selling fake signed memorabilia. I hear it has been successfully used in cases involving non-sports signed memorabilia as well. I think that Johnson is trying to use this law to try shakedown R&R. R&R offered Johnson his money back and more according to the deposition testimony, so I can’t imagine any judge or jury awarding a civil penalty. I think that at best all Johnson will get is what’s specified under R&R’s terms and conditions in force when he bought the items.”

Cyrkin even published the California statute he was referring to which states:

“(g) Any consumer injured by the failure of a dealer to provide a certificate of authenticity containing the information required by this section, or by a dealer’s furnishing of a certificate of authenticity that is false, shall be entitled to recover, in addition to actual damages, a civil penalty in an amount equal to 10 times actual damages, plus court costs, reasonable attorney’s fees, interest, and expert witness fees, if applicable, incurred by the consumer in the action. The court, in its discretion, may award additional damages based on the egregiousness of the dealer’s conduct. The remedy specified in this section is in addition to, and not in lieu of, any other remedy that may be provided by law.”

Cyrkin made his public statements just before he lost three motions in California Superior Court as a defendant in a defamation suit filed against him by autograph dealer Todd Mueller of Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Mueller’s suit alleges malicious defamation and business interference and sources familiar with that litigation allege that documents obtained in discovery by Mueller’s attorneys (the same firm representing Johnson) evidence collusion between PSA/DNA and auction houses and also suggest that Cyrkin, Orlando, Grad, Epperson, Reznikoff andJimmy Spence of JSA worked in concert to destroy Mueller’s reputation and his business to further their position as a monopoly in the authentication industry.

Cyrkin, who is a co-founder of PSA and currently employed by the company in its coin division declined comment about his public statements regarding Johnson’s alleged “shakedown” of RR Auctions. Cyrkin is the moderator of the website Autograph Magazine Live and is known throughout the hobby as a notorious seller of forged itemsthrough his now defunct company Starbrite Autographs. Cyrkin has also claimed in court papers to have several mental disorders and he also has as a history of legal troubles including a $500,000 judgment entered against him by the Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co. for committing insurance fraud. Johnson and his attorney,Dugan Kelly, declined to comment or respond to Cyrkin’s allegations of a “shakedown” but did say there could be additional filings in the class action suit against RR later this week.

The depositions of Bob Eaton, Bobby Livingston, Bill White and Elizabeth Otto are currently on the RR lawsuit website (top row). On deck are (l to r) Steve Grad, Joe Orlando, John Reznikoff, Steve Cyrkin and Bill Mastro.

Hauls of Shame interviewed several parties familiar with the details of the RR class action and the Mueller litigation who disagree with Cyrkin’s commentary and, based upon those interviews, we’ve determined that there are multiple issues that could interest the FBI in relation to the RR Auctions and PSA/DNA:

1. Allegations of collusion between RR Auctions and PSA/DNA.

2. RR’s alleged sale of bogus autographs accompanied by RR and/or PSA/DNA LOA’s.

3. Allegations that RR Auctions’ office manager Karen “Kay” Burris may have been a murder victim contrary to reports that she committed suicide just weeks after RR filed police reports and a lawsuit against her alleging the embezzlement of $111,000. Sources say that Burris had first-hand knowledge of fraud and shill-bidding at RR and that Eaton and RR Auctions settled out of court with Burris’ family after her death.

4. Allegations of collusion and racketeering between PSA/DNA employees and major auction houses.

5. Questions about the professional qualifications of PSA/DNA authenticators and how its “so-called experts” could render opinions on the 400,000+ autographed items per year. In its 2014 Annual Report Collectors Universestates that PSA/DNA employs “6 autograph experts with an average of 25 years of experience in the autograph memorabilia market, as well as outside consultants that (they) use on a contract basis.”

Hauls of Shame has confirmed that at least two FBI agents have expressed interest in reviewing the RR class action lawsuit depositions as well as the upcoming depositions of PSA/DNA employees. Bob Eaton was asked in his deposition if he was currently being investigated by the FBI and he responded that he was unaware of any such investigation.  A Federal agent has also made it known to several hobbyists that the New York office of the FBI would like to hear from any collectors who feel they have been victimized by any third-party authentication company and said they can report their experiences by calling 718-286-7100. We requested interviews with Joe Orlando and Bob Eaton but neither executive responded to comment on the on-going litigation.

As far as the civil litigation is concerned, one major dealer with over thirty years in the autograph industry is skeptical that the RR class action could ever impact PSA/DNA or Collectors Universe in a significant way.  He told us, “I do not see depositions or a court case on the horizon, the parties (at PSA) that have refused service will continue to do so until they throw so much money at this that they will make it go away. Too much at stake to forfeit a monopoly, unfortunately that is the reality.”

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  • from an accounting perspective, which is what their defense expert is saying, that would be correct.  "someone else paying more" as it can be quantified in $$.  It'd be interesting to see the government calculations in detail which is what is being disputed in this document.   Again trying to come up with a $$$ amount. 

    Their expert then counters with two specific examples and sums it up as being done correctly by Allen

    Having said that, is there only one Mr. Beechy involved or were there others.  They are also missing   Of course, it's the defense job to minimize the $$ impact to thwart the higher figure impact even though it's less than $200k.  And if they can narrow it to only 347 auctions, which they seem to have narrowed it to out of 2463 auctions then they might sway the sentencing.

    I just wonder how many more than the 2463 were there since they had been in business along time that they didn't find.  Hopefully, the judge will be thinking that way as well.

  • DB-

    that is interesting.  I always thought shill bidding was using a fake bid to make someone else pay higher.  Such as bidding against a ceiling bid.  But the definition is;

    Shill bidding happens when anyone—including family, friends, roommates, employees, or online connections—bids on an item with the intent to artificially increase its price or desirability.

    Based on the definition I would lean to any fake bid is shill bidding but I thought only if it made someone else pay more....evidently not.

  • That shill bidding summary by the defense's forensic accounting expert is interesting.  It's only 6 pages of 103 but there is something faulty in the logic.   If good ole Mr. Beechy placed a shill bid and there were no other bidders, did the seller essentially loose out because that bid priced them out of the bidding.  I believe that was a similar argument that Mastro used.  Likewise, when there was a bidding war does it start from there or did the shill bid price out others as a result.

  • I would think the same.  Allen getting more than Mastro would be sad.  Mastro ought to have rec'd that sentence.  This piece should shake up some others as who did he have a wire on for;   

    “After Mr. Allen was interviewed by the Government and provided truthful and complete information on the extent of his role in the conspiracy, the Government continued to use him as a cooperator in other unrelated cases. For approximately 14 months, Mr. Allen provided information and documentary evidence to the Government about fraudulent practices in the sports memorabilia industry. He made multiple recordings through telephone calls and in person meetings with targets of the Government’s investigations.

    Indeed, Mr. Allen’s cooperation exceeded that of other defendants. He recorded dozens of phone calls and in-person meetings with individuals suspected of fraudulent practices, all under the direction of the Government. Although he justifiably lost his cooperation deal with the Government for his conduct with respect to one investigation, Mr. Allen respectfully requests that this Court take into account his extensive cooperation with the Government over a 14-month period.”

  • Then net54 published Doug Allen's Shill Bidding report.  I would think being on this list would not be a good thing.

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3Sh1S-APDWEa25KNHItYTR5dkFnR1NhTk...

  • DB-

    I think it's about time for legislation while I am certain others will hate it.  Also noteworthy.

    http://www.sportscollectorsdaily.com/prosecutors-to-request-allen-s...

  • I am prolly not going to buy any more autographs. plus I can't really think of anyone I absolutely need that I don't have and it's a small number but I have my favorites!
  • Is there something new or are we just repaving the cow path?  Haven't followed this site much since the notifications seem to be a love fest with Frost.  IMO, it diminishes this site to meaningless dribble & most of it is who cares.   

    as far as news goes;  Rob Lifson, in a blog post recently on his Robert Edward Auctions website, wrote he is retiring in 2016 from the business after more than 40 years in the hobby because he is now 55 years old.  Must be nice or is he just getting out of Dodge early?  .REA’s Consignment Director Brian Dwyer will take over the business.

    And proposed Legislation while noteworthy and a step in the direction how does it address authenticator opinions & what is the civll recourse to them and not just the dealers.   As we all know PSA/DNA don't engage in legal matters on their opinions (more often than AB 1570 will require dealers of any signed memorabilia to provide a certificate of authenticity upon sale of the autograph.  The bill will also provide victims of forged memorabilia with civil recourse including ten times the amount of actual damages.  Current law does offer some protection for sports related memorabilia issues but Chang says the new legislation would hold all dealers to higher standards.

    California Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) has a celebrity backer for legislation she says would help consumers who are the victims of forged autographs.

    Chang says the large number of bogus signatures makes it too easy for consumers to be defrauded.  Assembly Bill 1570 is aimed at putting safeguards in place as well as providing civil recourse for buyers of autographs.

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