Jan 23, 2012
Before the year 2000, Jimmy Spence was a relatively unknown in the hobby until, almost overnight, he became the self-proclaimed ”guru” of baseball autograph authentication for PSA/DNA with the likes of hobby heavyweights Bill Mastro and Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen singing his praises. Mastro raved about Spence’s “skill and work ethic” and the Mint-man went a step further extolling the virtues of Spence’s uncanny ability to help line his pockets with cash. Rosen said, ”When I get my stuff PSA/DNA’d not only do I know its real, it’s much easier to sell. Not to mention the extra thousands I make.”
Thanks to Mastro’s genius in devising the plan to institute a third-party authentication system to protect auction houses like his from liability and from ever holding the bag after selling a forged autographed item, Spence became, in some people’s minds, the Babe Ruth of autograph authentication. Even Sports Collectors Digest reported in its September, 2000, issue: “Spence is the Main Man at PSA/DNA.”
Spence was excited about being affiliated with a big company like PSA/DNA. He told SCD, ”They’re a solid company with a great reputation, and this is nice for me because I can do this with confidence, and stay away from litigation on a personal level, which I’ve been subject to in the past.”
In that SCD interview Spence also boasted of the resources PSA provided to protect collectors and to insure that what he authenticated was the real-deal. Spence said, “I have a certificate in forensic document examination. It was a course that I recently completed. I also have training in a video spectral comparator, a $20,000 machine with all sorts of magnification capabilities and different lights that are used, such as UV. It’s in my office and I use it regularly. It’s helped me determine the origin or the make of a certain item. A lot of times, the labels of a ball have been rubbed out, and I’ve been able to uncover that.”
Early in 2001 Spence made his rounds as PSA’s main man and travelled to Watchung, New Jersey, to authenticate items for Rob Lifson and Robert Edward Auctions. Lifson had recently merged his auction house with his old-friend Bill Mastro’s company to form the auction-biz behemoth MastroNet. Spence, armed with the technology of his spectral comparator and the peace of mind afforded by PSA backing up his opinions, authenticated-away on hundreds of baseball-only items ranging from Babe Ruth signed baseballs to a baseball card signed by Ty Cobb.
One of the items was a true gem that REA called an “extraordinary 1939 Hall of Fame first day cover (that was) signed in black ink by each of the eleven living members of the Hall of Fame present that day.” What made this item truly extraordinary, however, was that it was accompanied by a letter from Ty Cobb regarding the actual envelope Jimmy Spence was examining.
Robert Edward Auctions wrote this in their lot description: “Apparently, the former owner, Robert Ballard, obtained many of the signatures (or possibly all) by mail, and Cobb was one of the last signatures needed on the envelope. With that in mind, Ballard sent Cobb the envelope in 1939 asking him to please sign it and return it to him. Cobb, obviously, complied with the request and for Ballard the matter was forgotten. Imagine, however, Ballard’s surprise four years later upon receiving this perplexing letter from Cobb. The one-page handwritten letter, dated Aug. 28, 1943 on Ty Cobb, Menlo Park stationery, reads:
“Dear Sir, I have a letter of yours dated Sept-6th-1939 regarding first day covers autographed by 9 members of the Hall of Fame, as you stated only Connie Mack and myself had not signed. Such as this disturbs me very much, but yet I have in my mind that these have been returned to you. I would like very much to know from you if I did send them back. I have many letters that go astray, some in the mail, some arrive here in my absence and get misplaced. In going through some old mail I found your letter. If I did not return to you write me and tell me whose signatures were on the envelope or cover. Hope I have taken care of this matter. Sincerely, Ty Cobb.”
The Cobb letter, coupled with the 1939 signed cover, was a collectors dream. It’s not often that autographed items are accompanied by additional documentation that bolsters its provenance and authenticity, let alone a letter from Cobb himself to the original collector. When Jimmy Spence examined the cover along with Mike Gutierrez, of MastroNet, he determined that each signature on the document was a “10″ on a scale of “10.” REA theorized that Ballard had acquired all of his signatures through the mail and, based upon the 1943 letter, stated that Cobb and Mack were the last two signatures Ballard secured.
Hauls of Shame first examined this autographed postal cover last week while researching existing items alleged to have been signed in conjunction with the 1939 Hall of Fame Inductions. At first glance we just assumed the item was iron-clad, but as we took a closer look questions followed. We studied the Cobb letter carefully and it looked authentic, but several signatures on the cover were problematic, just like the suspected forgeries recently exposed on a 1939 Hall of Fame program that had sold for over $41,000 at Heritage Auction Galleries this past summer.
Like the Heritage program, the signature of Napoleon Lajoie appeared as “Larrry” with three r’s. The Honus Wagner signature looked extremely labored and almost drawn or traced. The Cobb looked unusual and the others appeared to be signed with hesitations and almost identical pen pressures. Only the Eddie Collins and Babe Ruth autographs appeared to be signed with any speed or fluidity.
We consulted with another expert we respect and he concurred that the Cobb letter was, in fact, authentic, but he emphatically stated that, in his opinion, the entire cover was a forgery. The Cobb letter flew in the face of all conventional logic, but our hunch was right, the signatures appeared to be forgeries, and nothing could change that.
The cover sold at REA in April of 2001 for $19,200 and, according to expert opinions, the winning bidder likely purchased a certifiably bogus item authenticated by James Spence of PSA/DNA and Mike Gutierrez of MastroNet.
So how could Spence and Co. have been duped so easily? Did Spence put the item through his $20,000 video spectral comparator? What exemplars did he utilize? Or did he just take one look at the accompanying Cobb letter and issue an opinion without giving a thorough examination? The authentic Cobb letter presented a conundrum and summoned a hypothetical question. “If this cover is a forgery, where is the genuine item Cobb alludes to in his 1943 letter, signed by everyone but him and Connie Mack?”
Having just paged through scores of old auction catalogues to find each and every offering of a signed first day cover or Baseball Centennial program at auction, I picked up a catalogue from a Mastro auction from April, 1999, and flipped through it quickly. Within seconds a page caught my eye, as it showed the same first day cover and the exact same Cobb letter being offered as lot 824 by Mastro as, the “Fantastic Hall of Fame Cover and Ty Cobb Letter.”
Looking closely at the cover something just didn’t add up, it just didn’t look exactly the same as the REA cover. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, and I even thought for a moment that it might have been another cover altogether that Ballard had. So, I copied both covers and put them side by side. I could not believe my eyes.
The Honus Wagner signature that appeared on the 2001 REA cover had vanished right before my eyes. Poof. Gone.
Noted in the 1999 auction lot description was another absolute stunner in regard to the Cooperstown cover: “Offered with LOAs by James Spence and Mike Gutierrez.” So, when Spence and Gutierrez authenticated the cover for REA it was their second look at the same, rare item.
And Honus’ John Hancock was actually present back in 1999 as the auction description also noted: “The Wagner signature along the left border is somewhat faded but fully intact and legible.” However, the image in the Mastro catalog showed that the signature was so faint that it was barely visible and looked more like it had been removed or erased. None of the other alleged signatures showed any visible signs of fading. In fact, Spence noted they were “9’s/10.”
Before the alleged Honus Wagner signature reappeared in 2001, the cover sold for $16,200 at Mastro’s auction. When Spence wrote his LOA for REA two years later, without mentioning anything about the Wagner signature other than it was now graded a “10″ out of “10,” the cover appreciated in value by about $4,000.
It appears that in this instance Spence and PSA did the following:
1. Authenticated a forged/re-traced Honus Wagner signature as a “10″ that two years earlier they had authenticated as a faded and barely visible autograph.
2. Failed to utilize the technology available to them by using the machinery that Spence alleged could uncover forgeries by seeing what was under examined signatures.
3. Failed to indicate why the Wagner signature was light and faded in 1999 when the other signatures were so dark and considered mint, and then failed to connect the dots in 2001, when the Wagner transformed into a mint ”10″.
4. Failed to observe that the Wagner signature was not authentic and then failed to take a closer look at the additional ten signatures to determine if they were also forgeries (including the fact that the Larry Lajoie signature featured three r’s in “Larry.”)
5. Failed to refer back to genuine exemplars of signed 1939 first day covers to determine if the REA auction lot was authentic.
Spence allegedly first examined the Ballard cover before he had become the full-time PSA guru. Sometime, in early 1999, Spence showed up at the offices of Mastro Fine Sports to authenticate items for Bill Mastro’s upcoming auction extravaganza featuring 1,176 lots of baseball treasures, including the 1939 cover and Cobb letter. It is likely that Spence even took a photograph of the 1939 cover for his exemplar files. Considering that authentic first day covers signed by all of the Hall of Fame inductees are extremely rare and valuable, why wouldn’t he have?
Later that same year, in September of 1999, another alleged example of a signed 1939 cover sold at Sotheby’s as part of the Barry Halper Collection for $48,300. (Mike Gutierrez was also hired by Rob Lifson and Sotheby’s to authenticate items, including that cover, for the Halper sale.) Considering the value and rarity of the item, how could both Spence and Gutierrez miss the appearing/disappearing Wagner signature when they examined the cover for the second time on behalf of REA in 2001? (Gutierrez is currently listed as an authenticator for JSA on the company website.) What’s more, it was accompanied again by the spectacular Cobb letter that boosted its provenance, so wouldn’t they have immediately remembered authenticating it just two years earlier?
With the visual documetation that the Wagner signature “magically appeared” in the 2001 REA auction, important questions are raised in regard to who originallyconsigned and purchased the cover at Mastro in 1999 and who consigned it to REA in 2001? In addition, did any of these parties have a relationship with either Spence or Gutierrez at that time?
When I browsed the 1999 Mastro catalog and found the original first day cover offering I noticed something else that was suspicious. Just a few lots before the first day cover Mastro offered were two additional covers that featured single signatures of Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson and they were both addressed to the same collector, Robert Ballard of Syracuse, New York.
Had Spence and Gutierrez taken note of this at the time?
Looking through other Mastro catalogs I found two more first day covers also addressed to Ballard and signed by Ruth and Johnson. Again, both bore single signatures. Referring back to Ty Cobb’s 1943 letter to Ballard I wanted to check exactly what Cobb had allegedly said in regard to Ballard’s multi-signed cover.
“Dear Sir, I have a letter of yours dated Sept-6th-1939 regarding first day covers autographed by 9 members of the Hall of Fame, as you stated only Connie Mack and myself had not signed. Such as this disturbs me very much, but yet I have in my mind that these have been returned to you.
It appears that Cobb was specifically referring to Ballard’s original letter referencing ”covers” in the plural. It doesn’t appear that Ballard sent Cobb just a single cover signed by everyone except Cobb and Connie Mack. It appears that he sent multiple covers to the players and, if the additional covers found addressed to Ballard and signed by Ruth and Johnson are any indication, it is possible that Ballard was only requesting single signatures on separate covers from each Hall of Famer. The fact that he had two authentic examples from Ruth and Johnson suggests that Ballard may have only sent two (or more) covers to Cobb for his single signature.
Further supporting this theory is the opinion of experts that the cover REA sold for nearly $20,000 could be a forgery. Clearly it is much more likely that the Honus Wagner signature was not just an abnormally faded and “magical” autograph. More likely it was a forgery attempt gone bad and erased and removed by the forger at some point before it was sold by Mastro in 1999.
While not definitive, this scenario is, no doubt, something that the authenticators should have been considering closely as they passed judgment on the 1939 HOF cover. Referring to himself as the “man behind the letter” in PSA/DNA advertisements at the time, Spence boasted of “20 years of hobby experience” and that his clients would have “the peace of mind that your autographed memorabilia will be opined genuine by one of the leading sports signature experts.”
However, the case of the mysterious appearing and disappearing Honus Wagner signature suggests otherwise. Is James Spence actually an expert? What are his credentials?
In a deposition that was taken on March 1, 2000, in Harrisburg, PA, by attorney, Michael J. Wilson, Spence spoke of his credentials at that time and his claims that he had studied with world-renowned handwriting expert Charles Hamilton:
In addition to allegedly misrepresenting his credentials, the formal training in handwriting analysis Spence completed appears problematic as well. A source who is familiar with PSA operations revealed more information about Spence’s training and told us, ”He does not have a certificate in forensic document authentication. That is not correct. The certificate just says that he completed a correspondence course in document examination, which was offered by a man named Andrew Bradley, the same correspondence course that PSA authenticators were required to take.”
Before James Spence became an authenticator he worked as a fitness instructor at Club Med and for Cunard Cruise Lines, as a salesman for American Van Equipment and as a ladder salesman for the Lynn Ladder Company until he was fired from the Orwigsberg, PA, firm in 1991. In all of this time Spence had no formal training that could qualify him as a handwriting expert. In PSA/DNA advertisements published as early as 2002, Spence and his then PSA counterpart, Steve Grad, boasted of having “40 years combined expertise in the industry.”
Between 1989 and 1991 Spence worked on the side as a baseball dealer setting up tables at shows and after he was fired from the Lynn Ladder Company he began working in the baseball memorabilia industry as “Show-Off Collectibles,” specializing in “custom matting, sports and sports autographs.” Documents show that by 1994 Spence was selling autographs for “Show-Off” that were “Guaranteed Authentic for Life.” By 1997 he was operating as ”James Spence III Vintage Autographs” and it wasn’t until 2000 that he completed the mail order course offered by Andrew Bradley that issued him the certificate mentioned in his deposition.
The embattled Spence has made a host of outrageous errors over the past few years and they have been documented thoroughly in a Barron’s article, “Kinda Sorta Genuine,” and on websites like Autograph Alert and Net54, a collectors internet forum. Spence’s greatest misses are abundant. JSA authenticated a letter allegedly written by Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty that sold for over $30,000, however, the letter was secreterial and written by his manager, Billy Shettsline, who actually misspelled the stars last name “D-e-l-e-h-a-n-t-y” on the document. Spence also authenticated an 1891 telegram as being signed by HOFer Harry Wright, but it was the copy of the telegram the recipient recieved, thus making it impossible to have been signed by Wright. He authenticated a rare signature of boxing great Jack Johnson on a 1948 trading card despite the fact that Johnson died in 1946. In 2006, Autograph Alert reported that Spence had authenticated a document as having been signed by WWII Admiral Chester Nimitz, when it was actually signed by Admiral Karl Donitz and signed ten years after Nimitz had actually died. He’s also authenticated facsimile signatures on photos of boxer Mike Tyson as genuine and he was exposed on several occasions for deeming items as forgeries after he had previously authenticated them as genuine.
Spence’s most recent atrocity involves an entire 1927 ball alleged to be signed by Babe Ruth and his fellow Yankees. Long-time vintage Yankee collector David Atkatz recently discovered that the 1927 team-signed ball in his collection was, in fact, a forgery. The ball, ostensibly signed by Ruth, Gehrig, and the rest of Murderer’s Row, had been purchased at auction in 2000, and it, too, had been accompanied by a Spence “Letter of Authenticity.” In a posting on the Net54 website some collectors reacted to news of the forgery as if there had been a death in their hobby circle. Said one collector, “Sorry for your loss. This is frightening… to say the least,” while another posted “THIS IS SICKENING… from a treasure to a trash can.” Atkatz told us that ” it was an excellent forgery, and many–including myself–were fooled. I have learned, though, that hobby professionals knew of this forger’s work years before it was vetted by Spence.”
Sources indicate that Spence was also aware of this forger’s work as early as 1995, however, he still authenticated the 1927 Yankee ball in 2000. There were even advertisements placed in Sports Collectors Digest in 1997 by one of Spence’s competitors, Richard Galasso, featuring the forgers work and warning collectors to be wary.
As reported by Haulsofshame.com last year, these blunders have caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and agents are well aware of the questionable authentications of Spence and PSA for millions of dollars worth of alleged fakes ranging from gem-mint Babe Ruth signed baseballs to the recently exposed 1939 Hall of Fame Induction forgeries uncovered by Hauls of Shame and several hobby experts. Spence’s shoddy work and expensive errors are being exposed at an alarming rate and continue to dog the so-called expert who still has the blessing of eBay and every major auction house in the business. The Honus Wagner signature debacle perfectly illustrates the problems with third-party authentication and the slippery slope that authenticators like Spence rest upon. At what point are their errors considered “honest mistakes” and at what point are they scrutinized for possible “criminal intent”?
Meanwhile, as instances of authenticator malpractice are being exposed on such a regular basis, some collectors who viewed the third-party authentication system as the standard of the industry are having second thoughts. Some thought they were getting a guarantee they were buying a genuine item even though JSA and PSA guarantee nothing. Now they are wondering how many other LOA’s certified by JSA and PSA aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.
One collector put it this way for us, saying, “Spence can take something that’s worthless and then based only on his say so and his fancy signature on a letter, it becomes worth thousands of dollars. That’s a dangerous power for someone who has made so many mistakes.”
Another collector remarked that Spence and other authenticators were Houdini-like in their creation of LOAs and thought a few lines from actor Michael Caine in the film, The Prestige, summed up the authentication controversies best: ”"The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it into something extraordinary. But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”
(Stay Tuned for our next report regarding the 1939 HOF Induction forgeries, which will show how many existing signed first day covers are suspected fakes, including the example sold by Barry Halper at Sotheby’s for over $48,000 in 1999.)