By Peter J. Nash
June 6, 2013
Steve Grad may be the new on-air autograph authenticator for the History Channel’s hit show Pawn Stars, but a few decades ago he was better known for chasing down celebrities for their autographs and for working in the mail room for Federally indicted hobby big-wig Bill Mastro at Mastro Fine Sports Auctions in Chicago.
Grad actually started his career in radio as a sidekick known as “Psycho Steve the Slob” on “Mancow’s Morning Madhouse” show on WRCX 103.5 FM in Chicago. After quitting Mancow’s show in 1996, Grad had another short stint on the One-On-One Radio Network but left the broadcasting business to establish his own autograph and sportscard business.
Grad’s career as a dealer, however, was also short-lived and highlighted by his removal from the floor of the 1998 National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago. Grad was accused of attempting to sell forgeries from a push-cart and according to an eyewitness account was escorted from the Rosemont Exhibition Center by convention security. When asked about the incident in a court ordered deposition related to a 2006 lawsuit filed against Bill Mastro’s auction house, Grad did not deny the incident happened but instead stated he did not recall being ejected from the show.
In 1999, Grad gave up his business and went to work for Bill Mastro in his auction house mail room focusing on cataloging and research and in no time the hobby-kingpin was grooming Grad as an in-house autograph authenticator. Grad worked with other alleged experts like Mike Gutierrez and Jimmy Spence examining items submitted to Mastro for his blockbuster auctions. In a short time Grad, himself, was considered a full-fledged expert by Mastro and by 2002 moved on to work exclusively for Mastro’s preferred authentication company, PSA/DNA. By 2004, Grad was still authenticating Mastro catalog material including lots like this one:
Steve Grad Autographed Celebrity 8 x 10 Photo Collection (59)
Most of today’s hobby enthusiasts know Steve Grad in his current role as an autograph authentication expert for PSA/DNA. Very few people in the hobby know Steve in his past role as a very aggressive young man who haunted hotel lobbies, train stations, sporting and concert events, getting leading Hollywood and sports personalities to sign items for him (lying, pleading, begging… you name it, nothing is out of bounds when in-person signatures are ultimate goal). These 59 signed 8″ x 10″ photos are among some of Steve’s favorites. All are NM to NM/MT photos (49 color and 10 b/w) with bold “9-10″ Sharpie signatures. Seven of the photos are professionally framed and matted. Highlights include: Bob Hope, Jimmy Carter, Shirley Temple, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Milton Berle, Phil Hartman, Clayton Moore (Lone Ranger) and Charlton Heston. LOA from James Spence & Steve Grad/PSA DNA.
With an accompanying Letter of Authenticity (LOA) issued by himself and his PSA authenticating partner, Jimmy Spence, the auction lot sold for $1,730. Mastro’s lot description suggests that Grad acquired every one of the signatures himself, so, the LOA was a no-brainer. It’s not known what Spence brought to the table in this particular authentication. What more did PSA/DNA need other than employee Grad’s word?
Grad’s claim that the signatures were from his own personal stash of “over 100,000 in-person autographs” was about all he really had to offer, having no formal training whatsoever in either handwriting analysis or forensic document examination. Even Grad admits on the PSA website, “It is not an exact science. You can’t earn a degree in autograph authentication. In this business, knowledge is acquired one way – experience. I have a passion for autographs.”
On the PSA website Grad also pays tribute to Mastro for putting him on at MastroNet without any credentials. Says Grad, “I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Dan Knoll and Bill Mastro. If it hadn’t been for them, I may have never had the chance to do what I’m doing today.” Despite Mastro’s support and vote of confidence as a hobby “expert,” Grad and Spence went on to leave their own marks with some memorable instances of authentication malpractice including a “magically appearing Honus Wagner autograph” on a 1939 Hall of Fame First Day Cover offered by Mastro in 1999. The item was first authenticated by Spence and Gutierrez for Mastro when the alleged Wagner signature was so light it was barely visible to the naked eye, but by the time it reached another Mastro/REA sale in 2001 Spence (for PSA) and Gutierrez and Grad (for Mastro) certified and graded the Wagner signature an 8 out of 10- as bold as can be. Was it magic or just some good-old hobby fraud?
Moving forward another decade Grad and Spence parted ways as Spence started his own authentication outfit known as JSA, thus leaving behind Grad as the top autograph guru at PSA’s main offices in Newport Beach, California. Today, Grad is known as PSA’s “Principal Authenticator” and is regularly featured in company-produced video clips showing off his alleged authentication skills for current and prospective customers pointing out forgeries of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams and other more obscure Hall of Famers. Just last year Grad appeared in one such clip called, “PSA/DNA’s Steve Grad Uses Technology To Help Expose A Baseball Autograph Forgery.” In the video, Grad uses what PSA/DNA describes as , “different types of high-tech tools to help expose a Jesse Burkett autograph forgery.” In the clip PSA says that, “Grad shows the viewers one technique used to alter baseballs, in hopes of tricking an unsuspecting buyer – re-painting. In this video, Grad exposes the lengths some people will go to for a buck and illustrates why credible 3rd-party authentication is so important.”
Burkett’s signature is exceedingly scarce in any form with some of the only verifiable exemplars found in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s library as part of the August Herrmann Papers Collection. That being said, the alleged Burkett autograph appearing on the ball Grad was examining could have easily been identified as a forgery by any advanced dealer or collector without access to PSA’s “Pro-Scope” magnifier. Grad, however, wanted to show with the aid of his apparatus that the ball the forger used was one that dated to c. 1970 and had once featured the signatures of the New York Mets, which had been concealed and painted over. Grad wanted to prove 100% that the ball he examined was a forgery and he accomplished his goal. He didn’t, however, plan on opening a huge can of worms in the process regarding his prior authentications of alleged Jesse Burkett autographs.
In evaluating the Burkett forgery on the ball Grad illustrates on his video monitor what he considers to be an authentic exemplar of the 19th century star’s signature on another baseball. It features a jet-black Burkett signature on a ball dating to the 1920’s that was sold at Robert Edward Auctions in 2007 for over $26,000 and accompanied by a PSA/DNA letter of authenticity written by Grad and Jimmy Spence.
There’s just one big problem with this Burkett ball: The exemplar used by Grad to out the other forgery is a forgery itself. Grad used a fake to uncover a fake, so to speak. Grad, Spence and the companies they represent have never been able to properly identify an authentic Burkett signature and have thus helped forgers flood the market with expensive bogus signatures of the man known to his Worcester, Massachusetts, friends as “The Crab.”
The Burkett forgery sold by REA was based upon a known signature attributed to Burkett dating to 1890 and found on a New York Giant payroll receipt believed to have been signed by Burkett to collect his salary. It is the earliest known signature of the Hall of Famer who only played for the New York during one season in 1890 before he was picked up by Cleveland the next season.
The 1890-style Burkett signature bears little resemblance to his later autograph found on letters and documents dated close to twenty years after Burkett joined the Giants. (The 1890 Burkett pay receipt is an authentic document and has been identified as an item stolen from the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York. Hall of Fame records show the document was donated in 1970.)
The placement of the 1890-style autograph on a baseball which appears to have been created decades later should have been a big red flag in the authentication process. The alleged Burkett signature is signed on a Tober “International League” ball that was likely manufactured in the 1920s. When asked whether the date of the ball’s manufacture was in the 1920s expert Brandon Grunbaum told us, “I would say more 1920’s, I wouldn’t say any earlier.”
Another point of reference that Grad and PSA should have utilized were authentic Burkett signatures signed in close proximity to the period the ball was manufactured. In his book, Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide, author Ron Keurajian includes a genuine Burkett exemplar he tracked down in the files of Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. The signature was found on Burkett’s contract to coach the Holy Cross baseball team in 1917 and bears little resemblance to the alleged signature placed on the REA ball. Considering the stark contrast, how could the REA ball ever have been issued a letter of authenticity? The signature on the ball also differs greatly from a 1908 example of Burkett’s signature illustrated on PSA’s website in an article devoted to Burkett’s autograph published on April 27, 2004. The other exemplar illustrated in the PSA article was the 1890 payroll receipt.
In the article, PSA also states:
“Only one lucky collector covets the sole front-signed check (name your price) drawn on The New York (Giants) Base Ball Club. Burkett actually signed this anomaly after the signature of Harry J. Boyle was scratched out. Occasionally, a signed Albertype (Artvue is impossible) plaque postcard ($2800 and increasing in value) is pried out of someone’s collection but beware of forgeries. This would be a prime target of the counterfeit hand. Signed bats, gloves and other exotic forms of signed memorabilia should be dismissed having but an astronomical chance of being valid.”
PSA left out the medium of signed baseballs as prime targets for forgery. Both Steve Grad and his former partner, Jimmy Spence, appear to have no idea what Burkett’s authentic signature or handwriting actually looks like. To demonstrate this point it is necessary to examine verifiable authentic exemplars of ”The Crab.”
Burkett’s signature from the time period of 1908 to 1934 appears to be rather uniquely formed and carefully constructed. The capital “J” is formed in several different unusual forms and the last name “Burkett” shows more consistency. In his book, Ron Keurajian describes his handwriting as “pensive” with some “shakiness” and notes that “his signature evidences average flow without a rapid appearance.”
In September of 1935, the New York Times reported that Burkett was working for the State Highway Dept. “flagging traffic on a highway job” in Southbridge, Massachussets, when he was “struck by (a) car.” Burkett was severely injured and hospitalized with what the Hartford Courant described as “severe bruises and a possibility of internal injuries.” From the time of his recovery in 1935 until his death two decades later Burkett’s signature is believed to have further deteriorated although it is very difficult to identify authentic examples. Post-accident Burkett signatures exhibiting a very shaky scrawl are easy to replicate for forgers and numerous alleged examples have entered the marketplace with PSA LOA’s. Keurajian notes in his book his inability to locate a Burkett signature “penned later in life.” He adds, “It is safe to say that nearly all of the signatures offered for sale are forgeries.”
In its 2004 signature study of Burkett’s autograph, PSA also focused on the likelihood that Burkett could have signed B&W Hall of Fame Plaque-postcards issued by the Albertype Company. PSA said such an acquisition would only be possible if, “a signed Albertype (Artvue is impossible) plaque postcard ($2800 and increasing in value) is pried out of someone’s collection but beware of forgeries. This would be a prime target of the counterfeit hand.”
But when it comes to the authentication of Albertype Black & White Plaques, PSA/DNA’s lack of expertise is most apparent. The plaque postcards of Burkett were produced only between 1946 and 1952, so Burkett could only have signed them in the seven year period leading up to his death on May 27, 1953. As indicated by PSA in its own article, “For several years, he (Burkett) was confined to his bed suffering from hardening of the arteries.” In his book Ron Keurajian references the plaques stating, “Forged Hall of Fame postcards are common.”
A signed Black & White Albertype is a great rarity and in 2008 an example authenticated by Grad and PSA/DNA sold at Heritage Auction Galleries for $22,705. Another sold at Hunt Auctions a year earlier for $33,000 and was slabbed and certified authentic by Jimmy Spence and JSA. Both examples commanded top dollar but both of the signatures bear virtually no resemblance to each other. The signature Grad certified looks nothing like an authentic Burkett signature and Spence’s has some resemblance but is so tremulous and shaky that it is almost illegible. How Grad and Spence could definitively state authenticity and write a supporting LOA for either Burkett is a mystery. All of this, when author Ron Keurajian states in his book that he has never seen “a signed Hall of Fame plaque postcard of any kind.”
The authentications of both Burkett signatures on the Albertype plaques by Grad and Spence illustrate what some observers claim is outright fraud being committed by PSA and JSA. Many times the certifications appear based upon who submits the item and not on the merits of the item itself.
An individual who was interviewed recently by the Federal Bureau of Investigation about PSA’s business operations told us, “When they fail a first item they previously authenticated for another seller one could wonder if they were just incompetent. When the 50th one happens it’s not just incompetence (it’s) racketeering and collusion.” The same individual, who asked to remain anonymous, also confirmed that the FBI is interested in PSA’s authentication of questionable and bogus material for preferred customers and that the FBI specifically mentioned Grad and his boss Joe Orlando. He added, “The alleged authenticators constantly use forged or non-authentic exemplars while attempting to authenticate material submitted to them. This is just one reason why so many authentic autographs are deemed not genuine.”
Considering the illustrations we’ve provided of unquestionably authentic Burkett signatures it is even more troubling to have found other alleged Burkett items authenticated by Steve Grad and PSA/DNA. How does Grad justify authenticating this one:
Additionally, having certified the above as genuine, how does Grad justify his authentication of this one:
While the second example at least resembles an authentic Burkett signature, the first is not even close. How could Grad and PSA have authenticated both?
When the PSA/DNA authenticated items are gathered for examination and compared against each other it becomes even more apparent that Grad is either incompetent or passing bogus items with criminal intent.
In selecting Grad as their new authenticator for the new season of Pawn Stars, the History Channel is likely hoping to avoid some of the embarrassing mistakes made previously on the show by alleged experts Drew Max on FDR, PSA’s John Reznikoff on Al Pacino and JSA’s Herman Darvick with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
Little do Rick or Chumlee know about Grad’s expensive authentication blunders on Ed Delahanty, Albert Spalding, Mickey Welch, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Candy Cummings, Jimmy Collins, Rocky Marciano, and a host of others. Grad and PSA have even authenticated signatures on items manufactured after the alleged signers died including a letter dated ten years after WWII Admiral Nimitz passed away.
Considering Grad’s track record the producers of the show have reason to be nervous as Grad’s first episode is slated to air tonight on June 6. Hopefully, a Pawn Stars customer won’t walk in the shop with a photo signed by Babe Ruth to Gary Cooper or a $20,000 autographed photo of Hall of Famer Jimmy Collins. Grad authenticated a Collins photo for PSA but the signature did not resemble a genuine example; was misspelled “Jimmie”; and was not even a photograph of the actual player Jimmy Collins, bearing no resemblance to the all-time best Red Sox third-baseman. Grad also authenticated the Ruth and Cooper signed photo despite the fact that expert Ron Keurajian opined it was a fake and Cooper’s granddaughter stated the family never had such a photo in their possession.
Despite being notified of these facts via a past Haulsofshame.com report, Grad and PSA have chosen to keep the bogus autograph and photo up on its PSA Autograph Facts page which is alleged to be a service for customers who can view “authentic exemplars” of famous and collectible sports legends. Despite having knowledge the item is bogus, Grad and his boss Joe Orlando continue to commit fraud by exhibiting the photo to the general public as being genuine. PSA just can’t admit they’ve made a mistake, or is it more than that?
In authenticating the forged Burkett ball that sold for close to $30,000 at REA, Grad and PSA have created an environment in which this forged version of Burkett’s signature has become a template for others which show up regularly in the infamous Coaches Corner auctions. The REA-PSA Burkett style forgery has even surfaced on an alleged “Jesse Burkett autographed straw hat” at Coaches Corner.
Travis Roste, a vocal critic of Grad and a boxing expert from AutographPlanet.com, has witnessed the legitimization of forged exemplars. In relation to the Burkett forgeries he told us, “Grad used other exemplars to authenticate the REA ball, and issued an LOA for it, then when he made the video, he uses that same ball as an exemplar. So, a specimen submitted for authentication by an auction house then becomes the exemplar. That’s how “exemplar creep” comes into play.”
Roste added, “A authenticates B. B then authenticates C. C authenticates D, and then D authenticates E. But if you compare A and E, they look nothing like each other even though each authentication in between might look somewhat similar. PSA just doesn’t know when to stop.”
Watch out Pawn Stars. If you’re not careful, you just might get bit by Steve Grad and PSA/DNA.