July 5, 2013
Earlier this week, I stumbled across a PSA/DNA slabbed signature of 19th century entrepreneur P. T. Barnum and wondered if PSA had ever authenticated a bogus Barnum autograph. I’m currently putting together an article dedicated to the “100 Worst PSA and JSA Authentications of All-Time” so, I thought the “Sucker born every minute” quote would work well if a PSA or JSA blunder on Barnum had been documented.
All it took was one email inquiry to Travis Roste of AutographPlanet.com and I was sent a link to a current Barnum cabinet photo being offered on eBay and some in-depth analysis of Barnum signatures authored by expert Steven Koschal. For $2,500, an eBay customer can take home a bogus autographed cabinet photo of Barnum with a PSA/DNA letter of authenticity signed by Joe Orlando, the man who coined the PSA motto, “Never get cheated.”
Although it has been documented that Barnum did not actually coin the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” the gem attributed to him could easily be updated to say: “There’s an eBay or PSA/DNA customer born every minute.” As Koschal has illustrated definitively in his signature studies, the eBay cabinet photo being offered with the PSA/DNA LOA is nothing more than a pre-printed facsimile signature of Barnum embedded in the actual albumen photograph. Its a classic Barnum humbug or as baseball historian John Thorn might put it, a “jape” or a “Barnum-esque prank.” It’s a phony and one things for sure: Someone surely did get cheated compliments of Joe Orlando and eBay’s officially endorsed authenticator, PSA/DNA.
The cabinet photograph currently being offered on eBay by “JustCollect” is one of many similar facsimile signature specimens which were created by a New York photographic studio operated by Charles Eisenmann. According to Steven Koschal, who has written several articles on the subject in international autograph publications, there are several poses of Barnum which feature different versions of his facsimile autograph with dates from 1885 and 1886. The autographs and the dates are identical depending on which version you are presented with and fluctuations exist only in the resolution or quality of the albumen photos created by the photographic studio.
It appears that several auction houses have figured this out without using the services of a third-party authentication company like PSA. Wes Cowan, of Cowan’s Auctions offered an 1886 example and described it clearly as a facsimile signature. Even R&R Auctions, which is owned by PSA authenticator Bob Eaton, got it right when they offered another example identified as being a pre-printed signature in the photo. That Barnum facsimile signature sold for $160.
Eaton’s own facsimile signature, however, also appears on the 2005 PSA/DNA LOA certifying as authentic the Barnum signature currently being offered on eBay. Eaton’s signature appears along with the signatures of Steve Grad, Mike Gutierrez, Roger Epperson, Zach Rullo and John Reznikoff, PSA’s authenticator for historical material.
Without the aid of the TPA’s, other sellers and auctioneers have sold the same facsimile signatures as the real deal for the past few decades including several sold recently by Heritage Auctions and others sold by EAC Gallery, Signature House, Goldberg Auctions, EAH Auctions and Donald Steinitz Autographs. The Barnum cabinet currently being sold on eBay was also previously sold by Lelands as an authentic signature even before it had a PSA LOA.
What is most amazing about the current PSA-LOA’d Barnum photo on eBay is the fact that the information documenting that the Barnum signature is bogus is so readily accessible and well known among collectors and dealers. One veteran autograph dealer we spoke with said, “Most of this stuff was common knowledge thirty years ago. If someone over there would have taken the time to read a book about autographs once in a while they would have known this stuff already.”
Back in 2003 Cowan’s Auctions described a Barnum cabinet correctly as a pre-printed facsimile and, eight years later, the exact same cabinet photograph was offered for sale in a Heritage auction having transformed into an “authentic signature” of Barnum which sold for over $1,500. (Cowan estimated the value between $100 and $150)
The Cowan’s to Heritage transformation illustrates how sellers, auctioneers and authenticators fail to examine the items they are presented with and how buyers knowingly attempt to pass off non-genuine items as real with the aid of the TPA’s.
Over the past few decades PSA claims to have authenticated millions of autographed items and with each stunning blunder similar to the “eBay Barnum facsimile” the company continues to lose credibility with thousands of prior authentications coming into question.
One hundred of the worst authentications rendered by PSA and JSA will be on public display soon. Stay tuned. P. T. Barnum will surely make the cut.