Autographed Ali items hit market, but authenticity questions abound

ByDarren Rovell ESPN logo
Tuesday, July 19, 2016

In the six weeks after Muhammad Ali's death, thousands of autographed items flooded the market, with sellers hoping to capitalize on the demand.

But the quantity of items, and, in some cases, the cheap prices associated with them, has ignited one of the more hotly contested battles over what's real and what's fake. The debate also includes who is supplying the autographs, who is authenticating them and who is selling them.

For years, Ali's signature has not only been among the most expensive, but also among the most forged. (Autographs thought to be legitimate on 8-by-10s even before his death were hard to find under $150, with his autograph on a boxing glove in the $2,000 range.)

"There are thousands and thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of fake Ali signatures out there, some are fresh and some are from the [FBI bust] Operation Bullpen days in the late '90s," said Harlan Werner, who managed Ali's marketing exclusively for 19 years, ending in 2006. "You couldn't buy a real Ali signed glove for less than $1,000 over the past decade, and you certainly can't buy one for that now. Yet real fans are buying them every day for these insanely low prices."

Werner, who had a huge stash of legitimate Ali signatures, said he began liquidating years ago when he realized the fake Ali market was compromising those who had real signatures.

Scott Mahlum of Mill Creek Sports, who has an exclusive deal with Russell Wilson, among others, has been investing in pre-1990 signed Ali autographs for years.

"So many of these autographs we are seeing now are all great, in the perfect spot, and they're on photos that no one had access to when Ali had a signature that even looked close to this," Mahlum said.

Ali's might be the most complex signature of all time. Each year, it seemed to decline in clarity, beginning in the mid-'90s, when the effects of Parkinson's disease began to take hold. Because Ali signed many of his photos with a date, it's possible to piece together what Ali's autograph looked like over time.

That's exactly what Shawn Anderson did when he found out he was duped with a fake Ali signed photograph more than 10 years ago. He started buying up dated Ali signed items and strung them together on a website to show Ali's autograph from the 1960 through 2003. Over time, he became an expert in Ali signatures.

"In the last 10 years of his life, Ali's autograph was not good because of what he was going through," Anderson said. "People today are looking for a good clean autograph. You can get one, but if it's cheap, it's more likely than not that it's a fake."

Anderson, Mahlum and Werner all say that, in their opinion, one of the companies that has been authenticating Ali signatures sold after his death has been authenticating fakes.

That company is GFA. Stephen Rocchi, who founded and runs the company, says he stands by every signature that GFA authenticates, and if someone claims what they bought was fake, he'll buy it back from them. He's only had to do that once since 2011, he says, with a Mickey Mantle autograph that he still believes was authentic.

Rocchi says his company gets bashed because, unlike the leaders in the industry, he said he doesn't let politics get in the way of authenticating pieces.

"We don't pay attention to how many autographs someone brings to us or who they are," Rocchi said. "We make it only about the autograph. We have exemplars, we match the autograph in front of us to the exemplars and have 15 points of authentication and if it matches, we call it real. We don't have deals with auction companies like the other guys do, and we don't know dealers. It's better that way."

When told that competitor JSA failed a GFA-certified Ali signature at a recent show, a signature that had been bought on eBay after Ali's death, Rocchi said that's because "our competition will fail anything with our sticker."

Rocchi's competition also includes industry leader PSA/DNA, a company Rocchi was the president of in 1999 when it essentially invented autograph certification for the industry. Rocchi asserts that it's in PSA's and JSA's best interest to hold down populations of what they deem to be real Ali autographs so values stay up and their higher authentication fees can be justified.

PSA, for example, says it authenticates more than 500,000 autographs a year. Rocchi says GFA does fewer than 20,000.

Rocchi also says he will put his lead authenticator, John Gorajcyzk, who worked for nearly two decades as a forensic scientist for the Phoenix Police Department, up against those at JSA and PSA.

When told of Rocchi's comments, PSA's lead authenticator, Steve Grad, dismissed claims that competition and clientele lead to authentication bias.

"GFA's Ali signatures, which we've a lot of recently, are failed by us for one simple reason -- they don't match any exemplars of any previous Ali signature," Grad said. "They are a created hybrid of many things Ali did, but the flow and the pressure in them is all wrong."

Grad said, in his opinion, it looks like the GFA-certified Ali autographs were signed by a woman.

"I watched more of Ali sign over the last decade than any authenticator," Grad said. "These are just not close."

The battle between the authenticators over Ali got even nastier when Authentic Global Brands, which bought Ali's licensing rights in 2013, entered the fray.

AGB has formally objected to hundreds of postings on eBay's auction pages since Ali's death asking that they be pulled, AGB attorney Bridgette Fitzpatrick confirmed.

She said that the company, with the help of an unnamed reputable authenticator, goes through the postings every day and alerts eBay to stop auctions with Ali signatures that they believe are frauds.

Outside the Lines found that at least 200 of those pulled included GFA-certified Ali signatures.

EBay does not pull auctions itself, as certain legal rulings have established that the marketplace does not have any legal liability if a person buys a fake on the site. The site does however have a program called the Verified Rights Owner program VeRO, where established rights holders can apply to have the authority to, with cause, work with eBay to pull infringing items.

Julien Dudouit, eBay's global intellectual property manager, confirmed to Outside the Lines that the site was working with AGB on Ali and that items are being taken down quickly.

EBay maintains that less than .025 percent of its listings in 2014 were identified as being "potentially counterfeit," but in the case a counterfeit claim is justified, Dudouit said the site offers a money back guarantee.

Outside the Lines traced the movement of some of the Ali-signed photographs that were posted on eBay.

Many of the Ali autographs, which were then authenticated by eBay sellers by GFA, come from South Florida dealer Tony Podsada, who runs a company called SCM.

"At one point, I had about 18,000 Ali autographs," Podsada said. "I have about 3,000 left, mostly on 4-by-6 and 5-by-7 photos."

Podsada said he obtained the Ali signatures from 1988 to 1993, when his business, My Favorite Players, was one of the heavyweights in the industry.

Podsada's items do not come with a certificate of authenticity. Disenchanted with the authentication business, Podsada said he merely offers buyers the assurance that it's a "decorative item only."

"I believe what I have is real, but I don't guarantee anything because I know too much," Podsada said.

Podsada will sell a 5-by-7 plaque with an Ali signature for $19.99 because he says that the leading authenticators, PSA/DNA and JSA, will fail his items simply because of the quantity he has. That makes it harder, he says, to make a greater margin.

Technically, Podsada is losing money on the deal. He said most of the signatures he obtained came when Ali was charging $7 each. Factor in inflation and the cost to store them in what he says were vacuum-sealed bags in a dark storage facility and it's almost a wash.

"I sell it cheap because I have to eat like everybody else," Podsada said.

What Podsada said he can guarantee is that PSA and JSA have failed some of his Ali autographs which he says he personally witnessed. He also said that he talked with AGB when they first bought the business and they told him that the "d" was off in Muhammad in the Ali signatures he had.

"They might have known only one type of 'd,'" Podsada said, "there were six to eight different 'd's' that he made."

One of the buyers of Podsada's Ali signatures has been Rod Iman of RBI Sports Inc. in North Carolina. He has sold more than 9,800 items on eBay and estimates that 2,500 a year are autographs which he then gets authenticated by GFA, by far the largest seller of GFA certified items on the site.

Iman had some of his best days in business on eBay in the days following Ali's death. But it came to a halt on June 10, the day of Ali's funeral. That's when Iman said his eBay account was frozen and he wasn't allowed to post new Ali items for a week, after eBay informed him that AGB had asserted its rights as a rights holder and alleged trademark infringement.

All 21 of Iman's active listings were taken down, and he hasn't sold an Ali item since.

"I called eBay and asked them, 'What case did the Ali people make?'" Iman said. "They couldn't give me good answers."

Iman says he believes all the Ali items he has sold are authentic. "If you were going to forge Ali, why would you forge when he had a good signature?" Iman asks. "Wouldn't it make more sense to forge the scribble?"

Even so, Iman, like Rocchi and Podsada, said he will give back money to someone who contests the signature, which he has done in recent weeks.

Those who claim that certain Ali signatures are fake often bring up the prices that these autographs have sold for after his death, a time where the value should jump.

In the past month, 55 GFA-certified items have sold on eBay. Those items have sold for an average of $106.41 Include the GFA price of $25 for authentication, $20 to Podsada and eBay's 10 percent take and a seller's margin on Ali items, before shipping, is less than $46 per autograph.

Rocchi said he's proud of the low cost that is being delivered to the consumer, saying this is the way it's supposed to be.