Three years after his death, Michael Jackson remains the "King of Pop." Fans are willing to pay big bucks for almost anything with Jackson’s autograph. But an NBC4 I-Team Investigation found evidence that some of these autographs being sold may be fakes.
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Acting on a tip, the I-Team attended a Dec. 2 auction at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills of Jackson memorabilia owned by the singer’s longtime costume designers Dennis Tompkins and Michael Bush.
The auction garnered more than $5 million in one day. Buyers included Lady Gaga, who tweeted that she bought 55 items, including a $180,000 jacket with Jackson’s signature.
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Experts say many of the items sold for high prices because they were supposedly autographed by Jackson himself. But five nationally-known autograph authenticators tell the I-Team that at least some of the auctioned autographs are probably fakes.
"I would definitely stake my reputation on the fact that these autographs are not authentic," autograph authenticator Roger Epperson said after examining signatures from 50 of the nearly 300 signed items recently auctioned at Julien’s.
Epperson is widely known as one of the nation’s experts on Michael Jackson’s autograph. He authenticates autographs for some of the nation’s biggest auction houses, and sells signed memorabilia himself.
One of the items Epperson examined was an autographed jacket (pictured below) from Jackson’s “Bad” Tour, bought for $4,375 by Beverly Hills dentist Joseph Goodman. "I am a big Michael Jackson fan," Goodman told the I-Team. "I wanted something signed."
"There’s a zero percent chance that that’s an authentic signature of Michael Jackson," Epperson said after examining the signature on the jacket Goodman bought. "The slant of the 'M' in 'Jackson' leans towards the right. A real one leans more to the left. The shapes are wrong, the slants are wrong, the size is wrong."
Experts say authenticating autographs is not science, but rather an expertise based on years of studying signatures. So the I-Team asked four more well-known authenticators to examine 11 autographed items from the Julien’s auction, including PSA/DNA, a company which authenticates for Christie’s Auction House and eBay.
Three of the four experts said it was their opinions that all 11 signatures were probably fakes. "Likely Not Genuine" is how PSA/DNA characterized the 11 autographs. The fourth expert said eight of the autograph samples we sent were "not likely to be genuine," and on three of them he was "unable to render an opinion."
The I-Team spoke with Michael Bush, Jackson’s longtime designer and the owner of the items auctioned at Julien’s. The I-Team asked Bush, who made millions from the Dec. 2 auction, why he thought experts were saying the autographs on his memorabilia were fake.
"I don’t know how to respond to it," he said. "I’m going to fake a bunch of signatures, a bunch of clothes, to destroy my reputation for 25 years of working for Michael? No, no."
The owner of Julien’s Auctions, Darren Julien, told the I-Team he believes the autographs he sold are genuine. "They come from someone who worked very closely with Michael Jackson … the people who made the items for Michael Jackson," Julien said.
The I-Team asked Julien to provide us with the names of any experts his auction used to authenticate the autographed items he sold for more than $1.5 million on Dec. 2. Julien told us to contact Laura Woolley, owner of The Collector’s Lab.
But Woolley told the I-Team she’s an appraiser of auction items, not an autograph authenticator. And she said one of the authenticators used by the I-Team, PSA/DNA, is reputable.
"I think they do great work," she said of PSA/DNA.
Woolley did say she’s looked at many of the autographed items in the Julien’s auction and thinks they’re genuine autographs. "I have no reason to doubt Michael Bush. The provenance of these signatures is solid," Woolley said.
Many autograph experts and buyers disagree, and are posting their comments on websites like Autograph Magazine Live.
"All but a few autographs in the Tompkins and Bush sale (at Julien’s) are so bad they don’t even resemble Michael Jackson’s signature," said Steve Cyrkin, editor of Autograph Magazine Live.
Those comments appear to have caught the attention of the FBI. Two of the I-Team’s sources said they have been contacted by the FBI about the allegedly fake autographs, and said that the agency requested interviews with them. FBI Spokesperson Laura Eimiller would "neither confirm nor deny" that the agency is investigating the autographs sold in the recent auction.
The brewing controversy has some purchasers of Jackson memorabilia feeling buyer’s remorse, including Goodman, who bought that signed jacket. "If it’s a fake signature, I don’t think I’m interested anymore" in keeping the jacket, Goodman said.
Julien has told the I-Team if any customer questions the authenticity of an autographed item they bought, he will give them their money back.