In a press release, the Marshals Service cited "legitimate concerns about the authenticity of the guitar purportedly signed by Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen and out of an abundance of caution" as the reasons for the cancellation.
During the spending spree that eventually forced Jackson Jr. from office last year and led to a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence against him, Jackson and his wife spent around $750,000 in campaign funds on over 3,000 purchases. Among the purchases were a number of autographed celebrity memorabilia items.
The Marshals Service had planned to put at least 13 items connected to the Jackson Jr. case up for sale this week. The proceeds from the sale would have been subtracted from the $750,000 Jackson Jr. is being forced to pay as part of his plea agreement. Before the auction went live on Tuesday, the agency quietly pulled the guitar purportedly signed by Van Halen and Jackson out of the sale. Twelve items were still available on the website of Gaston & Sheehan Auctioneers until the auction was pulled down on Friday. Eight of the items included celebrity autographs: three Bruce Lees and five Michael Jacksons.
TPM had been investigating the origins of the autographed items up for sale. The Las Vegas shop that sold Jackson the memorabilia, along with the people who authenticated some of the autographs, stood by their authenticity. But FBI investigator Tim Fitzsimmons told TPM he would urge buyers to use caution. Fitzsimmons was the case agent for the bureau's Operation Bullpen, which snared a number of major forgery rings in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He had not personally examined the items that were part of the Marshals' sale, but he knows the risks of the celebrity memorabilia world well.
"I would hope that maybe people who are looking at this stuff are savvy consumers and kind of go, 'Uh, there's probably a really good chance that that stuff might be forged,'" Fitzsimmons told TPM this week, before the auction was cancelled.
The celebrity autographs world is a hazardous one. As recently as 2005, experts estimated that more than half of the most sought-after autographed memorabilia items are fake, and that forgeries make up $100 million of the yearly $1 billion autographed memorabilia market. Criminals have convincingly faked the scrawls of presidents, movie actors, baseball players, and pop stars.
Autographs are relatively easy to fake. Talented forgers have been known to take great pains to cover their tracks, using ink, writing implements, and paper from different eras to make it more difficult to distinguish forgeries from real deals. As an assurance to buyers, many autographed items are sold with what are known as Certificates of Authenticity (COAs). COAs are provided to memorabilia dealers by third-party "authenticators," who make money evaluating collectables.
The three Bruce Lee autographs offered by the Marshals this week included certificates from third-party authenticators. It happens that two of those authenticators, Donald Frangipani and the Las Vegas company Authentic Autographs Unlimited, were named in federal court papers tied to Operation Bullpen as having authenticated counterfeit memorabilia.
To be clear, neither Frangipani nor AAU's forensic examiner Drew Max were accused of a crime, or of knowingly authenticating fakes, in the Operation Bullpen filings. But Frangipani is on a list of authenticators whose certificates for autographs are "not allowed" on the online marketplace eBay.
In an interview with TPM before the auction was cancelled, Frangipani said he had authenticated two of the Bruce Lee items on behalf of Heroes and Legends, an Encino, Calif. memorabilia shop. The shop's owner, Myron Ross, provided a COA for the third Bruce Lee item in the Marshals' auction. Frangipani, who authenticated the Bruce Lees in 2006 and 2007, called Ross one of his "best clients" with "one of the best reputations."
"If I did these two Bruce Lee pieces, I stand behind them," Frangipani said. "And I'll go to court and testify for my client."
Frangipani, who is now president of All City Investigations & Forensic Services in Brooklyn, N.Y., maintains that much of his past trouble was the fault of forgers who copied and misused his certificates of authenticity without his knowledge. And on his website, Frangipani offers an explanation of the eBay ban. (While his website states that eBAY "formerly had a policy of not accepting Certificates of Authenticity bearing my name or company," Frangipani's name still appeared on the current list of eBay's banned authenticators as of Friday.)
"My name is clean, I testify as an expert witness," Frangipani told TPM. "You understand? I don't have a problem."
Marc Goldman, the president of Authentic Autographs Unlimited, spoke to TPM on behalf of Drew Max, the company's forensic examiner, whose name and signature appeared on a certificate of authenticity for one of the Bruce Lee items.
"The only thing he could tell you would be that if the item has indeed been authenticated by Drew and AAU, there would be a serial numbered sticker on the item, a matching one on the certificate, and that we would stand behind any authentication in a court of law," Goldman said.
Asked if he could provide more information about the source of the Bruce Lee item authenticated by Max, Goldman said he could not.
"Unfortunately, it's kind of like doctor privilege," Goldman said. "Especially in the memorabilia business, where everyone is jumping fences on everybody else, as far as sources for memorabilia ... Based on the serial number on the item, I can tell you if we authenticated it, and whether it was good or bad. But other than that, I wouldn't be able to give you any information."
In a voicemail left with TPM before the Marshals auction was pulled, Myron Ross, of Heroes and Legends, gave his impression of the items up for sale online.
"I've been in business since 1968. That's over 40 years. They look like items that I had before," Ross said. "I buy collections constantly. In fact, looking at these Marshal's prices I may bid on them again. The framing is great, the pieces look right. They're too far from me to actually hold it in hand. In my opinion, when I buy items from collectors or various places my opinion is what helps me to buy it, having done this for so many years. And I don't know what else I can tell you, except certainly with Drew Max and Donald Frangipani certificates, I'm sure they're good. "
The five Michael Jackson autographed items included in the Marshals sale did not come with third-party certificates of authenticity. Instead, they came with certificates from the store that sold Jackson Jr. the items (both the Bruce Lees and the Michael Jacksons): Antiquities International in Las Vegas. Antiquities International's certificates state that it will refund the cost of the item to the purchaser should the item ever be proven to be fake.
The company's CEO, Toby Stoffa, told TPM that she acquired the Michael Jackson items directly.
"Some of the autographs came from Michael, because he was a client for 12 years," Stoffa said. "Some pieces came to me afterwards from a couple of Michael's bodyguards. So that would have been a second source. Some of them came from a production company that was working with AEG on the 'This Is It' concert."
Stoffa declined to go over the individual items being offered by the Marshals, citing the time constraints of running her business.
"I can tell you in general terms, and they all have certification with them from one place or another, and all the certifications are ones that I trust," Stoffa said, referring to the certifications, including her own, that accompany the items she has sold. "And some of the items, as I say, came from Michael himself."
Stoffa said she had been contacted by authorities when they were investigating the Jackson Jr. case. Asked if authentication was an issue that was discussed during her interactions with those federal officials, Stoffa replied: "I'm sure it was, I don't recall."
"I'm absolutely sure it was, but I don't recall," Stoffa said. "And I wouldn't talk to somebody on the phone about them anyway, because that was stuff that transpired between me and the officials."
As of Thursday evening, the 12 items the Marshals had put on sale had received dozens of bids. Several of the high bids on the autographed items topped $1,000. On Friday, after the auction had been pulled down, the Marshals service told TPM that the primary concern with the auction was the authenticity of the guitar, which did not apparently come with any COAs, but that all the items included in the auction would be subject to additional review.
"Information was brought to light that wasn't available during the appraisal process," Marshal Service spokesperson Drew Wade told TPM.
The U.S. Marshals Service is responsible for selling seized and forfeited properties illegally acquired by convicted felons. The Marshals currently manage more than 23,000 assets, valued at $2.4 billion, as part of the Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Program. According to Wade, the Marshals Service has an outside contractor appraise and vet the items it puts up for auction. Wade told TPM he could not disclose the name of the contractor.
"Out of an abundance of caution, we want to review all the items," Wade said.