Originally published in the August 2009 print edition of Autograph
On June 25, AOL’s instant messaging system crashed for 40 minutes from spikes in usage. Google News dispatched error messages to users searching for stories on Michael Jackson because so many people were searching, the system mistook it for an automated attack. Yahoo’s front page story, “Michael Jackson Rushed to the Hospital” generated 800,000 clicks in 10 minutes. On June 25, at the age of only 50, Michael Jackson died.
The Internet crackled and almost cracked from the worldwide response to Jackson’s death, and a similar tsunami has swept the world of autographs. Within hours, dealers were fielding calls from collectors, some with material to sell, most who urgently wanted to buy. In the days following, music autograph dealer and authenticator Roger Epperson of Signed, Sealed Delivered and REAL told Autograph, “This is the craziest I’ve ever seen. Before he died, I was happy if I could get $150 for Jackson-signed albums. Today you can sell them for $1,000 so fast, your head will spin.”
Epperson assessed the fan fervor. “I compare it to Elvis. The difference with Elvis was there weren’t many autographs out there. Elvis didn’t sit there and sign 100 autographs the night before he died.”
And, according to many reports, Jackson did.
The Jackson 5
The Michael Jackson many remember best is the little boy who blew audiences away in the late ’60s as the lead singer of the Jackson 5. A black and white signed photograph of The Jacksons signed by all five brothers sold for ?1,300 plus buyer’s premium on July 1 (about $2,620 total)—several times the presale estimate. Christies was restrained in their comments, saying only, “It is too early to ascertain the effect of today’s news on the value of Michael Jackson memorabilia; this will be felt over time and dictated by the supply of items to the market.”
Michael Jackson’s Solo Career
We asked Epperson how Jackson’s autograph changed over the four decades of his career, “He always had a beautiful autograph. It’s very flashy, very cool, very large. You can tell he was very confident and proud of himself, and proud of his signature, by the way he signed. When he was younger, there were simply more letters that you could make out, like the ‘h’ in Michael, where now they’re just bumps. It’s still pretty much the same, just larger. As he got bigger, he started signing bigger.”
And Jackson did get bigger. He began his solo career in 1971, while still a member of the Jackson 5. He and his brothers left the Motown label in 1975, signing with CBS Records. From 1975-81 Michael Jackson produced six more albums and toured internationally with the renamed group, “The Jacksons.” He starred as the Scarecrow in the Broadway musical The Wiz. This role brought Jackson into partnership with Quincy Jones and a joint production of his 1979 album Off the Wall.
In 1982 Jackson released Thriller, the best selling album of all time. He debuted his Moonwalk in 1983 in a live performance on Motown 25. And in 1984, in addition to headlining the Victory Tour to more than two million Americans, Jackson was honored by then-President Ronald Reagan for his support of charities.
Michael Jackson was crowned the King of Pop. But instead of a scepter, he ruled with a single white glove.
Jackson wore the iconic white glove on this issue’s cover, emblazoned with bugle beads, Austrian crystal rhinestones and fitted with 50 small lights, with his “Suit of Lights” on the Victory Tour. The glove was one of only two made by Ted Shell and gifted to Shell by Jackson in 1986. On display at Profile in History’s Comic-Con booth in San Diego in July, the glove will be coming up for auction in their October 1-2 sale.
“The glove is the ultimate piece of Jackson performance memorabilia,” said Joe Maddalena, president of Profiles in History. “It’s truly priceless.”
Scams on eBay
The day Jackson died, the number of Jackson-signed items listed on eBay swelled from 163 to more than 600 in just five hours. Of those, the vast majority were forgeries.
Epperson warns, “There are a lot of scams out there. Stay away from eBay if you can. If you do buy on eBay, make sure the item is authenticated by either my firm, Roger Epperson Authentication Limited (REAL), PSA/DNA or James Spence Authentication. We’re about the only authenticators that really know Michael Jackson material. Forgeries and secretarials are very common.”
Prices shot through the roof with the scramble for Jackson-signed material, and have continued to climb. Albums are in the $1,000 range with Thriller and Bad the most desirable. Signed Thriller albums are the most expensive, bringing $1,800 to $3,000. Signed guitars can bring up to $1,000 or more. Vintage signed 8×10 photos can sell for $3,000 or more, with contemporary photos typically bringing $500 to the thousands.
“Autographs and items from Michael’s prime will prove to be the most valued and cherished by fans looking to collect anything related to the legendary singer,” said Doug Norwine of Heritage Auctions. “Something to keep in mind, however, is the inevitable trend of Michael Jackson collectibles flooding the market. Rare, authenticated pieces such as Thriller-era autographs, video and concert worn costumes, and personal mementos will always be prized.”
“One example of this is a Michael-signed Thriller RIAA platinum award that we sold at auction last October for $1,195,” continued Norwine. “If that same lot came up for auction today it would easily bring $4,000-$5,000. That means in select cases where the item is rare, authenticated and signed, prices could increase by as much as two, even three times.”
Epperson offers a few authentication tips:
1. Steer clear of signatures that look like they’re signed slowly and carefully, that don’t flow. Jackson signed his whole life, and signed quickly. And they shouldn’t be shaky.
2. Jackson held the pen near the cap so he didn’t get ink on his hands. That means he couldn’t “dig in.” Look for lighter strokes on the tall letters, where the pen started to rise from the paper.
3. When forgers attempt to copy the “bumps” that make up the smaller letters in Jackson’s name, they’re often too exact, like they’re drawn, not signed. The real signature has higher and lower peaks, and irregular spacing.
Jackson the Songwriter
As Jackson’s solo career took off, so did his reputation as a songwriter, with chart-topping hits like “The Girl Is Mine,” “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” Like John Lennon, Jackson’s handwritten and signed lyrics are among his most prized autographs, and quality examples of popular songs would bring well in the tens of thousands of dollars today. They seldom came to market before, but you can bet forgers are hard at work honing their skills and you’ll see many offered soon.
Run…don’t walk…away from lyrics or any autograph offered with authentication by a “court approved forensic document examiner.” Industry experts Autograph consulted consider these a sign of forgery—not authenticity. The examiners with the worst reputations are Christopher Morales and Donald Frangipani, but we’ve seen a growing number of autographs authenticated by a Florida newcomer, E’lyn Bryan. Our experts haven’t considered one they saw genuine.
Final Days of Signing
Jackson was always a generous signer and probably signed well over 100,000 autographs over his career, but in the last months of his life he took it to a new level. “He was signing like a madman in L.A. and Las Vegas since October,” Epperson said. “If you caught him leaving tour rehearsals at Staples Center you could hand him 50 things and he’d sign them all.”
A professional collector reported, “It was the best kept secret among the pros. They really exploited the guy. Some got hundreds of items signed. They’re selling them now for $1,000-$2,000 each.
“Jackson was a sweetheart. You could knock on his limo window and hand things to his driver and Jackson would sign them in the car. These guys were handing him boxes of stuff.”
Swiss dealer Markus Brandes forwarded an email to us from a French collector:
“I had the luck to meet the great Michael Jackson on Rodeo Drive in October 2008. He was with his children and signed a picture for me leaving a store, and we saw him drive to a nearby antique shop. By the time he left more than 100 people were out front, so his bodyguards took him out the back. Luckily, that was where we were waiting. Michael clasped our hands, got in the car, opened the window and signed and signed. I told him we loved him in France and missed him. He said, ‘I love you, too!’ I think if I had 30 pictures, Michael would have signed everything.”
“He was very nice and really tall—very different than I thought he’d be,” said Epperson. “He had long hands, big George Bush-like hands. George Bush Sr. has hands that almost engulf you. The first time I met him, I had three things and he signed them all. The second time, I had ten and he signed them like it was nothing.”
“Michael was great with fans,” reported Pete Siegel of Gotta Have It! in Manhattan. “He’d come into my shop to look around and talk, and sometimes stayed for a good long time. He was always looking for two things, Shirley Temple photos signed as child and The Three Stooges. When he’d go to leave, a crowd would have formed outside and he’d stay as long as he could to talk to everyone and sign every autograph. Sometimes he was outside for hours. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.”
Longtime collector Joe Kraus founded Autograph and owned it into the 1990s. He told us about his own in-person Michael Jackson experience:
“In the late 1980s my wife Karren and I were manning our booth at a paper show in Pasadena, displaying autographs and promoting the magazine, then in its infancy. A dealer from Washington came over and said someone wanted to talk to me. He lead me to a semi-private area with two chairs and sat me down next to someone in dark sunglasses, a high school letterman’s jacket and baseball cap. It was a good disguise, but once he started talking the mystery was over.
“Jackson was told that I had one of the largest collections of child star autographs around. He wanted any information I could provide on some autographs he had with him, and asked if I could help him build a better collection. We agreed to do some heavy trading, his extras for my extras. He had autographs from current stars and ones dating back to the silent film days.
“Alas, neither of us followed up on that meeting. I’m sure we both felt we’d get around to it someday.
“I’ve often been asked what he was like. He was very friendly, but also very shy, soft spoken and interested in our conversation. He will be missed.”