There is not a more controversial figure in the “Authenticating the Authenticators” series than this week’s subject, Donald Frangipani. Indeed, the prurient appeal of interviewing the man that so many hobbyists love to hate was paramount in inviting Frangipani to participate in this series.
For the benefit of hobby newcomers, and to provide all context necessary, it is appropriate to say that many collectors and dealers contacted SCD to voice their protests after Frangipani was invited. Many say they will never buy or use a Donald Frangipani certificate of authenticity. That’s because Frangipani, as he admits here, was used by the forgers in the FBI’s Operation Bullpen investigation after the forgery conspirators figured out he would approve all or most of their fakes. The ongoing investigation continues to provide evidence to Frangipani bashers – Frangipani COAs will play a central role in this summer’s trial involving the owners of Smokey’s in Las Vegas, who are being tried for selling fake autographs and who used Frangipani’s service.
There are dealers who say “I’ve never seen a real item with a Frangipani COA,” and many people who chastised me for including him in this series because I was going to “legitimize him.”
That is the backdrop as we (yes we – most of these questions were from collectors and dealers participating in this series) proceeded with interviewing Frangipani. If you have a reaction to this interview, please voice your concerns, criticisms or support in a fair, equitable and open letter to the editor.
Please note that SCD did not have the resources to fact-check all of Frangipani’s claims. He did provide a curriculum vitae full of letters of recommendation and the like, however. In areas where answers raised a red flag, followup questions were asked, and those those answers appear seamlessly within this text.
SCD: Let’s start with your history and background.
Donald Frangipani: I am 68 years of age. I started training in 1956 in the military; I was assigned to the Army lab. I started training in handwriting identification, handprint, numbers, obliterated writing, erasures, copy machines, forensic photography, penmanship systems, rules of evidence, latent fingerprint examination. I continued my studies and I still attend conferences in the field of forensic document examination. We don’t call ourselves authenticators.
SCD: Who do you work for?
DF: I’m also a licensed private investigator; I have my own detective agency. The name of my firm is All City Investigation and Forensic Services. I work for banks, corporations, law firms, governmental agencies; in fact right now I’m doing two cases, one for the attorney general of the state of New York; one for the National Credit Union Administration, which is a federal agency. I work for numerous banks, law firms, private citizens. I’m also working on two wills. It can be any kind of a document, anything that might be forged.
I’m also assigned to the federal defense panel in the federal courts. For instance, if you were arrested for a crime like a forgery, the court might assign me as a resume. If it’s a state or city case, I’m assigned to legal aid, and I work for the district attorney’s office.
SCD: What are your services available specific to collectors? What are your fees and how do you submit something?
DF: I have been charging $20 a signature. I don’t have a Web site. Most of my work is through word of mouth (note: phone number 718-232-3209).
SCD: Regarding autographs, are there time periods or sports genres you focus on?
DF: Frankly speaking, I’m not that current with these new players. I got Pedro Martinez in today; I don’t have one sample of his writing, so I can’t issue a letter. There are many times I don’t have exemplars. The older players like Babe Ruth were very fluent when they wrote. These new players have so many variations, and they scribble. I have to have a minimum of five samples.
Handwriting is a neuromuscular factor; you write according to your state of mind, your mood, fear, medication, stress, position – all these things affect your handwriting. If a guy just ran the bases, that affects his handwriting. Lou Gehrig had a motor function disease; that would affect his handwriting. How many items is the person signing at one time??Based on scientific principles, you can’t write your name the same way two times. I have a photo of Babe Ruth with about 500 baseballs in front of him to sign.
All of these factors have to be taken into consideration, and most of the time we can’t answer all of those questions. That’s why you need a lot of exemplars, and why we have variations, both accidental and normal.
SCD: Many collectors believe it’s important to have a formal authentication education in order to be considered qualified. Do you concur with that sentiment??
DF: Yes and no. First of all, there are a lot of people who are dealers and collectors who claim they’ve been studying signatures for years. But if you’re a handwriting expert, you’re a handwriting expert. You have to have samples of the person’s writing, and the training I’ve had as a forensic document examiner covers handwriting.
SCD: Is formal training necessary to be a good sports autograph authenticator?
DF: Being a handwriting expert has nothing to do with knowing sports. But the knowledge that you need of sports comes in when you examine a sports signature. Sometimes you’ll get situations like a couple months ago, when I rejected 172 baseballs from one individual because they were all scrubbed down (the stamp scrubbed off), and if you looked with infrared light, you could see that they were Rawlings Gene Budig balls. So was the player alive during that time period? You have to know the history. Babe Ruth couldn’t have signed a Polaroid photo.
SCD: In the last 10 years or so, there have been about 15 autograph authentication courses across the country. Have you attended any, and do you find that kind of thing valuable?
DF: I belong to the American Board of Forensic Examiners and the International Association for Identification. In fact, I give classes. I?don’t belong to manuscript societies, but they are good. But the people giving the class should be a qualified forensic examiner, also. The autograph groups are paid membership groups, but I think it’s important to have boards like this, and I think it’s necessary to have a board of ethics.
SCD: There are people who believe the American Board of Forensic Examiners membership doesn’t qualify you as an expert, it’s simply a paid membership, a “checkbook credential.” What is that organization and how is it different from the others that have similar names?
DF: I have to be frank, I think the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners is the most credible organization, but you have to have a degree (to be certified by that organization). These societies are not a requirement (to be a good autograph analyst). How many of the people you’ve interviewed (for this authentication series) belong to anything?
What is more important is, are you qualified in a court of law? You go before the courts and you have to show that you have the proper training over a period of years, and they will qualify you or decide not to. I’ve testified over 75 times in a court of law but I could go before a judge tomorrow and he could tell me I’m not qualified. How many (autograph authenticators) can you honestly say right now are court qualified or belong to any organizations?
There are over 2,000 examiners in this country and only 4-5 do autographs. They won’t touch this stuff; it’s too much of a mess.
SCD: Who, among the other autograph “verifiers,” do you trust?
DF: I’ve corroborated with people like Drew Max (of AAU), Andrew Bradley, who is the one who gave (famous autograph analyst Jimmy) Spence his home correspondence course. I’m not one to disparage another person, and I don’t know most of them so I won’t comment on them, but if I had to get a second opinion it would be Drew Max or Andrew Bradley. And Chris Morales is fairly new, but he’s at least a qualified examiner.
SCD: Do you utilize a team of experts if something’s out of your comfort area?
DF: Yes, I work with other examiners in the field who are also qualified examiners, or with people who are not qualified examiners but they do a lot of research. I have one gentleman right now who does all of my research. If I have a ball and I don’t know anything about it, I’ll call him and ask him for the background before I pass it.
SCD: Are you a partner with Christopher Morales?
DF: That is correct. Chris Morales worked with the Secret Service for a few years and has taken forensic courses. He has a double Masters degree; he’s pretty bright.
SCD: Would you call him your protege?
DF: Yes and no. We’re not partners; we consult each other. Chris testifies in regular cases with me; we don’t just do autographs. In fact, we just did two trials.
SCD: What verbiage do you prefer, authentication vs. professional opinions?
DF: I prefer the word opinion. I work on regular court cases. “Authenticate” means you were present. How can I authenticate Babe Ruth or Christy Mathewson’s signature? I never saw it signed. I like the word opinion or verification.
SCD: What is your policy if something you’ve authenticated is disputed later?
DF: It’s happened many times. The policy is, most of the time we have to stand by our opinion. I had a situation a few years ago where I had three Brandon Lee pieces, and I charged the man $300. The gentleman called me a month later and said, “I don’t believe that Brandon Lee could have signed these because he died on the set.”?So I said, “Look, I’m not going to dispute it with you, if you’re not happy I’ll send you back your $300,” and that’s what I do.
But you have to remember, all these people out there who use the term “authentication,” and they’re good and you’re bad, it’s terrible. There are several individuals out there, the minute they see my letter, the piece is deemed bad; I have affidavits to that effect. But I don’t disparage anyone. It’s not helpful.
SCD: What if something you authenticated is later proven to be clearly fake?
DF: You have to admit to it. If you were wrong, give me a basis why I was wrong. It’s happened to me; I’m not going to deny it. I’ll give you your (authentication fee) back. It happens every day in autographs; somebody’s going to dispute something. The biggest problem we have in this business out there right now is that, for instance, there is an examiner out there right now saying Ted Williams never signed with an open ‘a’ and people believe that. “This guy never did that” – there’s no such thing as a person never did something; you never saw him sign everything. As a qualified examiner, we’re going to see more than the average person sees.
SCD: Do you buy and sell in the field in which you provide verifications?
DF: I have absolutely nothing to do with the field of buying and selling.
SCD: I can tell by the tone of your answer that you don’t believe examiners should.
DF: I think it’s very unethical; it’s a double standard. I don’t buy, sell and collect. I think it’s improper. There are “authenticators,” to use your term, out there who authenticate their own items. There are people out there who identify items by looking at a scan, and you cannot do that, and there’s a lot of that going on right now. It’s terrible.
SCD: What sorts of scientific methods do you use to analyze ink, paper, pen pressure, etc., and are those scientific methods necessary?
DF: When people call me and want to send over a scan, I tell them I won’t do it. I have to see the actual item, not even a photograph, because the first thing I do is make sure that item, let’s say it’s a baseball, existed at the time that person was alive. Then I do a macroscopic examination, which is the naked eye. Then I place it under a comparison microscope. If I’m looking at a photo, I’ll take another photo as an example and place it under the scope. If I don’t have a photo, I have numerous books that we consider authoritative. I look with the microscope, I do side-lighting to check for indented writing to see if there was pressure on the instrument.
I rejected a Babe Ruth baseball bat two weeks ago; it was an old Hillerich & Bradsby 125, the grain of wood was split, the grain was open, yet the fountain pen ink was disseminated inside the grain, which means it was signed as the bat aged. Those are some of the things I look for.
Here are the things we look for: Overall letter style, pen stops and pen lifts, line quality, connecting strokes, ‘i’ dots, “t” bars, baseline writing. If I’m looking at line quality, I’m looking for tremor in the line quality. Joe Jackson couldn’t write, so you’re going to see a lot of tremor in the line quality, same with Cy Young. Now, it’s not always a sign of forgery when you see a tremor, it could be a normal tremor, like when you’re signing a bat with a fountain pen.
SCD: If you don’t have the exemplars, do you say no to the money, or do you try to find a way to authenticate it?
DF: If I don’t have exemplars, I’ll tell the client I’ll try to get some, and I’ll hold it until I do get some. Years ago, I received a Rube Waddell signature, and I only had one example. So if they want the item back, I’ll just send it back. There are also other times when I’ll tell the client the result of the examination is inconclusive (due to lack of exemplars).
SCD: If you authenticate a huge collection, do you see every item?
DF: You have to see every item; anything else is improper. If you send me four dozen Ted Williams balls, or Joe DiMaggios, I have to look at them individually. Plus, I have to mark them; I mark every item. Today, I did four Beatles cut signatures, and they were on very thin paper, so I marked them with ultraviolet ink so it doesn’t bleed through.
SCD: If somebody doesn’t want their items marked ...
DF: I tell them I won’t mark them. I’ve also had major problems in the past with a lot of my letters being copied, so now I use tamper-proof seals (on the COAs). If you send me a photo of Mickey Mantle, the same seal goes on the item as the COA. I’m now putting a sticker item on the item and on the letter.
SCD: Do you consider a clubhouse signature a forgery?
DF: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. I got this right from an old-time player: The New York Yankees from 1961-70 had a gentleman, I’d rather not mention his name, who would sign for the players, they called them ghost signers.
SCD: The quality of an exemplar library is extremely important. How extensive is your exemplar library, and how do you know they’re real?
DF: Most of the time we have to rely on books. Let’s assume that I have a collection of Joe Jackson, Christy Mathewson, Ted Williams ... if I had all these known, original exemplars, I wouldn’t need to be in this business, my collection would be worth a fortune. We have to rely on authoritative books. One of the books I use is Mark Allen Baker (former Krause Publications autograph book author), which I think is pretty good. I think he was a very good writer, and I rely a lot on his book. But if you look at that book, look at all the variations Bill Dickey had. I rely mostly on books; where am I going to get all of these original exemplars?
SCD: Do you ever conduct an examination without exemplars?
DF: Absolutely not. How can I authenticate something unless I have an exemplar? I can look at a Mantle and say, “It looks pretty good to me,” but I still study it with a microscope and everything else. I will not evaluate a signature just because I’ve seen a lot of them. I’ll say, “It looks good to me, but I’ll examine it later on.” There was a gentleman who had $50,000 of Babe Ruth signatures that were computer-generated. I have them in my possession right now. All you needed to do was look at one and make an overlay, and they line up identically. And if you use sidelighting, you can see there are no indentures. I will never rely on a scan.
SCD: Many collectors believe that the grade or examination of an item can be affected by the reputation of the person submitting the item. Does that happen in the hobby?
DF: It happens a lot. A lot of the “authenticators” out there buy, sell and collect. They’ll judge an item because it came from a certain group, so they “know it’s good.” I don’t rely on that. Have I made mistakes? I’ve made numerous mistakes and I’m the first one to admit it.
SCD: Have you seen something that was definitely real turn into something deemed not real because you authenticated it?
DF: I have had a lot of pieces that I knew were authentic (that somebody else said was fake upon finding out Frangipani approved it). I can give you an example. The Worth Special 83-1 ball. A certain individual brought the ball to me and I passed it. A couple months later it came out in Sweet Spot that I passed a ball that came out in 1940; the ball came out in 1920. Then there was a Babe Ruth Little League ball that a certain individual said came out in 1949, but it came out in 1939.
SCD: What’s your advice to a collector who’s caught between dueling authenticators, you say it’s real and the other guy says it’s not.
DF: I’m dealing with an individual right now on a Beatles piece, and he calls my client up, one of my biggest music clients, and he tells him, “I heard Frangipani was indicted, therefore I want my money back.?I sent it to another gentleman who’s a Beatles expert and he said it’s fake, and if you have any questions, you should call the FBI.” I sent the guy my resume the other day and he said he’s now convinced he wants to keep the item. I don’t hide anything.
SCD: As much differing opinions as you find in authentication, does that by definition tell us that examining autographs is an impossible task?
DF: You want my honest opinion? If I had my way, I wouldn’t be doing this anymore, but I’m not going to give up after all these years.
The fact of the matter is there are too many (examiners) out there who are not educated in handwriting. Everybody disagrees because they’re competitive. There are over 2,000 document examiners in the country, and I only know of four of them who are qualified in a court of law. Most of the examiners from the FBI or Secret Service that I speak to wouldn’t touch (autographs) because of the question you just asked. Even Chris Morales, who’s new at this, told me a couple weeks ago, “I’m not sure I want to do this anymore.” The biggest problem out there is there is too much disparaging.
SCD: How important of a factor is provenance? Can it make or break an item??Can it be the deciding factor?
DF: I don’t always buy the stories. Four years ago, the state of North Carolina called me up on a ball they had taken out of a safe deposit box, and they asked me if I would examine the ball. Babe Ruth’s nurse’s daughter approved the ball, her mother had it signed in the hospital. The following day, they put it up on the auction block. It’s one of many factors you use.
SCD: Many collectors believe autograph verifiers don’t leave enough variance for athlete signatures, particularly if the athlete is on the run, or has signed a lot that day. They believe the exemplars are of the perfect autograph only.
DF: I was on Channel 5 with Brandon Steiner a few years ago. Three of the pieces I examined belonged to John Franco. The reporter showed the ball and two photos to John Franco. He said, “The ball looks like my signature; I’m not sure about the two photos.” Linda Schmidt, the reporter, said, “John, you pitched three innings that day, as you walked off the field, you signed them for me.” Now you’re talking about physiological, neurological factors. Did Babe Ruth drink? How many balls did he sign when he was drunk? Mickey Mantle, late in life, was very sick. And these players today don’t remember what they’ve signed. And a lot of players deny signing things for tax purposes. I know of four players who had private signings but later denied it.
SCD: What’s your opinion on verification services changing based on the value of the item?
DF: If you get a ball like Joe Jackson, I’ll charge $75-$100 because there’s more work involved. I can charge $20 for Mantle because of the abundance (of exemplars and experience in seeing Mantle items).
SCD: Were there instances in which you got fooled by a group of forgeries??
DF: I’ve been wrong many, many, many times. During Operation Bullpen, there were a lot of professional forgers out there. I was fooled; I’ve been duped many times, and I’m the first to admit it. Sheldon Jaffe (who was convicted in Operation Bullpen), I did over 474 pieces for him, and he paid me $4,060. How’s that (for honesty)?
Let’s put it this way: The forgers were that good. The Marino family was a group of artists (note: this is not an exaggeration, many of them were painters or otherwise artistically inclined). If you can duplicate my face, why can’t you duplicate my signature? So was I fooled? Many times, and I’m going to admit it. On “20/20,” they had a guy signing Michael Jordans, and I said to myself, “God knows how many of those Jordans I might have passed.” Again, you see, I don’t deny anything.
If you don’t want to use my services because I got those wrong, that’s your prerogative. Or on occasions where another authenticator will disagree with me, I’ll say, “Look, I’m not going to fight over the phone. I can’t be held liable for my opinion. But, if I had to go to court, I would go into court and give them the basis of my findings.” I’ve testified over 100 times as an expert witness. I was a defense expert on the World Trade Center bombing. When Yousef Ramzi was arrested in the 1993 attack, I was appointed by the federal court as a defense expert. I spent 19 hours with Yousef Ramzi examining all of his handwriting, and rendered an opinion to the court and to the FBI.
SCD: How do you identify an autopen signature?
DF: An autopen is a mechanical pen; you see a lot of it with politicians. I have two Ronald Reagan thank-you cards. When you look under the microscope, you see feathering in the line quality (of a real signature). The beginning stroke is very broad and the ending stroke is very broad (on these Reagan signatures); that’s what you call an autopen. President Bush’s inauguration had a lot of invitations; he didn’t sign all of these, that was an autopen. If I think the autograph is perfect, I’ll use an overlay and they’ll sometimes match perfectly.
SCD: Do you have an insurance policy to protect you regarding your service?
DF: Yes, but to be honest, those insurance policies really don’t cover anything, because it’s only an opinion. I carry what they call “collectibles insurance,” but errors and omissions are really not covered under an opinion.
SCD: Why is it that items you authenticate often don’t get approved by other authenticators?
DF: It’s a competitive thing. And I’ve been banned from eBay, and who does business with eBay? PSA/DNA and all of these other groups. And bear in mind that these people look at scans. When you interview these people, find out what their background is, because I happen to know, I’m a licensed private investigator.
SCD: There were things from Operation Bullpen that you passed but shouldn’t have ...
DF: Well, not that I shouldn’t have. I gave an opinion, and I thought they were good.
SCD: Would it be your opinion that that mistake has gotten you blackballed?
DF: Yes, and definitely to an unfair level. How is it that you can take an item worth $20,000 that the guy knows is real, positively, and (another autograph analyst) turns around and says it’s fake, and the bat expert says it’s firewood?
I can’t say it hasn’t hurt me, but I’ll stand behind everything I do, and they can’t keep holding Operation Bullpen over my head, either. I still go to court and testify as an expert witness; I don’t have a problem.
SCD: You don’t seem to hide from anything.
DF: I’ll send you a copy of my resume. I?don’t have a problem with anything. If people want to hold Operation Bullpen over my head the rest of my life, then they won’t use me, that’s the way I look at it. Operation Bullpen was 1999. This is 2005, let’s get on with it.