A Born Sleuth
Bill Panagopulos knows a fake when he sees one, whether it’s a very good forged signature or a reputedly authentic artifact.
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Zeal Rooted in Childhood
Panagopulos’s father Gene, a Greek immigrant, inculcated a deep love of history in his son. Typical dinner-table conversation included such topics as a discussion of the Moorish invasion of France in 732. Gene also had a particularly strong interest in the history of his adopted homeland and took his son to visit famous battlefields: “While other kids went to Disney World, I went to Little Bighorn,” says Panagopulos.
Gene provided the seed, Ken Burns the fertilizer. After taking in the epic documentary The Civil War, codirected and produced by Burns, Panagopulos found himself one day in the early 1990s away from his job at a family-run shipping firm, poring over a collection of autographs at a store on 60th Street in Manhattan. His eyes lit upon a slender band of paper bearing the signature of William Tecumseh Sherman, the famous Union leader who burned Atlanta and uttered the famous words: “War is hell.”
Panagopulos made his purchase but found he couldn’t stop there. “Who was the guy who chased Sherman across Georgia? Albert Sidney Johnston, right? I had to get one of his, too.”
Johnston actually cost more, but by then it was too late: Panagopulos was hooked. He now had to have every Civil War general, North and South, even those unfortunate1 enough to die on the battlefield and make their John Hancock rarer than John Hancock’s. For example, a Stonewall Jackson signature, including his rank, cost $5,000. “That was a lot of money, and it was just one of 500 signatures I needed, if not more,” Panagopulos remembers.
To fund his burgeoning hobby, Panagopulos partnered with an autograph auctioneer in Maine who helped him find a few autographs to sell at
a profit. Then Panagopulos used the proceeds to nab his generals. Whenever Panagopulos found something promising, he’d check with his friend. A thumbs-up, and Panagopulos made the purchase.
“I’d buy it, consign it to his auction,” he says. “I always made money. I took that profit and purchased more autographs for my collection. It was self-sustaining.”
With all this buying and selling came greater expertise and interest in the deals. When a falling-out between partners had Panagopulos leave his job at the shipping firm, the autograph business was waiting.
In the decade and a half since, Alexander Autographs has emerged as one of the premier auction houses in the country for the sale of autographs and memorabilia. Some of the more famous items sold include:
- An arrest card for Al Capone from 1930. The charge: Vagrancy. The price: $36,000.
- A musical manuscript by Franz Schubert: $53,000.
- A letter cosigned by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin authorizing attacks on British vessels: $85,000.
- A signed photograph of Abraham Lincoln: $110,000.
- A wristwatch purportedly given to Jack Kennedy by Marilyn Monroe, engraved “To Jack — With Love Always — Marilyn”: $115,000.