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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Word of Honor
Every piece of merchandise Panagopulos sells comes with a guarantee: If an item sold by Alexander Autographs proves to be inauthentic in
the buyer’s lifetime, Panagopulos will refund the money. It’s a guarantee not made by many, including auction houses Christie’s or Sotheby’s. “I’m confident in what I do,” Panagopulos says.
This approach can backfire: “I purchased a letter by Clyde Barrow [of Bonnie and Clyde fame]. It was in all respects perfect. It was a forgery that had been made by his nephew, a good forgery. I even had the lead graphite tested. It wasn’t consistent, but it could have deteriorated. Long story short,
I had to eat about $5,000. Next time I will be more careful.”
Panagopulos hasn’t been burned often, though. He has gotten quite familiar with many of the famous people whose signatures he collects. Abraham Lincoln, for example, had a distinct style of writing his name, including a slight elevation in the last two letters of the last name which Panagopulos refers to as “the Lincoln lift.”
With John F. Kennedy, Panagopulos can not only identify which signatures are real but also if they were signed by one of his personal secretaries, which one. “Now here are some secretarials,” he says, pulling out a trade guide. “This one, Secretary No. 1, fools a lot of people. I’m very good at Kennedy,” he adds, “and I’m very good at Hitler.”
He pulls out a portrait of the man, framed and signed, eyes glaring like braziers. “Concentrated evil,” Panagopulos says. “That’s a $30,000 piece.”
How does one explain selling memorabilia associated with such a man? Panagopulos shrugs. “You can’t ignore what he did,” he says after a pause. “But he is as much a part of history as are Mao and Stalin. Some dealers when they get his material or any Third Reich material, routinely burn it. I tell them they are out of their minds. When they burn it, there goes another vital record of the war and the Holocaust.”
He rejects the notion he trafficks in evil this way. “Whether it’s good or bad, it’s still history,” he says. “And history isn’t all Cinderella and glass slippers. There’s a lot of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, too, or just grim.”
Panagopulos pauses for a moment, then lets out a deep chuckle. “That’s good, put that in your article,” he says.
A scheduled hour in Panagopulos’s company can run much longer, in the same way one might click on Wikipedia.com and subsequently wile away an afternoon. Thoroughly engaged in what he’s doing, he speaks with an arsenal of unself-conscious inflections and gestures. Also, he loves to talk.
“He’s a very jovial person,” says Paul Gibson, a Tennessee-based collector of high-end Civil War items. “But if you want to see him get serious, lay a Robert E. Lee or an Albert Sidney Johnston on his desk. It’ll flip like a light switch.”
Gibson is one of many in the memorabilia business who readily speaks on Panagopulos’s behalf. James Lowe is the man whose Manhattan store supplied him with that Sherman. While Lowe can’t place the year, he still remembers the look in Panagopulos’s eyes.
“I saw that passion in him right away,” Lowe says. “His catalogs are full of good material in every category he covers, whether it’s presidents, authors or sports and rock ’n’ roll. And the professionalism. Many other auction houses don’t spend the time describing a letter from the Civil War to the extent he does. He really gives you a sense of history.”
Take James Buchanan. Our fifteenth president, best known as the guy who left Lincoln to pick up the pieces of a house divided, was not America’s finest. Biographers call him the “bachelor president,” the one about whom many speculate as to why he stayed a bachelor.
A possible answer can be found in the Alexander Autographs spring 2008 catalog. In it is a letter in which a contemporary recalls how Buchanan was devastated after a woman to whom he was betrothed committed suicide after breaking their engagement. It’s “third-party material” in the Panagopulos vernacular, priced at a modest $700 to $900, but of the kind that makes footnote reading so captivating.
“People claim he was gay, but he wasn’t,” Panagopulos states. “His girlfriend died, and he never got over it.”
The catalog also lists artifacts that reference landmark characters immortalized in popular cinema. A photograph signed by Oskar Schindler to two Jews he saved from the death camps will trigger memories with anyone who saw Schindler’s List, while Steve McQueen fans may be interested in letters written at Stalag Luft III by one of the inmates who engineered the “Great Escape.”
A letter by a Southern soldier to his lady back home notes his shocked indignation at having to fight a recent engagement against “Negroes armed with guns.” His line took no prisoners, the solder relates with satisfaction.
“I spent fifteen minutes of research, discovered it was the 54th Massachusetts, the regiment in the movie Glory, in their very first engagement of the war,” Panagopulos says. “July 16, 1863, James Island. I gave a guy $1,500 and can sell it for $3,000. All because I spent fifteen minutes researching it. It went through three hands before it got to me, and no one took the time to read it.”