Tag Archives: caveat emptor


In the last years of my teaching career (forty years’ plus) I had had enough of many irritations, and I printed out a page with block letters — DON’T GO POKIN’ THE BEAR (the apostrophe is because I thought it was a rural phrase) — and hung it next to my office door.  I knew what it meant (don’t go out of your way to irritate me) but I am not sure it worked.  And given the social inability of many of my colleagues, no one asked me, “What kind of bear are you, Michael?” and I could have answered, “Stuffed.”

Second, if I had more of a life (as I had before March 12 and hope for again) I would not spend so much time on eBay.  But I hope my ennui is my readers’ gain.  Looking for photographs of my jazz heroes autographed and / or inscribed by them, I encountered some new delights from a Belgian seller.  I present them to you for your pleasure — in each case, with appropriate music.

And to set the stage, the Boswell Sisters and the Dorsey Brothers, 1934:

JOOGIE BOOGIE (Chicago, 1950), Lil Hardin Armstrong, personnel unknown:

To Willie, in 1954:

Oscar Pettiford, with Sidney Catlett, Eddie Heywood, Charlie Shavers, Ed Hall, Frank Socolow, for BLUES IN ROOM 920 (1944):

Oscar, inscribed to Bill Coleman; I don’t recognize the inscription on the right:

Red Norvo, I GOT RHYTHM, with Joe Thomas, Vic Dickenson, Hank D’Amico, Teddy Wilson, Slam Stewart, Specs Powell (1944):

To Willy:

and trumpeter Ernie Royal. STARDUST: Ernie, Billy Taylor, Oscar Pettiford, George Barnes, Osie Johnson (1954):

and the man himself:

and something that strikes me as unusual: Bill Coleman inscribing a photograph to his wife of fifteen years, Lily.  THAT’S KICKS (1944), which Bill recorded with Sammy Price, Joe Eldridge, Ike Quebec, Oscar Pettiford, Doc West:

and here’s to the happy couple:

But, as with many things, especially online commerce, CAVEAT EMPTOR is the law of the land.  If you choose to purchase an autograph or an inscribed photograph, please compare the signature on it with others visible on eBay or on Google.  There are forgers out there, and I have a brand-new story, which seem sour or funny or both.  Hark to my tale.

Possibly the most often-seen jazz autograph on eBay is that of Louis Armstrong, who signed his name a million times over fifty years.  His calligraphy was not smooth and elegant, rather angular and labored.  His genuine signature is completely recognizable.  The forgeries, and I have seen many, are too neat.  And people forget that their heroes often signed their names while leaning against a wall, balancing a small piece of paper in midair.

Yesterday I saw a truly poor forgery on eBay, as if someone had attempted to copy Louis’ idiosyncracies . . . and had failed. It was a first take.  (I’m not displaying it here because I want it to vanish.) “Priced to sell!” the seller trumpeted (forgive me) and it had a “certificate of authenticity” attached.  For some reason, this seemed appalling to me — heretical, an insult to my idol.  And in my annoyance, I wrote a clearly graceless note to the seller:

Dear X—-, sadly, whoever sold this to you as genuine wasn’t being honest. It’s about a C- forgery. I have several originals, one I did get from the great man himself in 1967, and his handwriting was always more angular and messy. Compare it with others for sale on eBay. Sorry to break the news, but I dislike tofu sold as steak. Michael Steinman (a Louis enthusiast for decades)

Who knows what I thought I would accomplish — righteous indignation is always treacherous unless you have an army — but I got a faceful:

Yenta, I don’t think you know what side is up, any further accusations or messages will be considered harassment and reported….

That’ll teach me to not poke the bear, don’t you think?

May your happiness increase!




To the right of me, next to this keyboard, I have an index card that Louis Armstrong signed for me in April 1967.  And I’ve seen many examples of his angular handwriting, the idiosyncratic crabbed loops and slurred letters that a person who signs his name millions of times does.

I love eBay and visit it often — sometimes to purchase an out-of-print CD or book, sometimes to browse.  Readers of this blog know that I have returned from my time at the monitor with surprises that I share.

Today, however, I offer an unsolicited yet short lesson in authenticity.  I am not a certified specialist in autographs, but I know Louis’ signature as I know his voice.  And I am startled to find forgeries being offered at high prices.  I’ve given up contacting the sellers, because although they may be innocent (or is it ignorant) they assert that the consigner said the signature was genuine. (Incidentally, I’ve discussed with others a forged Coltrane “manuscript,” and other debatable autographs.  I know that there are “fan” signatures — the star’s secretary signs a photograph and sends it off, but the inauthentic Louis signatures are more egregious to me.)

Here, for instance, is a 1949 letter that is clearly Louis: not only the handwriting, but the individualistic prose style, the punctuation, and the sentiments:


And, by the way, the writer’s love for Poppa Bing is also genuine.

Here’s an autograph that also strikes me as the real thing:


I love that the seller identifies Louis as “(DEC’D) TRUMPETER.

LOUIS to Chris Clufetos real

Above is a genuinely warm inscription to Chris Clufetos, known better as Chris Clifton, whom Louis befriended.

Here’s an inscription in Wild Bill Davison’s copy of HORN OF PLENTY, the Robert Goffin book about Louis.  Again, visibly genuine:


Are you beginning to get the idea?  Now, does this signature below resemble the others?

LOUIS serious fake sig

This one’s a harder test, but I have faith in my readers:

LOUIS Pennies fake sig

Now, here’s the real thing.  Forget that some eBay sellers know that the average buyer is trusting and perhaps naive; forget that some people on both sides of the deal are not well-informed.

Good luck!  Anyone can use a green pen, but there is only one Louis.  Keep hustlin’ and bustlin’ for the real thing. Make your dream come true.

May your happiness increase!