The value of an autograph, auctioneers will tell you, depends largely on four factors: scarcity, demand, authenticity and what it’s signed on. When it comes to presidents, the living ones’ signatures tend to go for less than the dead ones, said Lori Ferber, who runs a presidential memorabilia site.
But occasionally the factors align to propel a living, prolific signer into the four- to five-figure zone. Since President Trump took office, the signed objects that have landed there include a book inscribed with: “Dear Carol I will never change the hair” ($3,000); a recalled Newsweek pronouncing Hillary Clinton “Madam President” ($5,435); and Mr. Trump’s sketch of the New York City skyline ($29,184).
Now, in the wake of his acquittal by the Senate, one item appears poised to surpass the others: a printout of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment report that an auction site says was signed by the president at a rally in Michigan on Dec. 18, just hours before the House voted to impeach him. With more than two weeks of bidding left, the price had already reached $17,000 by Wednesday night.
Les Gold, founder of American Jewelry and Loan and star of the TV show “Hardcore Pawn,” told The Detroit News recently that he expected the document to sell for “$100,000 to $500,000.”
So how can anyone be sure Mr. Trump signed the report? And how did it end up on a South Jersey-based auction site? A search for answers offers a window into the secretive world of autograph sales and ultimately pivots on the word of a retired competitive eater, once described by MajorLeagueEating.com as “the pride of Dubuque, Iowa, and a lion at the table.”
The idea to get the president to sign the report did not come from the competitive eater, however. It came from a veteran dealer, known for providing auctioneers with a steady stream of memorabilia, according to Ken Goldin, founder of Goldin Auctions, which is selling the signed report.
Mr. Goldin shared an email he received about six hours before Mr. Trump arrived in Battle Creek, Mich., on Dec. 18. Subject: articles of impeachment. Body: “if u want something beyond remarkable, if all goes well tonight at his” — expletive — “rally in Michigan, Trump will sign a copy of the above — interested?”
Mr. Goldin did not require convincing. He once sold a ticket to attend the 1974 Richard M. Nixon impeachment proceedings. (Nixon resigned beforehand.) “It was just a ticket and it went for $900,” he said.
The plan to obtain Mr. Trump’s signature on the report proceeded without a hitch, according to a notarized letter posted on Goldin Auctions’ website. A man by the name of Jonathan Moore wrote that he asked the president “to sign the Articles of Impeachment that I handed him,” and Mr. Trump “happily complied.”
Mr. Trump’s signature was authenticated by two independent companies.
The problem? Not everyone is convinced that this “Jonathan” exists. Among the skeptics is Jeannie Burchfield, chairwoman of the Calhoun County Republican Party, who attended the Dec. 18 rally in Battle Creek. Based on her observation, few were permitted to get close enough to the president to even shake his hand. She knows the active Republicans in the area, she said, and though there’s a Moore and a Jonathan, “There is no such thing as a Jonathan Moore.”
If someone did get the president to sign the report that day, she finds it “hilarious,” but “I think it’s an urban legend.”
The White House did not immediately return requests for comment about the signature’s authenticity.
Tim Murtaugh, the director of communications for the Trump campaign, said no one named Jonathan Moore was associated with the campaign. “Based on the description of when and where he claims to have gotten the items signed and the timeline that’s been reported,’’ Mr. Murtaugh said in an email, “we are highly skeptical that he and the autographed items are authentic as claimed.”
Presented with these doubts, Mr. Goldin conceded that Mr. Moore could be a pseudonym. In that case, what exactly was notarized? This is where a retired competitive eater enters this story.
There is a second signature on the letter. Unlike Mr. Moore’s, it is not typed out, making it easy to miss. But Mr. Goldin revealed that it belonged to Aaron Osthoff, who had previously worked with “Jonathan” to procure an oath of office that Mr. Trump signed.
“I am the intermediary,” Mr. Osthoff said in a phone interview. He also confirmed that he was the same Aaron (the A Train) Osthoff credited with consuming hot dogs with what MajorLeagueEating.com called “the relentless, on-track determination of well-managed railway infrastructure.”
Mr. Osthoff, who now works as a safety specialist for a manufacturing company in Iowa, said he did not attend the rally in Michigan. But he said that a friend who works as state campaign manager for Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign did. He would not say which state. “He has access to meet and greets,” Mr. Osthoff said.
He declined to say whether “Jonathan Moore” was a pseudonym, stating only that the person did not want his name made public and that was why only Mr. Osthoff’s name was notarized.
This means that the only thing that the official stamp on the “notarized letter” proves is that Mr. Osthoff signed a piece of paper in the presence of a notary on Dec. 30. A manager at the credit union where it was notarized confirmed this. A representative for the Iowa secretary of state said that the document should have carried a certificate specifying who was present.
Mr. Goldin said that Mr. Moore’s real name is not the point. “All I need to know was that it was signed on the 18th” by Mr. Trump. And on this front, he said, “there’s no doubt in my mind.”
He said that he was used to people raising questions about high-profile items and that he offers a money-back guarantee on authenticity.
He said he was so convinced because of the timing of the emails he received from the dealer working with Mr. Osthoff and because his authenticators do not like to be embarrassed.
Both Beckett Authentication Services and Professional Sports Authenticator, which authenticated Mr. Trump’s signature on the report, employ experts who are intimately familiar with the spacing, flow and rhythm of Mr. Trump’s letters. They have studied not only his signing implements of choice — typically a Sharpie — but also the pressure he is prone to place on the pen.
Steve Grad, principal authenticator for Beckett, keeps a file of Mr. Trump’s signature going back to the 1980s for comparison. He said that Mr. Trump had two: one that resembles “a seismogram reading after an earthquake,” and another that is more legible.
If “Jonathan” — or whatever his real name is — really works in politics and obtained the signature on Dec. 18, he would not be the only person in that world to sell something autographed by Mr. Trump. “Sometimes it’s the senators and the congressmen that do it,” the president lamented last month, according to USA Today.
In June, Mr. Trump was mocked for signing the top corner of a D-Day proclamation, while other world leaders grouped theirs’ below. But in this case, Mr. Trump’s placement deserves praise, Mr. Goldin said. Even though the impeachment report was signed on a diagonal, “He never goes outside the square!” Nor does his pen interfere with the title: “Impeachment of Donald J. Trump President of the United States.”