Dec. 15, 2009 — -- Barry Stevens has learned to appreciate the country bands that play at Coyote Joe's club in Charlotte, N.C., where he is a bartender. That's how he got started collecting autographed memorabilia.
"We would get autographed pictures of the people who would come play in our clubs," said Stevens. "I guess I'm addicted to collecting stuff."
In March 2009, Stevens added a prize piece to his collection, a guitar autographed by former members of the classic rock band Led Zeppelin: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.
"To me, the coolest thing that I could own or anybody could own would be a guitar signed by someone who you really love," said Stevens.
He paid $2,750. But Stevens said the pride of his collection turned out to be a pain.
He bought the guitar from American Royal Arts (ARA). The company is well established, it has been around for 23 years. It has galleries in Florida locations in Delray Beach, Naples, Sarasota, Fort Lauderdale and Key West. It advertises in Rolling Stone, Money and Forbes. It has a glossy catalog and a glitzy Web site.
ARA also has an A-plus rating from the Better Business Bureau. Company president Jerry Gladstone said every signed piece the company sells is authenticated by a forensic examiner.
Even so, Stevens wanted to be sure the signatures were authentic.
"My worst fear of collecting would [be to] have one piece on my wall that's not real," he said. "You're sitting admiring it for the rest of your life and it's not real. ... It's a fake."
But ARA was offering amazing, reassuring and indisputable evidence of the authenticity of the signatures on the Led Zeppelin guitar and a number of other guitars it was selling: photographs of the stars supposedly actually signing the guitars.
A photograph on the site documented Robert Plant signing a guitar; Don Henley signing a guitar autographed by the Eagles; Bono and the Edge singing a U2 guitar; Axl Rose; even a smiling Miley Cyrus, of "Hannah Montana" fame, putting her name and a little smiley-face on a purple Disney guitar. The photographs seemed to be worth a thousand words, if not as many dollars.
"They had a picture of each person signing the guitar that they're selling," said Stevens. "That's why I bought that guitar."
But as it turns out, there was less to some of those photos than meets the eye.
Someone doctored a number of pictures that appeared in ARA's catalog, Web site and advertising earlier this year. Robert Plant and Bono, U2's the Edge and Adam Clayton; Guns N' Roses' Axl Rose, The Eagles' Don Henley, even Miley Cyrus -- the photos were doctored to make it appear as if the stars were signing the guitars being marketed by ARA.
ARA says it was not aware that the photos were altered and never altered the photographs. Shortly after the company says it became aware of the problem, in November, it sued a supplier in California who ARA says sold it a number of autographed guitars and provided all the fake photos. In its lawsuit, ARA claims the California supplier duped and defrauded it with fake photos and false documentation.
ARA president Jerry Gladstone also says ARA had the signatures on the guitars authenticated independently.
Even so, ARA has removed all the fake photos from its Web site and stopped selling any of the related guitars.
Of course, just because the photos are fake doesn't mean the signatures on the guitars are necessarily fake.
ARA provided "20/20" with e-mails from its California supplier that purported to explain the guitars' provenance -- where and when they were signed.
But there appear to be problems with some of the supplier's claims.
For example, the supplier claimed Don Felder of the Eagles signed guitars at appearances at two California book stores in 2008. But "20/20" spoke with store managers who say they were there during the appearances. They said they do not recall Don Felder signing any guitars. In fact, they said he specifically asked them to announce in advance he would not sign memorabilia, only books.
As for the signatures of the other band members, Eagles spokesman Larry Solters told "20/20": "In reviewing the available information, we do not believe that these guitars were personally signed by members of the Eagles."
Led Zeppelin guitar great Jimmy Page told "20/20" through an attorney for the band, George Fearon, that his supposed signature on one Led Zeppelin guitar shown on the ARA Web site was a forgery. The supplier had claimed to ARA that the band's bass player, John Paul Jones, signed the Led Zeppelin guitars in Asheville, N.C., on December 11, 2007.
But according to the band's attorney, Jones said he wasn't even in Asheville on that date. The supplier also claimed that Jones signed some of the guitars at the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles on February 10, 2008. But, again according to the band attorney, Jones says, not only was he not at the Mondrian on that date, he's never been to that hotel.
Barry Stevens had already lost faith in his Led Zeppelin autographed guitar. He returned it to ARA in exchange for a painting signed by Tiger Woods.
But he still has a guitar-size hole in his collection ... and he's almost ready to go guitar shopping again.