Rich Consola of Amherst saw Elvis Presley in concert twice at Memorial Auditorium, in 1957 and in 1976.
That was it.
And yet “The King” has been Consola’s focus for decades.
“I’ve studied Elvis Presley’s autograph every day of my life for the past 25 years,” Consola said.
Through sheer will, untold hours of study, and the gift of being “kind of OCD,” Consola has become an internationally respected authenticator of Elvis’ signature, assessing the loops and swoops to pick out the genuine from the counterfeit.
Not that Elvis has made that easy.
“He signed a lot of autographs, but the thing about Elvis is that he almost never signed his name twice the same way,” said Consola, a trim, gray-haired man who has two Elvis tattoos on his right arm, one the image of a famous photo from the 1957 Aud concert by former Buffalo News photographer Robert L. Smith, the other Elvis’ own “TCB” design, which stands for “taking care of business.”
Consola loves to talk about Elvis, and he doesn’t confine his conversation to the thousands of scraps of paper, tickets, records and programs that Elvis signed in his 42 years. Once a prolific collector himself, Consola has sold or swapped almost all of the artifacts he ever owned, including two of only seven known Elvis letters. Consola’s contacts in the field of Elvis memorabilia run wide and deep. He knows the stories behind the Elvis artifacts he once owned, as well as the more valuable items that, as a 47-year court reporter, he never had a shot at buying.
But most of all, Consola knows Elvis’ handwriting, how Elvis shaped the opening E, how he looped the terminal Y, how he signed every check “E.A. Presley,” how he sometimes wrote his first and last names as two words and sometimes didn’t raise the pen from the paper so the signature looks like one 12-letter word. And with that knowledge comes a mission.
Consola is inspired by a zeal to keep forgeries off the market, a drive to feel close to the star whose music was the soundtrack of his life, and his admitted “fascination with handwriting.”
Consola’s expertise is valuable “because he is such a specialist on Elvis,” said Joe Orlando, president of PSA/DNA, a division of Collectors Universe, one of the leading authentication and grading services in the world. “If our full-time authenticators are looking at an Elvis autograph and they’d like another opinion, they can reach out to Rich.”
A whim in Vegas
Consola, like Elvis, came from modest beginnings. The son of a jukebox serviceman who settled his family on the West Side and then in North Buffalo, Consola collected and played the extra records his father brought home. He remembered, “I heard my dad and the other guys talking about this young guy who shook when he sang and was going to be the next big thing. I was smitten. All the kids my age were smitten.”
He was a month away from turning 12 when Elvis performed at the Aud on April 1, 1957, said Consola. “I begged my mother to take me to that concert.”
She did, and while he recalls the charismatic young singer’s gold lame jacket, he said, “There were 13,500 people there, and you couldn’t hear him for the screaming.”
Consola attended a second Elvis concert in 1976 at the Aud, and that was it. He was just one of hundreds of Western New York fans who had seen Elvis in the singer’s two Buffalo concerts.
Then in the early 1990s, during a Las Vegas vacation, Consola and his wife, Deborah, wandered into a memorabilia shop in Caesar’s Palace. On a whim, “I asked the guy, ‘Do you have any Elvis autographs?’ ” The dealer said he expected one the next day. Consola stopped back and was shown a photo of two couples dining in a booth at the Sahara Hotel in 1957.
On the back, large, clear and set at a jaunty angle, was Elvis Presley’s autograph.
“I was ecstatic to see it,” Consola said. “I had been such a fan, and when I saw the signature, I did feel a connection with him.”
He paid $1,400 for the signature, the equivalent of $2,300 today. But as he showed off his purchase, a friend said, ‘ “You probably paid way too much for that.” The autograph was priceless to him, but Consola decided to find out what Elvis autographs were selling for. The answer: $300 to $500, “although they weren’t as nice as this.”
While doing his research, he said, “I just took a fascination with handwriting.” And knowing that he could collect opened a new world to him. “It got into my blood to collect the real autographs of people, and Elvis was always in the forefront. But my desire was also to make sure that things were real. In my 47 years as a court reporter, I heard a lot of lies.”
One of his early purchases was a handwritten letter a fan received from Graceland, probably in the early 1960s, signed with Elvis’ name. “I didn’t know his handwriting that well,” Consola said. As he studied the letter, he began to suspect that it was a “secretarial,” written by a friend or assistant.
Secretarials are just one type of fake signature, and they can come with convincing stories. Consola once was asked to authenticate an Elvis signature that was accompanied by a letter from the manager of the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, on hotel stationery, saying that he got the autograph for the fan.
Consola immediately judged the autograph a fake, but he thinks there was no ill intent. The hotel manager “obviously gave it to one of Elvis’ workers, and they came back with it,” he said, a common occurrence. “The key question is, did you see the person sign it?”
The value of superstars’ autographs climbs annually and probably will continue to do so, said Orlando. “Over the past couple of years, there has been almost a hyper-focus on the icon, whether it’s Elvis, Marilyn Monroe or Abraham Lincoln; people whose names are immediately recognized, the iconic names, have really gone to another level.”
The possibility of riches has attracted sophisticated criminal forgers. In 1999, Consola played a role in thwarting an international forgery ring that was trying to sell faked handwritten copies of Elvis lyrics, he said. “Keeping forgeries off the market has been a goal of mine, because they hurt the real collectors,” he said.
Is it difficult to authenticate the signature of a man who wrote only seven known letters, almost all from his days as a lonely soldier in the Army?
“Yes, it can be,” said Consola. “There are some pretty good forgeries. I have things I look for, because your handwriting is your handwriting. You can’t change that much. We see hurried ones when somebody might have handed him something to sign and he might have been leaning over, but it’s just a matter of knowing the idiosyncracies of his handwriting.”
Consola said he can tell whether a signature is authentic 99 percent of the time.
Very occasionally, he said, “You do get on the fence and can’t tell. When that happens, I just ask, ‘Would I take the money out of my own pocket and buy this?’ I know that autographs now can go from $1,200 or $1,700 to more now. Usually when I’m on the fence, my answer is no, I wouldn’t buy it. My answer about an autograph has to be that it’s real, without a question.”
Consola also is known in the world of Elvis collectors for the key role he played in getting Robert L. Smith credit – and royalties – for the photo he took at the Aud in 1957 of Elvis on his toes, guitar slung back, the image Consola has tattooed on his arm. Consola spotted the image on merchandise at Graceland, then brought Smith there to prove that he had taken the photo, which had been published in The Buffalo Evening News but at Graceland was marked “photographer unknown.”
‘The history of Elvis’
To hone his abilities, Consola has researched Elvis’ life and travels. He has met fans, friends, fellow collectors and dealers. He has visited places associated with Elvis, such as Sun Studio in Memphis and the star’s early homes. He has contributed to several books written about Elvis, becoming “somewhat of a historian on Elvis.”
By immersing himself in details of the star’s life, Consola said, “I think you do get to know him in a way, but I think the only people who really knew Elvis well were his immediate family and the guys who literally lived with him and traveled with him.”
When he touches an artifact or an autograph, Consola feels a connection.
“When you hold an autograph in your hand, somebody wrote that, whether it’s Roosevelt or Lincoln or Elvis Presley,” he said. In the case of a letter, “they sat down with that paper, wrote that whole thing out, folded it up and mailed it. It’s a connection between you and that person. I’ve talked to hard-core autograph collectors, and we all have that same feeling when you get that document and you think, ‘I held an envelope in my hand that Abraham Lincoln held.’ That connection isn’t physical; it is almost spiritual.”