I'm about to get my answer, after more than a year of wondering and an hour of waiting in front of the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop on Las Vegas Boulevard, behind tourists salivating for a glimpse of the "Pawn Stars" dudes.
Some garage-sale hunters go decades before finding their personal holy grail. But there mine was in November 2009, just a month after I began the hobby, propped up against a table leg in a Summerlin driveway. The framed copy of the Beatles' "White Album" was signed "Love from John Lennon, NYC 1980."
"Five hundred," said Branden Powers, the man running the sale. "Firm."
I knew it was worth much more. (Later, I discovered how much. Similar pieces have fetched $12,000 to $15,000, or half a year of college for my newborn daughter.)
Just as significantly, this was a consolation prize for a childhood fantasy I was robbed of.
It was Aug. 30, 1980, and my friend Gary Haviv and I walked to the Dakota apartment building after a free Pretenders concert in Manhattan's Central Park. (Directions were scribbled on a napkin by his older brother.)
Lennon returns from the studio about 11 p.m., the doorman said, and usually signs autographs outside -- if we wanted to wait another half-hour.
"Don't tell him I told you," the doorman added.
Gary shook his head. We had an 11 p.m. train to catch, and there was no way his mom would pick us up from our Long Island Railroad station after midnight.
I pleaded. It's John Lennon, after all, and we were already there.
"Look," Gary insisted, "now that we know where this place is, we can always come back."
When Lennon was slain three months later, the details added another dimension to the shock: around 11 p.m., after returning from the recording studio, by a fan who knew to wait. (Did the same doorman tip him off?)
Disappointment dominoes down the "Pawn Stars" line. Reports from exiters say the shop is devoid of all Pawn Stars. This is major. Everyone, it seems, is waiting to watch Richard Harrison, his son Rick and his grandson Corey goof on each other as they appraise oddities. (I have never seen the show, so I wouldn't know a Pawn Star from a porn star. That's why I brought along my wife's best friend, Vicky, a rabid fan visiting from Sacramento, Calif.)
"They're never here unless the cameras are on!" a woman shouts.
"What?" a man asks. "Doesn't this line mean that they're taping?
Meantime, my "White Album" is generating stares from as far as seven people in each direction. When a slow-moving line is starved for reality drama, any substitute will do.
"Is that what I think it is?" asks a man with gray temples. "Wow!"
The autograph certainly appears legit. Adorning it are those famous doodles the ex-Beatle used to do of himself and Yoko Ono. And Powers' credibility checks out. An entertainment promoter and former owner of OPM/Poetry nightclub in the Forum Shops at Caesars, he even had the story behind the piece (provenance, they call it in the memorabilia biz)
Three weeks before Lennon's death, it was signed for a jazz musician who hung around the Dakota. This musician had a son, nicknamed Despo, who played bass in a Los Angeles punk band called Los Gattos. Powers befriended him while he was a Southern California music promoter.
"Despo would sell off his prized possessions to pay rent," Powers said. "Everything he gave me prior, that I sold on eBay, has checked out."
There was only one hitch: It might be fake.
"That's why I'm not asking more," Powers said. "You pay the five hundred and take the chance."
Red flags hoisted. Why would Powers have a garage sale when he could profit so many more times over just by bringing this to an authenticator?
He had no answer. But pressing him further might convince him not to sell.
I glanced at Vin Suprynowicz, who arrived after I did and was nosing through Powers' record collection. I value Vin's opinion not only because he's an R-J opinion columnist, but because he's a memorabilia collector. (Suprynowicz said he would take the chance if he were me, and, possibly, the autograph if I didn't.)
After racing home with my grail, I found a highly recommended Beatles autograph expert online. (Well, not immediately after. Copious amounts of dancing around took precedence.) This expert advertised two levels of authentication. I opted for the less expensive: an unofficial opinion you get after e-mailing him a photo of the item, with $50 through PayPal.
"The news isn't really good," read the return e-mail. By 1980, Lennon almost always doodled himself, Yoko and their 5-year-old son, Sean, as part of his signature.
If I wanted to be sure, however, I could opt for the next authentication level. I pay him $100 more and physically mail the album, then he decides for sure. This is the only way to produce the vaunted COA, or certificate of authenticity.
In other words, I'm expected to trust the U.S. Postal Service not to lose or damage this potential museum piece -- or, if they do, to reimburse me for an amount that I can't prove that it's worth. (And the authenticator has already expressed doubts about authenticity.)
More than a year passed before a friend suggested I try Gold & Silver. This way, Las Vegas' interest in its most famous storefront could be combined with my interest in keeping my newborn daughter fed.
The velvet rope lifts just as Vicky and I decide on $5,000, 10 times my initial investment. That's the lowest offer I should accept if they determine that it's authentic. (This is when we also discover that we wasted more than an hour on line. Anyone with something to sell or pawn can cut to the front. Doh!)
A security guard ushers us to a counter by the entrance. Vicky doesn't recognize the man standing there, or anyone standing behind any counter.
I ask for the man's name. He points to a nametag reading "CHAZ." This is it.
Chaz asks to see my autograph, then my COA.
"No signatures without COAs," he explains.
This is not the rule when the History channel is present, Vicky notes. (On at least two episodes, they brought in their own autograph authenticators -- for a quilt and an old New York Yankees baseball.)
"We don't take any signatures without COAs," Chaz repeats himself. "Period."
(Vicky will later discover another way in which Gold & Silver behaves differently in the kind of reality that isn't broadcast. At 9 p.m., she will return to the 24-hour establishment with her boyfriend, only to discover a dark interior and locked doors being banged on by angry passers-by.)
"Sorry," Chaz says for the last time, motioning toward the others waiting to be served.
Actually, that's OK. As I walk away, I realize that I have something potentially more valuable than the answer I originally sought: a childhood dream that's still alive.
Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0456.