There is a huge interest in sports memorabilia, and sports-related items include signed commemorative photos, baseballs, footballs, basketballs, pucks and jerseys. A Google search of companies hawking these items comes up with almost 5 million businesses!
Some of the items on offer cost thousands of dollars.
Where there are so many eager and gullible customers, fraud is sure to appear. A San Diego federal judge who recently sentenced several sports autograph forgers to prison said, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of the national pastime, has been undone”. The prosecution stemmed from an FBI investigation called Operation Bullpen, which closed down a professional criminal organization that forged and sold bogus autographs.
60 search warrants were served, more than 2 dozen people arrested, and a warehouse with 10 million dollars worth of forged merchandise was seized. The ring leaders received 3 years in prison and forfeiture or assets to the IRS. Both current and “vintage” items were involved. Any sports fan who has a signed souvenir may now want to question its authenticity.
Phil Halpren, the assistant U.S. attorney who worked to prosecute the forgers stated that fraud is so pervasive in the sports memorabilia market that unless you personally see an item being signed by the athlete, odds are greater than fifty percent that it is fake. The most athletes most well-known the the public are popular with forgers, too. Halpren said, “If you are looking at a Mark McGuire signature, it’s alost a guarantee, 99.9 percent it is a forgery.” Certificates of authenticity can be fabricated just as easily as the collectible item they supposedly validate, so this is no protection.
Vendors are fighting back in an effort to maintain the integrity of the market. Disney, which owns ESPN, will begin next year to auction signed sports memorabilia online. Disney says it will authenticate the signatures with holograms encrypted with the item’s identifying information and package seals, videotaping the entire process.
Sophisticated forgers can even produce holographic seals which appear, on casual inspection, to be real. However most forgers are amateurs, and the more sophisticated the anti-forgery system, the less likely criminals are to attempt to copy it.
Baseball and football are most popular in America, but a few famous hockey players such as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr are popular targets for forgery as well.
With all the items available, both off and on the internet, fans can avoid a lot of fraud by using common sense. For example, a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth selling for $500 is obviously a fake, because such a price is unbelievably low, too low for real market conditons. Also, it pays to know a little bit about the development of baseballs and pens. If you see baseballs supposedly signed in the ’20s and ’30s with Sharpie pens, these are obviously fake, because these pens were not invented yet in that era. To quote Phil Halpren : “I have seen Babe Ruth balls signed on a Bobby Brown American League President ball. So, you know, he was president in the early ’80s. That’s impossible to have been done. But someone did it.”
So, while it’s enjoyable to own a piece of sports history, the motto to follow is : buyer beware. Unless you are a professional trader who knows how to authenticate merchandise, don’t buy an item strictly for its potential resale value, because you may be disappointed by what you eventually get for it. Buy an item you personally like and intend to keep, and don’t spend thousands of dollars. This ensures that you will be happy when you look at your purchase, without the lingering doubt that you have wasted a large sum of money on something of dubious value.