There is an ever-growing market in sport memorabilia, and sports-related keepsakes include signed commemorative photos, baseballs, footballs, basketballs, pucks and jerseys. A Google listing of corporations hawking these items produces almost five million business sites! A few of the items on offer cost thousands of dollars.
Where there are so many eager and gullible customers, con artists are sure to show up. A San Diego federal judge who recently sentenced many 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 sports goods enhanced with bogus autographs. Sixty search warrants were served, more than two dozen forgers arrested, and a warehouse with ten million dollars worth of fake merchandise was seized. The ring leaders received three years in prison and loss of assets to the IRS. Both current and faux “antique” items were involved.
Any sports fan who has a signed souvenir would be wise to question its authenticity. Phil Halpren, the assistant federal attorney who worked to prosecute the forgers, stated that fraud is so pervasive in the sports memorabilia market that unless you personally watch as an athlete signs an item, odds are greater than 50 % that it’s forged. Athletes most popular with the public are a hit with forgers, too. Halpren said, “If you see a Mark McGuire signature, it’s almost a guarantee, 99.9%, it’s a forgery.” Certificates of authenticity can be fabricated with as much ease 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 commence 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 tamper-proof package seals, videotaping the entire process.
Sophisticated forgers can even develop holographic seals which appear real to the untrained eye. Even so, the great majority of forgers are amateurs, and usually even a basic anti-forgery system is likely to deter them.
Baseball and football are the most popular sports in America, however some famous hockey players like Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr are popular targets for forgery as well.
With the large selection available, both in stores and on web sites, fans can avoid a lot of fraud by applying common sense. For instance, a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth selling for $500 is obviously a fake, because such a cost is unbelievably low, too low for real market conditons. As well, 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 items are obviously fake, because these pens weren’t invented yet in that era. To quote Phil Halpren : “I have seen Babe Ruth balls signed on a Bobby Black American League President ball. So, you know, he was president in the early ’80s. That’s impossible to have been done. However someone did it.”
So, while it’s enjoyable to have a peice of sports history to call your own, the motto to follow is : buyer beware. Unless you are a professional trader who knows how to authenticate merchandise, do not acquire an item strictly for its potential resale value, because you can be disappointed by what you sooner or later get back for it. Purchase an item you personally like and intend to keep, and do not spend thousands of dollars. This ensures that you will be happy when you admire your acquisition, without the lingering doubt that you have lost a massive amount of money on something of dubious value.