Recognizing the Pitfalls
When San Diego Padres star outfielder Tony Gwynn noticed “Tony Gwynn” autographed memorabilia in the team's gift shop, it upset him. Why? Because Gwynn knew the autographed materials, reputedly signed by him, were forgeries—and in the team gift shop! Gwynn took his discovery to the FBI, which was already investigating fraud throughout the entire memorabilia marketplace. What the FBI found was stunning in scope. Sports-related autographs on photos, plaques, bats, balls, basketballs, footballs, hockey sticks, and so on, were found to be suspect all around. The FBI estimated that 99 percent of Mark McGwire autographs in the marketplace were phonies!
Brooklyn Dodgers “Brooklyn Bum” latex squeeze toy (1950s)
How the Fraud Is Perpetrated
How is this fraudulent activity perpetrated on such a large scale? It's easy. When the skyrocketing demand for sports memorabilia runs up against a limited supply of such items, the counterfeiters move in to make up the difference. Modern technology makes forgeries a cinch in the hands of unscrupulous, but crafty, individuals. There are numerous players in this industry scam, but the FBI determined that the majority of bogus memorabilia distributed throughout the country can be traced to just a handful of accomplished counterfeiters, who are responsible for supplying the lion's share of phony items to the marketplace.
How does it work? The counterfeit operation sells its high-quality, fraudulent autographed memorabilia, and other items like uniforms, to large-scale distributors. These distributors then supply the fakes to major retail outlets and smaller distributors in the chain. When the counterfeit items worm their way into the world of legitimate commerce, the fakes and frauds find themselves in Internet auctions, mail-order catalogs, retail stores, franchise outlets in malls, home-shopping channels, and memorabilia shows—all places where buyers should have every reason to believe that the merchandise being sold is legitimate.
A recent FBI investigation concluded that as much as 90 percent of sports autographs for sale are fakes, but that hasn't dampened the spirits of sports memorabilia enthusiasts. When purchasing items ready-made for fraud—like autographs, player uniforms and equipment, and game-used equipment—be sure you know what you're getting.
Which Fakes Are Legal
When you were a kid, did you send a baseball card to your favorite player, care of the ballpark, and request that it be autographed? Did you write to your favorite team and ask for a signed picture of your hero? Many fans did—and still do—these very things. Today's youngsters are enjoying the same thrill their parents did. They're getting their baseball cards returned with a signature scribbled across.
There is a term bandied about in the sports memorabilia marketplace called the clubhouse signature. It is applied to athlete signatures made—not by them—but by batboys, equipment personnel, and miscellaneous clubhouse workers. Star athletes, in particular, who receive lots of mail, utilize these ballpark employees to sign items for them, such as cards, balls, and pictures. The reality is that often what you get returned to you has the mark of Billy the batboy on it, and not Mike Piazza, the home run–hitting catcher. No FBI investigation needed here. Just be aware of the phenomenon of the clubhouse signature.
But keep in mind that if you think an autograph is real, it is—to you, at least. Who's to contest an autograph's authenticity while it's tucked away in a folder somewhere, or hanging on your bedroom wall behind a glass picture frame? A problem arises only when you decide to sell or swap your autograph in the marketplace.
Don't tell the kids just yet. Let them believe that the signature on their sports cards, or on that glossy 5 × 7 picture, is the genuine article, even though it may not be. Sometimes just believing is enough.
Before Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the Negro Leagues were the only places that black ballplayers could showcase their talents. Today, baseball's Negro Leagues hold an important place in sports history. To learn more and get links to Negro Leagues memorabilia, visit www.blackbaseball.com.
What You Can Do to Steer Clear of Fraud
In the world of collecting, as in life itself, real guarantees are hard to come by. What you need to do in your everyday life, as well as in all your collecting endeavors, is take the necessary precautions to avoid getting ripped off by a scam artist.
“Official League” Cincinnati Reds baseball clock (turn of the twentieth century)
To avoid being defrauded, demand a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) on any item that you purchase. But keep in mind that a COA is not worth the paper it's printed on if the seller is a charlatan. (For more on COAs, turn to Chapter 8.) Limit your buying of memorabilia to reputable sources. There are plenty of honest sellers in the marketplace, even, believe it or not, in the sports collectible world. True, the hobby has taken a public relations' bath lately with all the real evidence of chicanery out there. Nevertheless, there are many sellers of sports memorabilia who have been around for a long time and have well-deserved reputations of selling genuine and quality materials. COAs from these businesses are the closest things to a guarantee you can get in life.
If a price seems too good to be true, whether in an auction, at a card show, or in a collector magazine ad, then the odds are that it is too good to be true. Walk away from it. No, on second thought, run!
The sports collectibles realm is huge. Take your time in navigating it, do your homework, and never dive into a purchase that you might one day regret. The red flags are all over the place, but this doesn't mean that you can't avoid them and come out smelling like a rose.
For a thorough book on die-cast collectibles from the sport of racing, check out Racing Die-Cast Collectibles: The Industry's Most Comprehensive Pricing and Checklists of Die-Cast Cars and Accessories by Mark Zeske. This book is loaded with color photos and checklists for all scales of die-cast racing cars.