BY KEVIN NELSON In 2006 the “Masterminds” TV series produced an episode on the Operation Bullpen case that you can now watch on Youtube. Well, excerpts from it anyhow. The excerpts were posted by a guy named “JoeMLM,” whose purpose is to call attention to the ongoing problem of forgeries in the memorabilia trade.
Some of you may have seen the original program, but if you haven’t, this might be worth a look. The “Masterminds” docu-drama is entitled “Foul Ball”—the FBI’s code name for its investigation into Michael Jordan forgeries in Chicago, which was then followed by the Operation Bullpen investigation. It aired for the first time in December five years ago, right after my book on Bullpen came out.
There’s a homemade quality to the posting on Youtube. It’s been trimmed and it’s choppy, and the actual “Masterminds” program that was broadcast around the country is far superior to what you will see here. On Youtube it begins with JoeMLM talking off-camera—apparently he wishes to keep his identity secret, thus he does not show his face—and he makes comments here and there, so be patient. The episode gets going after about a minute or so.
It includes an on-camera interview with Wayne Bray, the “mastermind” of the $100 million Operation Bullpen rip-off, and recreates some of the things he did by using an actor who plays him. An actor also plays Greg Marino, the chief forger. Appearing as themselves in the program are FBI agents Tim Fitzsimmons and John Ferreira, and Justice Department attorney Phil Halprin, all of whom played key roles in bringing down the ring in the celebrated 1999 nationwide bust.
Since I interviewed all these men, including Bray (and Marino and others involved in the conspiracy), “Masterminds” wanted me to talk about the case, which I did. They shot the interview in a hotel room in San Diego. I flew down from my home in the Bay Area, talked to them for about an hour, and flew back the next day.
The show first aired on Court TV, which has since become TruTV. The production company, Red Apple Entertainment of Toronto, may no longer exist. The program was repeated on TruTV, then syndicated on other networks and channels across North America. I suppose it was inevitable that sort of a bootleg version of it would pop up on Youtube.
One quibble: Both “Masterminds” and JoeMLM say that Jim DiMaggio—the man who “authenticated” the hundreds of thousands of forgeries produced by Bray and Marino—was a relative of Joe DiMaggio, the late Yankee great. Not true. Like so many other things having to do with the Bullpen conspiracy, that story was made up, a fraud to deceive the public. Jim DiMaggio has as much to do with Joe DiMaggio as I do with Admiral Horatio Hornblower Nelson.
A new article by me in Sports Collectors Digest, about a collector trying to decide whether to sell his $100,000 card collection: http://www.sportscollectorsdigest.com/article/collector_profile
While the rest of you were taking Thanksgiving weekend off, I was doing an interview on Friday night with the guys at Card Corner Club Radio, Rob Bertrand and Doug Cataldo. We chatted about the growth of fake game-used memorabilia, why bogus authenticators never get busted, why forgery rings keep proliferating in the sports and celebrity memorabilia industry, and lots more. It’s about a 20-minute interview that begins about 15 minutes into the program. Check out the podcast right here.
Recently I received an email from Stephen Andon, a PhD candidate in Communication at Florida State University, who is writing a dissertation on sports memorabilia. After having read Operation Bullpen and the blogging I’m doing here and for Autograph Magazine, he wanted to ask me a few questions about forgeries (such as this Babe Ruth fake, penned by Greg Marino) and corruption in the sports memorabilia industry. Here are excerpts from our discussion:
Is it interesting to you that we keep finding forgeries today — even important pieces – such as pieces in the Baseball Hall of Fame? Can we simply attribute that to how widespread the forgery problem was up until Operation Bullpen?
Kevin Nelson: I do find it interesting that forgery is just as prevalent now as it was in the late nineties when the FBI busted the original Bullpen gang. At the time federal officials estimated that 90 percent of all signed pieces sold on the Internet were fake. After a ton of criticism the feds changed their tune to say only 50 percent of autographs were fake. The truth is, nobody knows. But the number is, without doubt, substantial. Forgery remains a big problem.
Now, I’m using the “forgery problem” in the past tense, but is it accurate to use the past tense? In other words, has the memorabilia industry changed enough that forgeries are no longer as prevalent?
Kevin Nelson: Nope. I receive emails all the time from people who see fakes being sold on eBay and elsewhere. John Olson was one of the greatest Ali forgers, who worked with Chuck Wepner in defrauding people and who was busted in the second phase of the Operation Bullpen investigation. He called me the other day just to check in and said that he still sees his stuff being sold online.
One of the consequences of Operation Bullpen is that leagues, teams, and memorabilia companies have partnered together to create a new era of authenticity, with professional authenticators, holograms, Internet-tracking, and the like. Were these procedures necessary to re-establish the credibility in the memorabilia industry? Or, again, is that claim overly simplistic?
Kevin Nelson: The latter. The efforts to combat fraud have had a real but limited impact in part – in large part, one might say – because of the consumer. People think they’re getting a bargain online when they see a signed Mickey Mantle photo being sold for 75 bucks, and they scoop it up. It is, of course, almost certainly a fake. But either these people don’t know what they’re buying, or they don’t care. In either case, they are buying fakes and often feeling good about it because they’ve gotten it for such a good price. Forgeries usually sell for less, and often considerably less, than the real thing.
Furthermore, through Steiner (and other companies, of course), I believe you can pre-order game-used baseballs or bases or jerseys, etc. Does that ruin any of the spontaneity of sport, a la a Mean Joe Greene’s Pepsi moment, or am I drunk on nostalgia?
Kevin Nelson: No, you’re not nostalgic at all. Sports fans love this stuff. That’s why there is such a huge and growing market for game-used material and continuing strong demand for autographed material, despite a bad economy. I live near San Francisco, and people out here went nuts for the Giants this year. They had to have something associated with the team. That’s why forgers and fraud artists have such a thriving business. They are exploiting something that is real: people’s love for sports. People feel passionate about these athletes and they want to connect with them, somehow. Collecting is one way they can do that.
All that being said, are fans more savvy to the perils of Internet or E-bay shopping than they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s?
Kevin Nelson: Collectors are definitely more sophisticated than they were in the nineties. Although they were aware back then of the potential for fraud, most people did not understand how widespread it was until the Operation Bullpen busts. First there were the FBI busts in Chicago mainly of Michael Jordan fake merchandise. But those were local stings. Then came the much larger busts of the Bullpen ring, which exposed a national operation doing tens of millions of dollars of business as part of a very clever and formidable criminal conspiracy. Most serious collectors are aware that a good deal of the supposedly legitimate stuff that is sold on eBay is actually garbage.
As a follow-up, when stadium dirt or player jerseys or some other kind of game-used memorabilia is broken up into hundreds of pieces and sold off in pieces assembled in frames and such – to the point where it seems they are not so different from mass produced items – does that water down what’s special about the item when it’s whole?
Kevin Nelson: Well, it depends. If people are aware of what they’re buying, and it’s legitimate, I don’t think it’s a rip-off to sell them a piece of turf from old Yankee Stadium if that’s what they’re interested in buying. They have a lot of great memories of what happened on that turf and to have a piece of it in their house, well, that’s kinda cool. Derek Jeter and A-Rod walked on that piece of dirt there, that’s now in my living room. It’s a great conversation piece when you have the guys over to watch the game.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Fraud in American History. Contact him here.
Dear Mr. Nelson:
I just wanted to send a quick email thanking you for the great book you wrote on Operation Bullpen. I am a keen autograph collector and bought the book as I did my university dissertation on counterfeit autographs and how widespread the problem is. Your book was invaluable to me and I thank you for your great work.
Cardiff, Wales, UK.
BY KEVIN NELSON Oct. 13, 2010 One of the great things about the Internet is that you can get instantaneous feedback on your writing. So it is with Monsters Behind The Door, my piece on the anonymous threats and bullying used by forgers and counterfeiters that went up on Autograph Magazine’s site just a couple of days ago. Here are two emails I’ve received on it already:
Nice job, Kevin. As you know, the stupidity and sometimes the threats come with the turf when you’re trying to reveal the truth.
And this longer letter, from Travis Roste of JoeHeavyweight.com:
Nice article. It’s obvious that the people who are willing participants in forgeries or the selling of forgeries are the ones who are harassing people like Chris Williams. I defend Chris in his videos, and then they start in on me. Some of the people selling the forgeries aren’t the forgers themselves, but they sell them because they think they are knowledgeable themselves, and they know just enough to be dangerous. There is a guy on eBay who sells fake 500 home run balls and other fake stuff because he believes that the cheap stuff he buys there is real. So when he flips it, he doesn’t have any problem selling a fake because it COULD be real.
This guy just sold a signed Roy Campanella bat for $166 when a real Campanella signed bat would go for a couple thousand or more. Campanella had a car accident in 1958 and any bats he would have signed would have been pre-accident, since his post-accident signature is a shaky scrawl at best. So this goof sold the bat for $166, and when I questioned him as to how Campanella could have signed this bat before 1958 when it’s signed in Sharpie and Sharpies didn’t come out until 1965, he defended himself by saying it was signed in Magic Marker, the predecessor to Sharpie which was invented in 1952. I countered by saying where the heck are the Ty Cobb signed photos and bats signed in Magic Marker since Cobb lived until 1961?
When Magic Marker was invented, it was a glass bottle with ink inside, with a wool wick. Of course it would have made a pretty wide and sloppy signature on a bat, not a nice dark defined signature that was on this bat, but this fellow doesn’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story.
And so it goes with most of the people who sell bad stuff on eBay, including those who may possibly not be aware that they’re peddling a forgery. They only care, as Roste says, “that they sell higher than they buy,” and they’re not going to let anything stand in the way of that.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, now being developed into a movie.
BY KEVIN NELSON Sept. 23,2010 I know what motivates forgers, counterfeit distributors, and crooked authenticators: money. And ego, of course. But mainly money, lots of easy money.
But what motivates the people who try to expose the forgers? I was thinking about this while watching Chris Williams’s latest Youtube video on the rash of Mickey Mantle forgeries now flooding eBay. I have written about Williams in the past, and frequently exchange emails with him, and I continue to be amazed by the passion he brings to his fight to clean up the hobby.
The forgers also have lots of passion—making money will do that for you. But Williams doesn’t make money when he posts on Youtube as tomtresh2; he’s doing it because he loves collecting, loves autographs of the genuine kind, and positively hates the crooks and scam artists who peddle bad stuff to the many apparently clueless eBay buyers and sellers.
Williams has been at this for years—shining a light on the hobby’s shadiest operators despite threats and insults from them. Yet many of these operators remain in business and if they are no longer in business, others who are equally shady and corrupt have taken their place. Williams is a Paul Revere of the autography hobby, warning us about the scoundrels in our midst, and he deserves to be heard.
Kevin Nelson, author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, blogs at www.operationbullpen.com.