Bullpen & More, by Kevin Nelson

Archive for the ‘Forgery and Fraud’ Category

“Masterminds” Episode on Operation Bullpen Now on Youtube

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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.

Interview on Card Corner Club Radio

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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.

Written by Kevin Nelson

November 29, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Q&A on Forgeries, Frauds and Corruption v. Love

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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.

Instant Reaction to ‘Monsters’ Article

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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.

Written by Kevin Nelson

October 13, 2010 at 7:08 pm

The Paul Revere of Forgeries

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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.

Written by Kevin Nelson

September 23, 2010 at 6:47 pm

HBO Program on Forgeries on Youtube

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BY KEVIN NELSON Sept. 3, 2010 Anyone who is interested in forgeries and fake memorabilia—and that means virtually all collectors—needs to go right now to YouTube and watch the famous HBO “Real Sports” program on Operation Bullpen and the crooked authentication racket. I wrote a book on the case and I had never seen this program until today.

Apparently it was on Youtube for a while, and then it was taken down. My guess is that the reason for this was the $5 million 2008 Donald Frangipani lawsuit against HBO that claimed the cable network defamed him in its coverage. A judge dismissed the case in March, and now the video is back on.

Frangipani, one of the dubious “experts” who authenticated thousands of fake pieces in the $100 million Bullpen ring, makes an appearance in the program. In a sting set up by the journalists, he is shown giving his stamp of approval to several pieces of fake memorabilia. Other real-life characters in the Operation Bullpen saga also appear, notably the forger Greg Marino, who is shown in FBI undercover video, and FBI Special Agent Tim Fitzsimmons, who oversaw the three-year federal investigation that brought down the ring.

Even Dan Marino—one of the countless superstars forged by Greg Marino (no relation)—comes on camera to explain that yes, virtually all the signed Dan Marino items being sold on the Internet are bogus. The key player in the program is a man whose face is cloaked in shadow and is identified only as “Eddie,” in order to protect his identity. It’s no secret that Eddie is Shelly Jaffe, a counterfeit memorabilia distributor who sold mountains of fake stuff in the ring, was busted by the FBI, and went to prison for six months for his crimes.

Jaffe is interviewed in his upstairs study in his southern California home. I know this because I have sat in that study myself, interviewing Jaffe, although he spoke on the record with me. Always a quotable fellow, he gets off some good lines, including this one referring to the remarkable gifts of Greg Marino, “If God had a signature, he probably could’ve done that too.”

“Forger’s Paradise,” produced by Joe Perskie and Andrew Bennett and edited by Tres Driscoll, with reporting by Armen Keteyian, is an extraordinary piece of television journalism. Must-see for every collector and everyone in the collecting industry.

Operation Bullpen Keeps Making News

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BY KEVIN NELSON I continue to be amazed—and flattered—by the attention that my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, continues to receive nearly four years after publication. In an interview this month in Collectors Weekly, Sotheby’s consultant and Antiques Roadshow appraiser Leila Dunbar says:

There’s a book about the FBI’s Operation Bullpen, which, in 1999-2000, broke up a ring of forgers across the United States. They estimate that $100 million worth of fake autographs got into the market, and were distributed by all the big sellers. Forged signatures included Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, DiMaggio, and Mantle.

That book was Operation Bullpen, and as I keep writing articles and blogs about forgery for Autograph and other sites and publications—in fact I’ve got a long piece coming out soon about literary forger Forest R. Smith, III—some in the collecting business have come to associate me with the FBI. Why, I’m not entirely sure. I got firsthand accounts and interviews from both the crooks and the FBI in Operation Bullpen; that’s what makes the book so unusual—the story is told from both sides (and fairly too. Both the forgers and law enforcement have praised it as a balanced, accurate account of the crimes.)

Nevertheless, the other day I was doing a story about a collector and I wanted to talk to the dealer who was planning to represent him when he put his collectibles up for auction. The dealer, at first, was a little wary about talking to me because he wondered, mistakenly, if I was involved with the FBI.

Believe me, folks, I’m a writer. And a journalist. If I were in the FBI I’d be getting paid a lot more. And I’d have to wear a suit and tie every day to go to work. But I’m not. I’m just a guy who wrote a book about forgery—here, check out my author’s website if you want to learn more.

Honestly, I figured I’d write Operation Bullpen and then move onto other books and topics, which I have. But I keep writing about forgery and other types of collector crime because it remains an endlessly fascinating subject, with breaking new developments all the time. The dealer eventually relaxed, we had our interview, and I filed the article with the magazine that assigned me to do it.

That’s the way it works in the writing biz—nothing more to it than that. But a writer lives and dies by his sources, and if you’ve got a question or tip about forgery or collecting crimes, drop me a line. I’m interested.

Written by Kevin Nelson

August 23, 2010 at 7:22 pm

‘Champions Forever’ sigs: Real or fake?

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By KEVIN NELSON Boxing fans have read and enjoyed Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Ring in American History, and I know this because I get emails from them. Here’s the latest one, which popped into my email box at KevinNelsonWriter.com just the other day:

“Hi, I have been fascinated by your book. I am inquiring about the poster, “Champions Forever,” signed by five boxing greats. I was offered this signed print and wondered about the likelihood of it being genuine or fake? Kind regards [Name withheld by request].”

The boxing greats (seen above in the signed poster) are, clockwise from bottom right:  Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, and Larry Holmes. All of them were, at one time or another, heavyweight boxing champions of the world. Lots of these posters are available online, and when I clicked over to eBay as research for this post, at least one copy signed by all five men was up for auction.

The last chapters of Operation Bullpen focus on the John Olson-Chuck Wepner counterfeit scheme in which Olson forged Muhammad Ali autographs on a variety of Ali merchandise, including photographs of Ali and Wepner, the now-retired, working class New Jersey pug who battled Ali in a memorable 1975 brawl that may or may not have been the inspiration for the first “Rocky” movie. (Wepner claims it was; Sly Stallone says he created the character from lots of sources.) In any case, Wepner sold forgeries in partnership with Olson, and in 2002 the FBI busted them both. Each received probation for their crimes.

One of the most popular items they scammed people with was the “Champions Forever” poster, which was based on a 1989 video of the same name. Olson, who became a master Ali forger and whose phony Ali sigs are still being sold today as authentic (one of his fakes is below), forged all five of the boxers onto stacks of posters that he printed (he was also a printer, by trade). Then, with Wepner serving as front man and capitalizing on his own real-life boxing cred, they sold hundreds and hundreds of them and made wads of money. When he saw the posters Larry Holmes’s manager said his client’s signature was a clear fake, and Ali’s people were so certain that Wepner was peddling fakes they contacted the FBI to see if they could help bring him down.

So, are the autographs on this “Champions Forever” poster fake or genuine? Well, I’m not an autograph expert and cannot say for certain. But I think you can guess from my response what my opinion is.

Kevin Nelson’s latest writing on forgery, Husband, Father, Forger: The True Story of a Bookselling Scam and How It Saved—and Nearly Ruined—One Man’s Life, will be released this fall.

Written by Kevin Nelson

July 27, 2010 at 6:23 pm

Forging Author Signatures: A Nice Racket, Too

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April 28, 2010. By KEVIN NELSON Is the forging of author autographs as widespread as the forging of celebrities and sports stars? I ask this because of new revelations about Forest Smith, the Pennsylvania forger who was sentenced in February for ripping off book collectors and others to the tune of $300,000.

According to sentencing documents in the case that I have obtained, when Smith was busted in December 2008, he had in his house some 2,400 books that he ostensibly planned to use for his criminal activities. As I wrote in the December 2009 Autograph, Smith bought unsigned first editions of prominent authors on one eBay account, stamped the books with their fake signatures, then sold them through a different eBay account to unsuspecting buyers who thought the autographs were real.

When they busted him, authorities confiscated 800 of the books in his house as evidence. Smith later confessed that he had planned to continue his forging scheme for at least several more years, and that he had gotten the original idea for it from seeing other dubious book sellers peddling phony stuff on eBay.  “Then once he realized that there were others or what he believes to be others on eBay sort of engaging in fraudulent activity,” as his defense attorney put it, “Mr. Smith realized that he could make more money by doing the same.”

There are of course many more celebrity and sports autographs on the market than author signatures. But based on the Smith case, people who buy author-signed books online need to be as careful, and practice just as much due diligence, as collectors in those other fields.

Kevin Nelson’s book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, is under development to be a movie and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is planning a museum exhibit on it. Contact him here.

Written by Kevin Nelson

April 28, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Jim Bellino: Reality TV Star and Counterfeit Authenticator

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BY KEVIN NELSON. March 19, 2010. Of all the crooks in the crooked memorabilia racket, the hardest ones to catch are authenticators of dubious repute. If you doubt this, consider the case of Jim Bellino, a former authenticator who was the target of an FBI investigation during Operation Bullpen and who is now appearing on a reality television series, “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”

Described by Bravo TV as “a self-made entrepreneur and businessman,” Bellino is certainly all that and more. He is married to Alexis, one of the Orange County housewives, both pictured here. Since his appearance on the show, he has become the focus of Internet gossip for his past activities in the memorabilia business. I wrote about Bellino in my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, and I have spoken many times with the FBI agents who investigated him.

“He was close mouthed, a tough cookie to crack,” said John Ferreira, the FBI undercover agent who posed as a memorabilia dealer and bought thousands of dollars of fake Babe Ruth-signed baseballs and other forged material from Bellino.

Based in the city of Orange in Orange County, Bellino ran a company called Forensic Document Services, which authenticated-that is, certified as legitimate-fake autographs produced by Greg Marino and other forgers who were part of the national ring that ripped off American consumers for $100 million before the FBI brought their fun to an end in 1999.

The Chicago FBI first identified Bellino as a subject of interest, and later the San Diego FBI probed his activities in Operation Bullpen. According to Tim Fitzsimmons, the FBI case agent who oversaw Bullpen and Ferreira’s undercover investigation, Forensic Document Services was certifying “ungodly” amounts of forgeries and then selling them.

The FBI, in fact, combined with slugger Mark McGwire, then playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, to concoct an elaborate scheme to see if they could get Bellino to admit, on tape, that he was selling forgeries. “The scheme,” as I write in my book, “had a few steps to it.”

First Ferreira wrote and signed a $20,000 check made out to McGwire’s charitable foundation for children. He never made this contribution; it was a sham. On the memo line of the check, it read, “Charity.” The FBI made a poster-sized copy of the check so it was big enough for two people to hold and the names and the amount could be seen clearly. Ferreira and Fitzsimmons then drove up to the Long Beach office of Jim Milner, McGwire’s business agent who managed the foundation and was also in on the scheme. Milner and Ferreira held the check between them and smiled as Fitzsimmons took a picture of them. Additionally, Milner composed a letter on foundation stationery, later signed by McGwire, thanking Ferreira for his generous gift.

The FBI then arranged for Ferreira and McGwire to pose for a picture together, which further bolstered Ferreira’s cover and lent him legitimacy (it was hoped) in Bellino’s eyes. With all this material in hand, Ferreira, secretly wired with recording equipment, paid a visit to Bellino at his office in Orange:

The feds next moved to their target. Since Ferreira’s usual demeanor had been a bust with Bellino, his colleagues argued for a change in approach-harder, tougher, more like a criminal. The ever-agreeable UCA said he’d give it a whirl, and on his next visit to Forensic Document Services he came on like a major asshole. Swearing and bragging and dropping the f-word all over the place and parading around with the two signed McGwire balls and the pictures of him and McGwire and him and Milner with the $20,000 check, Ferreira said he knew that all the garbage he was buying was bad and that all his customers knew it too. So to cover his ass he had dumped a load of money into Big Mac’s foundation. You know, to help the kids. All that crap.

Trying to close the deal, Ferreira told Bellino he should do the same-make a donation-because he was dealing lots of forgeries too, right?

If he was, he wouldn’t say. The cookie still would not crumble. All this tough talk made Bellino nervous or, as the agent put it, “hinked up.” Failing once more to crack his subject, Ferreira took his balls and photos and left, and the hinked-up owner of Forensic Document Services was undoubtedly happy to see him go.

Despite all the effort the FBI put into investigating Bellino, the cookie never did crumble. He never admitted anything on tape because, he said, he was innocent. He was not selling forgeries. One last excerpt from my book:

Though his authentication firm, Forensic Document Services, closed its doors after the bust, Bellino told a reporter that he was “neither tried nor convicted of any crime because I never would knowingly buy or sell an illegitimate or forged autograph.” Feeling sure he would be vindicated if his case went to trial, he declined to take the matter to court, citing the high cost of litigation and the length of time involved. Instead he accepted a deal with the government that gave him probation and expunged his record. He cannot, however, return to the memorabilia business without obtaining an order from the court.

In the FBI’s informal list of Bullpen subjects and the sentences they received, this is what it said about Bellino: “charged/probation/expunge/ban.” In other words, the feds barely laid a glove on him.

Autograph authentication remains an imprecise science and a rather dodgy one at that. For an authenticator only gives his opinion on whether a signature is legitimate or not, and as the FBI concedes-and the certificate itself states-his opinion may be wrong. So since it’s only his opinion, an authenticator can certify “ungodly” amounts of fraudulent material and it’s still very, very tough for investigators to prove in court that he is breaking the law.

Pretty nifty little racket, no? Sounds like it might make a good reality TV series.

Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Contact him here.

Yes, Forgeries are Sold at Charity Auctions

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By KEVIN NELSON March 11, 2010 Do forgers and fraud artists sell their fake goods at charity auctions? I was asked this question by a reader who had bought a signed 1932 Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig baseball at a charity auction and was appalled at the idea that it could be bogus.

“I bought this in good faith (it was a charity auction after all),” she wrote me in an email. “I had no reason to even question it.” Then she sold it to an auction house, which did indeed have reason to question it. The auction house submitted the ball to an authenticator and “it failed,” she told me gloomily.

Now the auction house has returned the ball to her and wants its money back. The woman is perplexed and now, suddenly, suspicious. She is not a collector and knew little about the authentication process before getting tangled up in this mess.

Without even seeing a picture of it, I told her that almost certainly the ball was bad. But how could that be-she bought it at a …charity auction! I suppose it is of little consolation to her to realize that she is hardly alone. Unsuspecting, well-intentioned Americans buy fake-signed merchandise at charity auctions all the time, all across this great and benevolent land.

Do the charities and nonprofit organizations know what they are peddling? No, likely they do not. Like this woman, the good-hearted people who put on these auctions are typically not collectors and innocent of the wolfish ways of counterfeit dealers. So, too, are the equally good-hearted souls who bid on these fakes, often paying an above-market price because they wish to support the good cause being funded by the auction. They likely think the autographs are legitimate as well.

And they may be. Not every signed piece of merchandise sold at a charity auction is a fraud, of course. But these auctions are a time-honored method for counterfeit dealers to move merchandise, and lots of it. The dealers may receive a percentage of the price of the items sold. They may receive tax deductions for their donations. They may get a tax deduction and make money. Through their gifts they may also come to be viewed by the charity as community benefactors, noble and selfless givers, although in reality they may only be crooks.

Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Contact him here.Yes,

Written by Kevin Nelson

March 11, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Ali Forgeries: A Painful Truth

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The other day I was looking into Muhammad Ali forgeries, and I had a surprising and disturbing revelation. Here is a photo of an authentic Ali signature sent to me by my friend Travis Roste, who runs joeheavyweight.com and wrote the article, “Heavyweight Autographs” in the latest issue of Autograph.

Now, here is a fake Ali signature sent to me by another friend of mine, John Olson, who was the man who forged it. Actually, it might be stretching things a bit to call Olson a friend, although we did speak many times when I was writing Operation Bullpen and I liked him and felt that he was telling me the truth.

Until the FBI busted him, Olson was one of the best and most productive of the Ali forgers, and his work is still available for sale on eBay and the Internet. Of course, other people not connected to Olson are doing the selling now; he left the racket long ago after changing his life. He received probation and cooperated fully with investigators. Anyhow, here is the picture:

Comparing the two, Olson’s Ali is bigger, bolder, and more clearly his name—more representative, in a way, of the larger than life persona of Ali himself. In the real sig, the a of his last name is so small it is almost invisible.

So if you’re an unsuspecting buyer shopping on the Internet, which photo would you choose? Both come with certificates of authenticity, after all, and the fake Ali is almost certainly cheaper too. Apart from issues of authenticity, in terms of the signature and the signature alone, the painful truth is that the forgery is a better consumer product.

If you are curious about the full story of John Olson’s criminal partnership with ex-heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, and how they went to town forging Ali photos, check out the last chapters of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. You can contact me here.

Written by Kevin Nelson

March 3, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Book Forgery Investigator Reveals More

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Al Herzog, the United States Postal Inspector mainly responsible for busting book forger Forrest Smith, said that one of the things that made Smith stand out to him was the “boisterous” fake ID he used on eBay.

“When I was told about the two eBay user ID’s Smith was using, one of them was ‘bigdaddy_books,’” Herzog wrote to me in an email. “This user ID sounded a bit ‘boisterous’ to me and although the presence or lack of such a user ID, name, nickname, etc. does not determine my interest in an investigation, it certainly was in the back of my mind even as I worked on other cases and helped to pique my curiosity.”

His curiosity piqued, Herzog conducted an eleven- month investigation that eventually sent Smith to prison. As I reported last time, Smith, a married 48-year-old Pennsylvanian with children, is now serving a 33-month prison term and has been ordered to pay $120,000 in restitution to his victims.

Smith was arrested in late 2008 after forging the signatures of authors such as Truman Capote, James Michener and Anne Rice and selling first editions of their books on eBay as if the authors themselves had autographed them. I wrote an article about the case for Autograph in which I interviewed Herzog, and after the news broke about Smith’s sentencing I went back and reviewed my notes to see if there was anything more I could learn from the investigator.

As far as I know, nobody else in the media has interviewed Herzog. Here are a few new details I gleaned from my interviews with him:

•  Besides Smith’s boisterous screen ID, another reason Herzog started investigating him was that it was “much different than the typical fraud case. I’m not an avid reader, but I could see it was unique in that people had a personal connection” with the authors whose signed works they were buying from Smith. Not only was Smith defrauding people, he was exploiting the emotional connection they felt with these writers.

• One of the truisms of the forgery racket is that if you stay small, you may get away with it. But once you start getting bigger and your criminal activity increases, you risk attracting the attention of the law. “As I monitored [Smith] on an ongoing basis,” Herzog said, “what did interest me was that there was an endless supply of many of the same authors. This is not necessarily an indicator of fraud without a lot more proof, but it kept my attention.”

• Despite selling a cool $300,000 worth of fake-signed books, Smith received very few if any complaints from his hundreds of customers on eBay. One reason for this, said Herzog, may have been the relatively small sums involved in each transaction-hundreds of dollars, rather than thousands or tens of thousands. “People who lose lesser amounts of money are less likely to complain,” he said, sometimes because they are embarrassed over being the victim of a crime. By reporting the incident they reveal their gullibility to others, and so they remain quiet about it.

Written by Kevin Nelson

February 25, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Literary Forger Forrest Smith Sentenced

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The painful cost of forgery—to its victims as well as its perpetrators—became evident again last week when a Pennsylvania judge sentenced forger Forrest Smith to 33 months in prison and ordered him to pay $120,000 to the people he ripped off in his scam.

Smith, 48, of Reading, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, had been free on bail. But after sentencing, guards took him immediately into custody.

For about six years, from 2002 to late 2008, Smith had run a forgery business on eBay, buying unsigned first editions of books by Truman Capote, Michael Crichton, Anne Rice, and other big-name authors. Then he stamped their signatures into the books as if the authors themselves had signed them, and sold these fake-signed firsts for nifty sums on the Internet auction site.

Authorities estimate that he ripped off hundreds of eBay customers for up to $300,000 until a federal investigation, conducted by United States Postal Inspector Al Herzog, brought him down. Smith pled guilty to wire and mail fraud last year.

Michael Hinkelman of the Philadelphia Daily News reports that U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg expressed “grave concern” over Smith’s mental and emotional state at the sentencing. Smith has evidently tried to commit suicide twice in the past year.

“Show me mercy not because I deserve it, but because I don’t,” he told the judge, “but because my family will not survive.”

Both his daughter and wife testified on his behalf in court. One of the reasons that Smith engaged in the scam was to provide financial support for his family, particularly to pay for his children’s college education.

One unsolved mystery about the case is: Who tipped off the authorities about Smith in the first place? An undisclosed bookseller in eastern Pennsylvania spotted the unusual book-buying activity on those two eBay accounts, and provided the tip that jump-started Herzog’s investigation.

To read the full story on the case, read my article “The Curious Case of the Literary Forger,” in the December 2009 Autograph.Literar

Written by Kevin Nelson

February 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Big Reaction to Operation Bullpen Excerpt in Autograph Magazine

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The April issue of Autograph Magazine carried an exclusive excerpt from Operation Bullpen, and it generated a big reaction from readers. Here is a brief sampling of what two people said:

“As a subscriber for a few years now, I found the article on Operation Bullpen outstanding…These ‘authenticators,’ who are mostly ‘opinionators,’ along with Auction LOAs, ineffective postal inspectors and the list goes on, send chills or should to everyone. Autograph should have a standing wall of shame.”—Dennis Bishop, via email

“The current issue of Autograph is excellent. Congratulations. You did incredible work in the right direction and I very much appreciate the quality of the articles, especially the Operation Bullpen case.”—Markus Brandes, Kesswil, Switzerland

The editor, Kimberly Cole, adds: “Thanks to all the readers who in praising the April issue. Operation Bullpen was a particular favorite. The author, Kevin Nelson is hard at work on a follow-up story for us.”

The working title of that piece is “Whistle Blowers: Passionate, Committed, and Out to Stop the Forgers.” I’ve now finished it, and it is scheduled to appear in Autograph in the July issue. Here is a Neil Armstrong forgery on stamps, provided to me by John Reznikoff, who is interviewed for the piece.

Neil Armstrong forged stamps

Written by Kevin Nelson

May 18, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Kevin Nelson Interview on ESPN

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KN on ESPN

I appeared on ESPN’s “The Hot List” in an interview about the Operation Bullpen scam. Watch it here.

Written by Kevin Nelson

May 18, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Forging Hall of Famers

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I enjoyed Scott Kelnhofer’s interview with the authenticator James Spence in the latest Sports Collectors Digest, especially this exchange:

SCD: Are you still seeing items on the market from the forgers that were convicted as part of the FBI’s Operation Bullpen?
James Spence: That stuff still comes in on a daily basis. In a sad sense, it’s profitable for us to knock this stuff down. When it gets back into the hands of some collectors, they might not destroy it or be able to get their money back, so they might try to pass it along to another unsuspecting party. I can’t put a big X through the signature. I wouldn’t want to have to deal with the legal issues that would come with that. Those items will always be out there, because I don’t know of anybody having this big bonfire where they’re putting all this bad stuff.

SCD: Are you surprised anymore by anything you see in terms of forgeries?
James Spence: I don’t think there’s any level that hasn’t been hit. We saw a bad Bob Feller autograph recently. Who would have thought that? We receive, on a daily basis, items that indicate just how bad it is out there. Whatever can be sold in bulk or where people can make money, you’ll find problems.

The Bullpen gang did indeed forge Feller and every other Hall of Famer of note, and as Spence notes, these counterfeits are still bought and sold every day despite the bust of the ring in 1999. Here are three previously unpublished fake Hall of Fame baseballs, probably done by Greg Marino, the ring’s “master forger” as the media always referred to him:

lou-gehrig-baseball_11Lou Gehrig

christy-mathewson-ball_1Christy Mathewson

mantlewilliams-comboMickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and 500 HR Club

Written by Kevin Nelson

March 26, 2009 at 4:59 pm

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