Bullpen & More, by Kevin Nelson

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