By Kevin Nelson
(Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final installment in our series of special reports on Operation Bullpen and its effect on the collecting hobby today.)
In the spring of 1999, months before the FBI would drop the hammer on him and his colleagues, forger Greg Marino was talking to his brother on the phone in southern California, expressing disgust for all the authenticators who were involved in the counterfeit memorabilia racket. “They [the FBI] are not gonna look at the guy who’s sellin’ ‘em or doin’ em,” he said. “It’s the guy authenticatin’ ‘em.”
The phone was tapped, and the FBI agent secretly listening to this conversation heard Greg’s brother add that the real crooks were not the forgers or counterfeit dealers involved in the scam, but the authenticators. Greg emphatically agreed with this. “Exactly,” he said. “They’re the crooked ones doing it.”
While it is impossible to go along with Greg and his brother’s logic that the men who produced, sold and distributed the forgeries were less to blame than the men who authenticated them, one can certainly understand their frustration. Of all the scams in the counterfeit memorabilia game, the hardest to catch, and therefore arguably the most clever, is that of the authenticator.
But when the bust of the original Bullpen crew went down in late 1999, followed by subsequent busts of other forgery crews in the early 2000s, the FBI did indeed catch some of them and knock them out of business. Here are a few of the men who authenticated forgeries produced by the ring, and examples of the documents they used. Starting with Jim DiMaggio, proprietor of J. DiMaggio and Co., the principal authenticator for the scam who certified hundreds of thousands of forgeries—
It seems appropriate to include two examples of J. DiMaggio certs, since he may have produced more bogus authentication documents than anyone in the history of the racket. He served seven months in prison for his crimes. He was originally chosen to join the ring in part because of his last name. It was thought by the Bullpen crew that an authenticator with the same last name as the great Joe DiMaggio would have more credibility with the collecting public. They were right. These fake pieces of paper provided cover for all those fake signatures.
But there were plenty of other authenticators besides J. DiMaggio who came under investigation by the FBI. For example, Donald Frangipani—
Frangipani was a Brooklyn authenticator who certified many, many forgeries and was singled out by the FBI and the media for his questionable business practices. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that prosecutors never filed charges against him and he has always maintained his innocence of any crimes. In fact he remained in business after the 1999 takedown, claiming that some of his COAs were stolen by the counterfeiters and faked, and this was why they fell into the hands of the crooks.
Another authenticator investigated by the FBI was Jim Bellino. His Orange County authentication firm, Forensic Document Services, certified forgeries produced by the Bullpen gang, and he came under close scrutiny by the FBI’s undercover agent in the case. But like Frangipani—and for that matter, certain authenticators today whose dubious credentials are occasionally called into question by collectors—Bellino always maintained his innocence, telling a reporter that he was never tried nor convicted of any crimes related to the Bullpen ring and that he “would never knowingly buy or sell an illegitimate or forged autograph.” Rather than incur the expense of fighting the authorities in court, he said, he accepted a deal with the government that gave him probation and expunged his record. Clearly a man who changes with the changing times, Bellino has since moved onto reality TV where he appears with his wife Alexis Bellino in “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
After the original Bullpen crew went down in 1999, the FBI set its sights on other forgers and forgery rings, mainly located in New York and New Jersey. One of the most active of these was James Ferrazzano of Truly Unique Collectibles whose thousands upon thousands of celebrity signatures were not only not unique, they were mostly fake. Ferrazzano, who spent 15 months in prison, was a double threat; he not only produced the forgeries, he created his own documents certifying those forgeries as legitimate—
The FBI busted Ferrazzano in what came be known as “Phase 2” of its counterfeit memorabilia investigations. Then, in 2005, at a press conference hailing its achievements, the Bureau released copies of the authentication documents used by Truly Unique and some 40 other fraud artists. That is how I came to have the Truly Unique certificate; the others were given to me by the FBI previously. J. DiMaggio certs have been widely circulated but as far as I know, the Frangipani document has never been shown before.
But truly, what is most newsworthy about these documents is their un-newsworthiness; certs or COAs like these are as common in the hobby as, well, forgeries. Countless forgers and crooked memorabilia dealers operating today do what these guys did, produce phony paper that stipulates that yes, in their opinion, the phony material they are selling is genuine. This is partly why it’s so hard for law enforcement to close them down and put them in jail—they’re only giving their opinion. And usually it says so, in small type, on the back of the certification document. This provides “deniability,” to use a technique borrowed from politicians, and gives the authenticator (and his attorney) wiggle room if he is ever confronted for his misdeeds by the law.
While hiding behind their opinions, some authenticators like to cloak themselves in science, claiming to be trained “forensic” specialists or contracting with them for their services (such as what Jim Bellino did). In an interview I did with Peter Belcastro, who really is a forensic examiner for the FBI at its Quantico, Virginia laboratory and who examined items bought from the crooks by FBI undercover agents to determine their authenticity—and who has worked with the National Baseball Hall of Fame on a possible exhibit on counterfeit memorabilia—he strongly advised collectors to be skeptical about the claims of authenticators.
“If you’re not seeing the item produced,” he said, “you can’t be assured it’s authentic. Don’t buy from questionable sources. Stay away from those guys.”
The hundreds of thousands of fakes sold in the Bullpen conspiracy all came with certificates of authenticity. Although “those guys” have now passed from the scene, their methods are still alive and well: certs remain an essential tool in the forger’s toolkit.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of The Biggest Forgery Ring in American History: www.OperationBullpen.com.
Read Kevin Nelson’s previous installments in this series:
Order Nelson’s book, Operation Bullpen, via Amazon here.