The five-part series on Operation Bullpen written by Kevin Nelson that launched here Friday and continued Monday is probably an eye-opener for those who just started collecting within the last few years or weren’t that active when the whole sordid mess came down more than a decade ago.
It was autograph forgery on steroids. A group of unscrupulous people saw easy money in Americans’ love for sports and no real safeguards in place to prevent them from making it. The bullpen forgers polluted the marketplace with hundreds of thousands of fake autographs and counterfeit trading cards before the feds set some traps and nailed them.
Some of the photographs from the FBI’s confiscated stash reveal the size and scope of the ring. There were so many items confiscated, they needed a warehouse to hold them all. Some of what you’ve seen and will see when the next three parts of the series are published, are images that have never been seen before.
Bullpen is now an aging chapter in hobby history but the issue is far from dead.
Fake autographs, obviously, are still in the marketplace and entering the homes of people who don’t even suspect they’ve been taken. Crooks who were once able to move their hand made ‘memorabilia’ through regular hobby channels and even home shopping networks are now working to move some of the phony autographs through new channels. The key to their success is to find a sucker who doesn’t know any better.
Whether holding old fakes or newly created ones, they’re taking their garbage to online auction sites, local auction houses and charity auction organizers and thus keeping them away from the prying eyes of avid collectors and knowledgeable dealers who might be able to alert auctioneers to the fact that they’re selling bogus material. Sometimes the auction company or auctioneer doesn’t know any better. You can only be an expert on so many things. A COA is a COA in the eyes of many. If it’s got “paperwork”, it must be OK, right?
Browse smaller auctions online and you can see these pieces on a regular basis. They often sell for more than you’d think because those bidding are too lazy to do any online research. Are they getting what they deserve? Maybe, but keep in mind that piece is probably going to be moved again—to some other sap—a few years later when the buyer finally discovers the truth or decides he needs some cash and turns it over at a garage sale or another local auction.
Charity auctions may have sports fans who may not be collectors, but once a year they buy something for their office or den and figure their bid is going to a good cause. It is, hopefully, but whether the fake autographs are donated or sold on a percentage basis to the charity, that tax write-off is the only thing of value that buyer is getting.
The easy thing to do is to go to a hobby message board and complain about that fake you saw in a local auction, but what does that accomplish? Reaffirming what we already knew? That non-genuine autographs and doctored trading cards are being sold online? No, the thing to do is to take some action. Contact the auction company in a respectful way and let them know what they’re offering is bad. Show them links from respected collector sources online. Tell them about our little national epidemic. Maybe they’ll tell their colleagues. Maybe they’ll tell you to mind your own business and hang up.
At least you tried.