The guilty plea by Bill Mastro last week was not a surprise. Nor was it a surprise that he admitted the T206 Wagner graded 8 had been trimmed from a larger entity back in the 80’s. Both of those courtroom admissions were generally accepted by advanced collectors as truth for a long time.
Among the questions we don’t have answers for yet are: 1) how much time he’ll spend in prison 2) how many customers were the victims of shill bidding and 3) how much card doctoring was going on at Mastro Auctions.
Those last two are the most important to collectors and both take the scope of the investigation far outside the confines of Mastro’s business.
Fake Bids= Real Challenges?
We wouldn’t be surprised to see some court challenges by former clients over the bidding records. They will want to find out if there’s a chance they got royally screwed over by greed. You can’t blame them; even those who can probably afford it. Good faith is at the heart of every auction and when that trust is broken, anyone would have a right to be extremely angry. Angry enough to try and make Bill Mastro—and potentially others who worked for him—pay dearly. Remember, if government prosecutors are right, this went on for EIGHT YEARS. Not to say that every lot was shill bid, but the sheer length of time would indicate it happened quite a bit. If it did, there’s a huge trickle down.
Final auction prices changed values of cards and memorabilia forever. If a card would have sold for $20,000 without any hanky panky but sold for $35,000 instead, that has a major impact on the hobby. The tentacles of those results impact future bidders, auction houses, consignors, price guides and even those of us who write about auctions in good faith (there’s that phrase again).
Shill bidding has been common practice for years in a lot of different industries. Some sellers try to improve their bottom line by using others to bid up the price of a card. It’s wrong but it happens all the time. Mastro, it seems, got caught. As a high profile business, they should have known better but to think they’re alone is naïve. It surely happens every day—maybe every hour or even every minute—on eBay. At least now the specter of severe punishment is out there, which hopefully gives them pause.
Restoration without Representation?
The card doctoring charge in the superseding indictment released late last week is maybe the most newsworthy and the most disturbing. Mastro and others are being accused of having imperfections on cards fixed and selling the ‘new, improved’ versions without disclosing the work to buyers. Again, there have been loud whispers about it happening for a long time. In the book about the Wagner card written by Michael O'Keeffe and Teri Thompson, the authors claimed Mastro was one of the best customers of a Chicago area paper conservation company. Six years ago, we published an extremely interesting series of stories by Kevin Saucier about the practice of ‘card fixing’ (you can find them inside this search string) as prices for ultra high grade vintage cards continued to skyrocket.
I have no problem with restored cards…as long as a description of that work or at least a note that it was done...is included with the sale. When you don’t disclose it, you’re being deceitful. Restoration is common practice in other collectible fields but so is documenting it. If we posted pictures of cards they sold that had been artificially spruced up as part of an auction preview or post-sale report, I feel like we unknowingly contributed to collectors getting the shaft. And that makes me mad.
Again, the impact is far reaching. How did investigators find out it was going on? Do we know which cards underwent surgery? Do we know where they are?
Do the buyers want to know?
I can’t say I blame them either.