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Editor’s Blog: Let’s Play Find the Forgers

In homes and offices across North America sit big, beautiful photographs.  Expensive jerseys.  Vintage display items.  Signed baseballs. All purchased by those who wanted something to remind themselves of their favorite sport, favorite player or favorite moment in sports history.  All cost hundreds, maybe a few thousand dollars.

All bearing someone's John Hancock.

Fake Ruth autographsNot that of a player or coach, though.

Too often, that big bold autograph came from a guy who learned how to copy the signature of a  few dozen famous guys and gets paid handsomely by unscrupulous dealers to do it...over and over again.

The fake sports autograph business is alive and well.

Chasing down bogus autographs is like a dog chasing his tail.  You can go on eBay or one of those police and government auction sites or your local mom and pop auctioneer and find them.  They are, quite simply, everywhere.  I can't recall a time when I've read more people complaining about pricey fakes in circulation.

Operation Bullpen may have shut down one forging operation several years ago, but it didn't kill the quick buck artist.  The insatiable desire of sports fans who don't know any better and have money to spend means there is always a market. A new gang of knuckleheads who'd rather run a scam than work for an honest dollar.

They've got guts.  Sleazy auctioneers on the hobby's fringe have big mailing lists and sell the stuff to unsuspecting buyers knowing full well there's an FBI investigation that could put them in jail.  Some say the buyers are people who are then re-selling it to equally sleazy business owners in America's favorite vacation spots, lame 'certificate of authenticity' in tow as non-collectors who don't know the difference plunk down hard earned cash to have something to take back home.

Sometimes the fakes are funneled to local auction houses where collectors, fans and flea market dealers assume that one COA is as good as another and have never read much about Jackie Robinson, let alone studied his autograph.  The pieces are bought, sometimes never to be seen again while the new owner blissfully enjoys the autograph of a guy who sat at his kitchen table and faked them or in the other case, passes the fake on to yet another unsuspecting buyer.

Some of the forgers have gotten very good.  Vintage inks and steel-tipped pens.  Old paper.  Practice.  It all adds up to some of the more convincing fakes we've seen in recent years.

It's a sad state of affairs.

Don't get me wrong.  There are some wonderful, authentic pieces sold every day.   Publicity about previous sales and some of those great, historic, authentic items put into catalogs and displays have brought other cool stuff out of our closets and attics.

The hope is that the FBI is building a massive case file and taking the time to find the major sources of phony signatures.  Hobby crooks have rarely proven to be brilliant.  Surely, law enforcement can get to the bottom of the ring and not only flush out the biggest suppliers but turn them over to prosecutors who decide for once to take this kind of stuff seriously enough to scare off the Future Fakers of America by committing to put people behind bars for more than a few months.  Federal law enforcement press conferences can create big news.  Sometimes, though, it's more about the show once you see the sentences handed down a few weeks later.

Not much can be done about what's already out there.  Many times, 'authenticity' is only opinion anyway and it's hard to render legal judgment against that even if it's a disingenuous one.

With the number of resources available to buyers today, it's getting harder to have sympathy for those who bid or buy autographs without doing any research.  Sometimes, though, the public has to be protected from themselves.

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