PART FIVE IN A SERIES
Author Kevin Nelson interviewed many of the people involved in the forgery scam detailed in Operation Bullpen. The forgers who've done their time after being convicted of their crimes say the industry is still ripe with fake autographs. The FBI agrees.
This final excerpt from "Operation Bullpen", the new book by Kevin Nelson detailing the famous FBI takedown of a broad-based forgery ring during the mid-to-late 1990s.
Nelson interviewed many of the principals who were convicted including Shelly Jaffe, who sold many bogus autographs done by Greg Marino and others. A few now assist the government with stopping forgery and counterfeit schemes. Nelson also spent time with the FBI agents directly responsible for breaking up the ring, Tim Fitzsimmons and Jeff McKinney.
Jaffe is not impressed with industry reforms of recent years. In one high-ticket auction in which he and two other authenticators consulted, they rejected nearly three-quarters of the signed material they saw as fakes. But the auction house ultimately sold these pieces anyway. "Nobody wants to hear that the signatures are bad because there's so much money in them," said Jaffe.
It's tempting for forgers to duplicate rare sports autographs and Jaffe is equally unimpresssed with the post-takedown changes instituted by online auction sites. To show this writer how bogus sigs are still being sold these days, he scrolled down a list of ten Mantle autographs that were up on eBay the day we spoke. All but one, he said, was a certain fake. "Dealers are still dealing crap," he said. "You warn and warn and warn people and they still don't care. So screw it. Let the buyer beware."
Surprisingly perhaps, Jeff McKinney agrees to some extent with Jaffe, saying that fraudulent memorabilia investigations are potentially endless. "We rolled these guys, who could tell us about six more guys, who could tell us about six more guys, and this could go on forever," he said. But, he added, "We succeeded in taking out the major players at the time. This helped raise public awareness and the autograph industry has taken steps to protect itself better. The FBI did its job."
For Fitzsimmons, Operation Bullpen is his career case. He has received national commendation from FBI Headquarters for his achievements. All told, his investigations have bagged sixty-three charges and convictions, the dismantling of eighteen forgery rings around the U.S., the seizure of nearly $5 million in criminal assets and more than $300,000 paid in restitution to victims.