By Kevin Nelson
(Editor’s note: This is the third in our series of special reports on the infamous Operation Bullpen conspiracy and its effects on the hobby today.)
In our conversations for my book on Operation Bullpen, Greg Marino told me that he thought that during his five years as the chief forger of the ring he had signed a million autographs. “I mean, I did a million autographs,” he said. “And when I say a million, I mean a million. Not tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands. A million.”
Even if you allow for a certain hyperbole—although Marino was anything but self-promoting when we spoke; he was low-key, matter of fact and, I believe, utterly honest—there is no question that in his prime he was not only the best in the business, he was also incredibly prolific. His criminal career began in the 1990s and ended abruptly in the last year of that decade when hundreds of federal agents brought him and his mates down in the biggest one-day bust in more than 100 years of FBI history.
Given the quality and sheer quantity of Marino’s work, there can be little doubt that lots of his bogus pieces are still being bought and sold today. Do collectors and dealers know they’re buying and selling Marino fakes? Well, that’s a question for another day. But his work is certainly alive and well.
There is one set of Marino fakes, however, that is considered to be commercially toxic: the lithographs done by his father Angelo. All of the paintings shown with this article were painted by Angelo and to my knowledge, except for the Bret Favre lithograph, they are being shown for the first time. Angelo Marino was a Leroy Neiman-style painter who became involved in the Bullpen conspiracy when he found that his lithos of the young Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and many others sold more quickly, and for much higher sums, when they contained the signatures of the superstar athletes depicted in the paintings. Although, in his case, the superstars doing the signing were always his son Greg.
Arguably Angelo’s best work was a series of paintings known as “Field of Dreams,” a nostalgic recreation of old-time Hall of Famers playing on an old-time ball field. Sometimes as many as ten Hall of Famers—Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Reggie Jackson, others—appeared to have signed the lithographs. The sigs were fakes.
I would like to report that everyone in the hobby now recognizes that any and all Angelo Marino pieces with superstar signatures on them are fakes, but I would not be telling the truth if I did. Not long ago I received an email from a collector who owned an Angelo Marino lithograph signed by a well-known athlete. He wanted to know if I thought it was real or not because he was thinking about selling it. I said that while Angelo’s signature in the bottom left hand corner was real, the athlete’s signature most assuredly was not.
This wasn’t the response he was looking for. The collector maintained that just because it was an Angelo Marino lithograph didn’t mean the sig was a fake. And while he wasn’t planning to sell it at the moment, he did perhaps intend to do so at some later date, he said.
Which is Exhibit A on why the forgery racket continues to thrive: The unwillingness of many collectors to concede that some of their most treasured signed pieces, which they paid good money for, are of dubious authenticity. There are many reasons for this. Here’s one: Many collectors do not like the idea that they themselves might have been conned, and they would like to keep open the possibility of selling these pieces at a later date. If they maintain the fiction that the sigs are legit, then they can make the sale with a clear conscience.
Then there’s the fellow I heard from just the other day, who owned some Angelo Marino lithographs because he enjoys and appreciates his art. He was wondering if there was anything wrong with these pieces. I said no, absolutely not, as long as they aren’t signed by anyone other than the artist, they’re fine. I added that I agreed with him. Absent the phony signatures, I quite enjoy Angelo’s artwork as well.
(Ed. Note 7/26/16): A neighbor of Marino’s at the time tells us he saw a small number of the Marino lithos actually being signed by the athletes, but that Marino would then forge his name on the bulk of the others. So…if you have a low-numbered litho, there’s apparently at least a chance it could be real.
Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of The Biggest Forgery Ring in American History: www.OperationBullpen.com.
Here are the previous installments in Nelson’s series: