Take a gander at one excessively crinkled 1909 T206 Old Mill Nap Lajoie. Or gaze upon a perhaps peculiarly scarred and creased 1909 T206 Polar Bear Cigarettes Ty Cobb (bat off shoulder variant). Scrutinize an almost inscrutable 1909 T206 Uzit Cigarettes Honus Wagner. Apart from the card type and date, what else do all of these cards have in common? Under the guise of poor condition intended to suggest authenticity, in actuality they’re all fakes, frauds, forgeries—counterfeits.
Of course the commerce of counterfeits and counterfeit cards is nothing new. It’s a shadowy recess of the pastime that collectors continue to take very seriously, as evidenced by articles and reports such as this: A Fake Honus Wagner Tobacco Card With An Interesting History, or this section from David Cycleback’s “Judging the Authenticity of Early Baseball Cards.”
Then there was the recent story by a local NBC newscast in Reno, Nevada, where a man purchased a poor condition card he believed was an authentic Honus Wagner T206 for a little under $200. A good-looking attempt? Yes. Real? Let’s just say I wouldn’t look for it in any upcoming catalog auctions.
But how do the same online auction sellers manage to repeatedly list such items? Auction sites have at least some basic safeguards in place for this kind of duplicitous conduct in the way of banning procedures, negative feedback, and more. Then consider all of the potentially disgruntled buyers who eagerly place bids without fully deciphering the deceitfully devised auction postings—prior to surely great disappointment and many an aired grievance. So, again, how does this happen?
It begins with the card. What kind of copy is it? Perhaps it’s an acknowledged reprint intended originally for the sake of novelty and/or appreciation, whereby this purpose is clearly indicated some place on the product: as on the card back, with the appearance of the word “Reprint” or an even more salient feature such as a retrospective summary of the card and player’s history. (With the former, some rather half-hearted attempts at fraud involve merely rubbing and scuffing the card back raw to remove this identifier.) Then there’s the outright fake that gives no such stated indication that it is a reproduction.* And with advances in affordable printing technology, especially with cheaper offset printers, some of these are fairly sophisticated—the 1933 Goudey set being among the more common and higher quality counterfeits being created. These can be found in abundance in online auctions, and they are sometimes difficult to discern from the sample image alone.
The brazenness of many fraudulent sellers, however, is exceeded only by their laziness. As with the previously mentioned scenario where an identifying mark such as “reprint” or “replica” on the card back will be intentionally removed via eraser, fingernail, coin, or other device and perhaps further masked by additional means (see below), this usually involves relatively mass-produced reprint issues from once-legitimate publishers and card manufacturers long-since out of business. Some of the more popular reprints include the following: The Sport Hobbyist and Nostalgia Press, with some early T206 reprints; Renata Galasso, which did T206, Goudey, and more; Dover, who released a perforated assortment (originally in book form) of Allen & Ginter, T206, and Goudey; C.C.C., Hygrade, and Capital, which all did reprints in the 1980s; and various others (it’s not a comprehensive list by any means). Since most of these saw fairly large print runs with wide distribution, though, there’s no shortage of resources available on the relevant collector forums for help in spotting them.
More disturbingly, some sellers devise ways to artificially age and intentionally break down a fake card to both lend the appearance of authenticity at the point of purchase and impede subsequent inspection. Some of them are good enough to fool more than just a casual collector. The eBay audience is big enough that it only takes fooling a couple of people to drive the bidding on a worthless reprint.
Most aren’t willing to respond to questions about their tactics, but one such seller told me he will “make them look old by dipping them in tea and putting them in the oven for a bit.” Besides adding a generally weathered, or toasted, appearance to what might be a still profitable and sought after low-grade card (that 1909 T206 Wagner, one 1933 Goudey Ruth, or a 1941 Play Ball DiMaggio), this could also be efficacious for baking away the gloss and more evenly distributing wear on an otherwise more evident reproduction. The same seller further mentioned that “sandpaper works good to round the corners off [sic].”
These seem like rather crude stratagems (and they are), but they apparently work well enough and fool enough buyers to, again, turn a profit. And while some Twinings tea and a convection oven may be primitive means for an unsavory end, rest assured that there are others with more advanced methodologies that are additionally difficult to detect. Whatever the manner and mode of simulacrum, though, these finer points probably become semantic for whomever the duped, remorseful buyer after the counterfeit is listed and purchased in an auction.
As for these questionable auction listings, they seem to work like this: while an identifying term such as “reprint” ideally appears somewhere in the given auction’s standard fields for details or “Item specifics” (i.e. categories like “Condition,” “Card Attributes,” “Original/Reprint”), some postings eschew the practice of proper entries. However, many of these counterfeit “Pre-war” baseball card auctions do technically provide this info elsewhere. At the same time, they strategically obscure it by intentionally omitting such points in the auction post title and those standardized data fields. They thus (mis)place facts about the lacking authenticity further below in the auction description, thereby demonstrating their knowledge of how to negotiate whatever gray area in the online auction rules. One seller actually anticipates customer complaints and negative feedback with the following brief disclaimer: “Not the seller’s fault if the buyer doesn’t read the description.”
So what does all of this amount to? We have a fake portrayed as an original yet technically listed as a fake. The forger or seller fully comprehends their misleading methods and likewise creates an auction posting to simultaneously conceal that which is transparent.Oh, and I neglected to mention one more important variable in this whole scheme.
These auctions sell.
There was even a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #53 that sold for $123.50, plus shipping. Of course, each one of these auctions was for a fake card, by way of the above methods. The price tag may pale in comparison to the real McCoy, but repeat business guarantees profits for these poor frauds and their respective sellers. It’s also possible the buyers aren’t being cheated at all, but simply flipping a somewhat convincing reprint to an even less knowledgeable victim for a tidy profit.
You (almost) have to hand it to these guys: there may not be a lot of artistry to the con, but they’ve clearly found a way to work the online auction system—though hopefully their success will be short-lived. The whole farcical scam reminds me of that final major film by Orson Welles, F for Fake (1973): the elaborate lie that’s *technically* not even a lie.
* Still, several basic steps of inspection may still easily prove an artless artifice: measurement of dimensions and further comparison to a known, verified original from the same issue or set; observation of card stock and finish, whether matte or more glossy; use of a jeweler’s loupe to examine and differentiate pre-war versus modern printing methods; or even employment of an ultraviolet or black light to similarly determine the general era of materials of manufacture. However, much of this is difficult to do without the card in hand, which lends further weight to the advice of collectors to refrain from buying highly valued or sought-after cards that are ungraded—or, at the very least, to obtain the highest quality image scans beforehand and purchase only from the most reputable sellers, who will also offer an explicit guarantee and refund if the card does not pass certification.