Questions have been asked, but specific answers have been few and far between regarding the case of dozens of misrepresented game-worn jerseys sold by convicted fraudster Mike Ornstein several years ago.
The case came to light last month, nearly four months after Ornstein–a close confidant of some NFL teams and players–pleaded guilty in a federal courtroom to fraud and conspiracy charges. He’s scheduled to be sentenced next week.
Ornstein’s admitted unlawful transactions involving Super Bowl tickets grabbed most of the national headlines, but collectors were more interested in the dozens of jerseys he peddled to at least one card company and at least one auction house from 2000-2003. The government had evidence that Ornstein, in concert with other unnamed individuals, conspired to order jerseys on several occasions and later represent them as game worn when they were actually just replicas.
According to the government’s case, Ornstein ordered jerseys from Ripon Athletic, a Wisconsin company that was a subcontractor of Reebok. He made over $100,000 selling them.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Cleveland, which is prosecuting the case, told Liz Mullen of the SportsBusiness Journal that both the Super Bowl tickets and NFL jerseys investigations continue. Whether the probe into the jersey transactions are part of the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the sports memorabilia industry or are being treated separately isn’t known.
According to court documents, the jerseys sold to a card company were utilized to create game-worn memorabilia cards.
SportsBusiness Journal contacted the three largest sports trading card companies, Topps, Upper Deck, and Panini (formerly Donruss), asking whether they bought jerseys from Ornstein and for any other information the companies knew about the case.
According to SBJ, Warren Friss, a vice president at Topps, declined comment.
Jason Howarth, vice president of marketing at trading card company Panini, formerly known as Donruss, said in an e-mail, “Neither Panini nor any of its predecessors have purchased jerseys from Michael Ornstein.”
Michael Bernstein, general counsel for Upper Deck, said the company never bought jerseys from Ornstein.
“The memorabilia and trading card industry is an industry that is built on delivering authentic autographs and memorabilia to the collecting public,” Bernstein said in an e-mail to SBJ. “Unfortunately, incidents like this serve to undermine the principals the industry is founded on.”
Court documents obtained by Sports Collectors Daily showed that Ornstein had also consigned 20 jerseys touted as worn by NFL players in 2002 to a sports memorabilia auction house.
Jersey collector Guy Hankel recalled a March 2003 auction in which jerseys were sold carrying supposed certificates of authenticity issued by NFL Properties.
“I personally have never seen a group of jerseys sold by an auction house with NFL Properties COAs previously or since then,” Hankel told Sports Business Journal.
That auction was conducted by Las Vegas-based American Memorabilia, which was not implicated in the case. Hankel’s detailed records showed that the jerseys sold for $30,942.23, within two cents of the amount the U.S. Attorney’s office indicated as the proceeds from the 20 jerseys in the Ornstein case.
The jerseys were offered for sale between Feb. 1 and June 5, 2003, according to the bill of information in the federal case. The American Memorabilia auction concluded March 6, 2003.
SportsBusiness Journal e-mailed a list of six questions to the NFL about the jerseys. NFL senior vice president Greg Aiello wrote back, “These matters were investigated and resolved many years ago.”
What hasn’t been resolved for collectors is how many jerseys or jersey swatches represented as game worn made it into collectors’ hands either whole or via trading cards.
Two sources told SBJ said that the NFL did investigate a matter involving COAs and that at least one person was punished. Asked to confirm or deny this, Aiello declined to comment to SBJ.
Ornstein wouldn’t comment for SBJ’s story and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Cleveland, would not say whether the jerseys sold in the March 2003 auction were the same as the ones listed in the court documents or whether those who bought non-genuine jerseys had been told.
“While federal guidelines call for victims to be notified if and when they are identifiable, we don’t comment on the status of that to the public,” Tobin stated in an email to Mullen.
Hankel believes it’s something that should be revealed.
“Even if collectors discover fraudulent or misrepresented items that sold at auction years ago, it is still very much worth it to publicize these findings, since most collectors want to know if a piece they have is a fake,” Hankel told SBJ. “We need to stop ‘bad’ jerseys from continuously circulating through the hobby, being bought and sold over and over.”
After Ornstein’s guilty plea, a federal judge ordered him to pay the government $350,000 in restitution for the ticket and memorabilia scheme. He also faces the possibility of prison time.