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Forgers pitching a fast one to the unsuspecting

'They're a shameless bunch of people who don't have any trouble sleeping at night.' James Spence Sports autograph expert

October 22, 2002|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

Hockey great Cam Neely remembers the time a few years back when he walked into an Atlanta sports bar and was told that one of his jerseys held a place of honor on the wall. Not only that, it was one he'd autographed.

There was only one problem: Neely had never signed it.

Barry Halper, a minority owner of the New York Yankees, who at one time owned the best sports memorabilia collection in the world, tells this story: He was approached by a man who wanted to sell him a letter from Lou Gehrig, one of baseball's greatest players. Halper took one look and knew it was a fake. The letterhead contained a ZIP Code that wasn't introduced until 1963, more than 20 years after Gehrig's death. And if any more evidence were needed, Gehrig purportedly wrote that he believed the Yankees would repeat as winners of the American League East, which didn't even exist at the time.

Autograph forgery, even when done badly, is a crime so pervasive in sports and entertainment that the odds of getting a genuine signature make blackjack look like a sure thing. There are so many Tiger Woods forgeries out there, for instance, that the chance of getting a real signature is now put at 1 in 10.

In days gone by, when autographs had little value, forgery was a rarity. But now that a signature can sell for thousands of dollars, the crooks have moved in and made a shambles of the market. The advice experts give is to eyeball the autograph being signed. If unsure, presume a signature is a fake until it's proved otherwise. And if something seems too good to be true, think forgery. Don't think you're getting a deal spending $500 on a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth; the going rate for an authentic one in mint condition is more than $10,000.

"They're a shameless bunch of people who don't have any trouble sleeping at night," James Spence, a leading expert in sports autographs, said of forgers.

And as much as forgeries have taken over in sports collecting, the Hollywood end of the business is even more cluttered with fakes. "The big celebrities, they don't do signings," said FBI agent Tim Fitzsimmons. "But if you go online, you can get any big celebrity you want in any quantity. It's all bad."

At one time, autographs were collected by children and die-hard fans, people willing to wait for hours to get a signature on a program or a scrap of paper. But in the last 20 years, all that has changed as the sports autograph business alone has burgeoned into a $500-million industry. And the main driving force is the Internet, where millions of trading cards and memorabilia are sold.

Huge online volume

On EBay, the online auction house, about 350,000 trading cards are put up for bid each week. That does not include the thousands of other items with signatures on them. With that kind of volume, policing is a near-impossible nightmare. Realizing its reputation was suffering as it became a major marketplace for forgeries, EBay recently signed a deal with Professional Sports Authenticators, a company based in Newport Beach, aimed at giving collectors a fighting chance. For a $7.49 fee, the company will deliver an opinion within 36 hours about whether a signature is probably good or probably fake, but with no guarantees. The buyer is still on his own when it comes to making a decision.

"We're trying to arm people with the knowledge and power to make an intelligent decision," said EBay's John Fitch, who heads the auction house's trading card and memorabilia division. EBay wouldn't disclose dollar figures for autographs sold but projected that all sports-related sales this year would come to $1 billion.

Trading-card manufacturer Upper Deck has taken a different approach to guaranteeing signature authenticity. When a star athlete under contract to the company does a signing, the entire session is filmed on what the company calls a pen-cam. The small camera attached to a pen records the signing. The buyer gets a CD-ROM of the actual autograph session, complete with a permanent digital date and time stamp.

"It's the real McCoy," said Upper Deck spokeswoman Mary Macera. "What we always recommend is that if you can meet an athlete face to face, go for it. If you can't do that, then you really have to be smart about what you're buying."

Unfortunately, say the experts, most people are downright ignorant when it comes to buying signatures of their favorite athletes or movie stars. Many are happy with a certificate of authenticity, which often isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Others simply take it on faith that a signature is genuine, even though the odds are against it.

"It's the willingness of people to believe that's so incredible," said forgery expert Kenneth Rendell, whose book, "Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents," is considered one of the best on the subject.

Or as Philadelphia autograph dealer Steven Raab put it: "This has brought scads of disreputable people onto the scene. You can make a great living selling forged autographs."

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