April 30, 2012
Fans called him “Big-Six” and he’s surely lived up to that nickname posthumously with alleged examples of his signature on baseballs commanding over $100,000 at auction. Each of these record-breaking Christy Mathewson single-signed baseballs have two things in common; a letter of authenticity from either PSA/DNA or JSA (James Spence Authentication); and serious speculation by experts as to whether any of them are authentic. Hobby veteran Richard Simon told us, “For such a rare autograph there seems to be a lot of Christy Mathewson single signed baseballs in the hobby. Perhaps there are just a few too many.”
Robert Edward Auctions and SportsCardsPlus are currently offering two more single signed Matty balls, both with LOAs from JSA claiming they are genuine. Robert Edward Auctions even goes as far to claim that Mathewson signed their ball on Sept. 30, 1921, the same day that a benefit game was played at the Polo Grounds to raise money for his medical bills at the time. We reported in our last “Chin Music” column that Mathewson never attended that game and, according to a New York Times report published on Oct. 1, 1921, Mathewson missed the event from a sick bed at his residence on Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. REA is still fraudulently selling the ball as being signed by Mathewson that day, with no proof whatsoever to support their claim. In their lot description REA quotes a 1977 book written by sportswriter Fred Lieb who described an auction of Mathewson signed baseballs at that 1921 event. But as baseball historian Glenn Stout has stated in his own work, Lieb was a devout occultist who believed he could communicate with the dead and that he also possessed healing powers. So, perhaps REA is aware of Lieb healing the sick Matty and bringing him to the baseball auction at the Polo Grounds that day. If Lieb were alive today his Ouija Board would make him a great authenticator of Matty balls, however, without access to his gift collectors have had to settle on the skills of PSA and JSA.
It’s par for the course, with auction houses and authenticators failing to do their homework, and in some cases, perhaps, committing outright fraud. The messy history of questionable Mathewson balls hitting the market takes us back to a MastroWest auction in March of 2000, which featured a high-grade ball with letters of authenticity written by both James Spence and PSA/DNA.
It was the premier lot in that 2000 auction billed as “An Unbelievable Christy Mathewson Single Signed Baseball,” and included the alleged original mailing canister sent to the recipient of the prized baseball bearing Matty’s signature. MastroWest wrote, “The black fountain pen ink speaks to us from the year 1912, an 8/11/12 date postmarked on the original mailing box sent from New York City to Allentown, Pa. It has been determined that Mathewson himself wrote the recipients address on the mailing label. It is within the realm of possibility that it was Christy Mathewson who took this ball to the post office and mailed it personally.” MastroWest assured bidders that the “certitude” of the signature was attested to by experts James Spence, Kevin Keating and PSA/DNA.
It all sounded quite amazing, but like they said, entirely “Unbelievable,” for the gem mint baseball that Matty allegedly autographed was actually manufactured by Spalding between 1921 and 1924, nearly a decade later than the alleged postmark on the mailing canister. When informed by several hobbyists of their stunning error in authentication, MastroWest had no choice but to withdraw the lot from the sale. It was the first of many mistakes made by the alleged experts in the field who would encounter the work of the same forger years later, minus the embarrassment.
In our opinion, the work of the Matty forger that was first authenticated in 2000 (top left) reappeared in a Grey Flannel auction in 2003 (bottom left); in a Hunt Auction in 2005 (top right); and in a Heritage Auctions preview in March of 2012 (bottom right). While Spence and PSA had implicit knowledge of the 2000 forgery featured in MastroWest’s sale (and access to the forgery as an exemplar), PSA still authenticated the Grey Flannel ball and JSA still authenticated the Hunt Auctions ball, despite the fact that the handwriting was clearly in the same hand of the 2000 MastroWest forger. The Mathewson ball in Grey Flannel sold for $29,791 and the Hunt ball sold for a then-record price of $110,000 at Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game auction. The record-breaking ball prompted James Spence Authentication (JSA) to take out a full page in Sports Collectors Digest advertising the $110,000 sale price and the fact that the ball had received their, “Ultimate Letter of Authenticity.” (The same Matty ball was re-sold with its JSA LOA in 2007 at Historic Auctions for $91,000.)
In 2007, another Mathewson ball with a JSA LOA sold at Huggins & Scott Auctions for a whopping $161,000. Soon after that sale, hobby newsletter, The Sweet Spot, published an article about Mathewson’s handwriting and interviewed James Spence of JSA. In the article, “Two Styles, Two Speeds From Matty,” James Spence was quoted saying, “When you sell a ball for more than $160,000, that’s going to raise the eyebrows and it’s also going to raise eyebrows with the forgers. And they’re going to work on it hard till it’s perfected. So, obviously, we (authenticators) have to be on our toes.”
In that same article, the Sweet Spot reported that Spence was in possession of “35 or 40 exemplars of signed Mathewson documents in his autograph library.” Considering Spence’s advance knowledge that the example he authenticated in 2000 was a forgery, it is stunning that he could make these comments and continue to authenticate other similar forgeries.
The example that sold for $161,000 in 2007 was followed up by another questionable Matty single signed ball sold at Mastro Auctions in August of 2007 for $114,000. Another controversial example sold at Hunt Auctions for $44,000 in 2009. All three autographed balls were accompanied by LOAs from JSA and PSA/DNA (the Hunt ball was only LOAd by JSA).
It is our opinion that none of these three baseballs should have been authenticated by either JSA or PSA. The signatures are terribly labored to the point that they appear distorted (the Hunt ball was actually described by the auctioneer as having “partial enhancement” having been gone-over.) In our opinion, none of the three balls appear to be written in Mathewson’s hand and the formation of each letter contrasts genuine printed Mathewson samples we have had the opportunity to review. If anything, the experts should have rendered a “no opinion” letter for these three balls. We would challenge the authenticators to produce the authentic exemplars they used to determine these three balls as genuine. Jimmy Spence himself told the Sweet Spot in 2007, “Some forgeries are so badly done that we don’t even put them in our exemplar file. We probably have about 100 different examples that are worth recording but some are so pathetic…” Spence could very well attribute his comments to these three questionable balls.
Ron Keurajian, expert and author of Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide (McFarland, 2012), has long been critical of the authenticity of the “dubious” Mathewson balls that have appeared at auction. In 2004, he wrote an article for SCD stating, “For years these balls have been passed around like cold germs and have gained a semblance of authenticity. But don’t be fooled, a Mathewson-signed ball is extremely rare and a genuine single signed ball probably has not been offered on the market in the past 20 years. I can honestly say I have never seen a Matty ball that I would feel comfortable pronouncing as genuine.” We asked Keurajian if eight years after he wrote his original SCD article he still feels the same and he responded in the affirmative.
If all three of the balls we believe cannot be authenticated were added to the forged examples illustrated earlier in this article, it is quite possible that PSA/DNA and JSA may have authenticated close to half-a-million dollars worth of bogus Mathewson balls.
Chris Ivy, Director of Sports Auctions at Heritage told us that the Matty ball consigned to Heritage’s spring auction signed “Compliments of Christy Mathewson” (illustrated earlier in this article) was rejected by their authenticators. Ivy did not disclose specifically if it was PSA or JSA who rejected the ball, but the rejection is telling in that it is an admission by the authenticators that they have made enormous mistakes with the $110,000 Hunt Auctions ball and the $30,000 Grey Flannel ball. Based upon this rejection it will be interesting to see if either JSA or PSA have informed their auction house clients of their change of opinion. Will the auction houses provide refunds for the winning bidders and will the authenticators be liable to pay the auction houses for their fatal errors?
All of this being said, how can any collector bid with confidence on the current JSA-certed Mathewson balls being offered in the REA and SCP spring sales? The SCP Matty ball is being sold by ex-Yankee hurler David Wells and is highly suspect to say the least. The SCP auction description even notes that PSA/DNA “rendered an opinion of not authentic” when it was submitted. JSA authenticated the ball.
Mathewson utilized two handwriting styles in the course of his lifetime, one of them being a very cursive, almost printed style that contrasted his regular flowing script signature. As the above examples illustrate, this hybrid printed/script style that Mathewson allegedly signed on baseballs is one of the easiest for skilled forgers to replicate and the fakes that have flooded the market in the past fifteen years have wreaked havoc on collectors who have purchased what they believed were legitimate Mathewson signed balls. In our next installment we will discuss the authenticity of the two Matty balls appearing in the current spring auctions and present an in-depth examination of the genuine handwriting of Christy Mathewson.
UPDATE (May 2nd): MATTY BALLS IN THE SPRING AUCTIONS- It appears that a $10,000 bid on David Wells’ alleged single-signed Mathewson ball in SCP’s current auction is no longer showing on the SCP site. The lot now has no bids. The Wells collection also includes a genuine Mathewson signed WW 1 document signed in Matty’s hybrid printed/script style. Authenticators need only look at this example to see the problems with most all Matty single signed balls.
REA has finally added a “note” to their lot description of the alleged Matty ball being offered in its Spring sale. The auction house wrote:
(Note: A period newspaper article exists that indicates Matty was not actually present at the game, in which case if true all the Mathewson signed balls were obviously actually signed in advance of the game.)
Apparently, REA still doubts the veracity of the New York Times‘ reporting of the event the day after the Matty event in 1921. Now, REA seems sure their ball was signed before the event by Mathewson but have failed to change the lot description title, which still states definitively that Mathewson signed that ball on the day of his event at the Polo Grounds which, of course, is impossible as reported in the Times:
REA should also disclose to their bidders that the auction house has handled and sold this same ball at auction in 1998. Oregon Trail Auctions, then a division of Robert Edward Auctions, offered the same ball in 1998 and made no mention of the ball being from the 1921 Matty event (even though the next lot in that auction was a program from that very same benefit game.)
The ball sold for $19,455.