Breaking News

By Peter J. Nash

July 26, 2012

Bill Mastro and the controversial Honus Wagner card he sold in 1991.

Indictments came down from Chicago yesterday implicating hobby pioneer Bill Mastro in a scheme to defraud buyers of the famous T-206 Honus Wagner tobacco card, by trimming its borders down to its “factory-size” to enhance its condition and value.

Mastro’s Attorney Michael Monico told the Chicago Tribune that his client will plead guilty to one count of mail fraud.

Monico was quoted as saying, “He was a pioneer in the sports memorabilia industry,” and that  ”He does and will accept responsibility for the conduct that has led to this case.”

A source familiar with the case told that the Feds based their fraud count regarding the Wagner trimming on Federal wiretaps that caught Mastro admitting he had trimmed the card sometime after he purchased it for $25,000 with his friend and associate Rob Lifson in Long Island in 1985.

Another source once close to Lifson also told us that Lifson expressly knew that Mastro had trimmed the card when he sold it at Robert Edward Auctions in 2000 for $1.26 million to collector Brian Siegel.  When Lifson sold the card it had already been graded a PSA-8 and both he and Mastro knew that the card had been altered and should have received just an “authentic” grade from PSA, which would have cut the value considerably. At the time of that sale in 2000, Lifson and Mastro were both officers of MastroNet Inc., the auction behemoth that formed in the aftermath of the Barry Halper sale at Sotheby’s in 1999.

Allegations have also been leveled by Lifson’s former confidant, that Lifson, not collector Mike Gidwitz, was the majority owner of the card when Lifson bid and won the card for $640,500 at Christie’s in 1996.  (Look for more on these allegations in our next report, “Part 3″ on the Mastro Investigation.)  When Lifson won the card in 1996, Bill Mastro was the under-bidder.  Allegations have also been  made that their bidding against each other was part of a plan to artificially enhance the value of the Wagner card for future sales.  Additionally, it has been alleged that with the card in Lifson’s or Mastro’s possession, no one would have access to remove the card from its PSA holder to examine it for traces of trimming or enhancement.

Rob Lifson, Bill Mastro and Mike Gidwitz were included in coverage of the 1996 Christie's East sale by the Maine Antique Digest.

Lifson has long been shielded from being implicated in the card doctoring scandal by reporters Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson of the New York Daily News because he was an “unfailingly generous” prime source for their book, “The Card,” which painted Mastro as a villain and Lifson as the hobby’s “white-knight” crusading against fraud in the hobby.  Lifson even includes a link to purchase the book by the reporters on his Robert Edward Auctions website.  In our last report, audio tapes proved that as late as April of 2002, Lifson stated as an officer of MastroNet,  ”I can assure you that we (MastroNet) run the cleanest auction on the face of the earth.”  Lifson also added, “We have thirty-five people who work for our company (MastroNet) and they’re all honest and they are all working to have a great auction and auction company.”  It is widely known in hobby circles that Lifson fell out with Mastro after they parted ways in 2002 and Lifson discovered that Mastro made millions selling the company after buying Lifson out for a reported few hundred thousand dollars.  Sources indicate that Lifson became an FBI informant against Mastro and his company, sometime after they parted ways.

The Wagner card was trimmed in the days before professional grading companies like PSA/DNA and SGC were in existence.  In fact, in 1981, Mastro purchased another Honus Wagner card for close to $25,000 from dealer Lew Lipset, who stated in his auction description that the card was the finest example known and that “the card has oversize margins and it would be possible (if someone wanted) to “trim” to a mint card.”  Lipset was indicating that the card would still be regulation-factory size, if trimmed.  It has been stated by several observers that trimming of cards was taboo, but Lipset’s auction description is evidence that trimming issues were a part of the hobby discourse dating back to the early 1980s.  Dan McKee, a vocal critic of PSA and a veteran collector who started opening packs and buying tobacco cards in 1969 at the once a year show in Pikesville MD., told us,  ”I don’t ever remember trimming not being a big deal. Maybe on an oversized tobacco card we may hack it down to fit in the sleeves correctly but that would have been done with a pair of sheers and easily detectable today.”

This SCD auction of dealer Lew Lipset featured a Honus Wagner card that he said could be trimmed down to a "mint card." Bill Mastro bought the card for over $25,000.

Lipset’s card was never trimmed and eventually ended up in the Barry Halper Collection and was purchased by the Baseball Hall of Fame with MLB funds from Halper along with a host of bogus artifacts including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s 1919 jersey; his “Black Betsy” bat and glove and pocket watch; Mickey Mantle’s 1951 rookie jersey; Buck Leonard’s Negro League jersey and other items.

Lifson’s close links to Halper also played a part in the New York Daily News’ shielding him from suspicion in the card-trimming scandal.  Halper was a close personal friend of Daily News reporter Bill Madden, who acted throughout the years as Halper’s unofficial press agent.  The Daily News has intentionally not reported about the Halper scandals because of Madden’s close ties to the former Yankee limited partner.  In fact, reporter O’Keeffe has gone as far as reporting that the documentation of instances of sales of fraudulent artifacts by Halper are simply “accusations.”

In their book, “The Card,” Thompson and O’Keeffe lauded Halper as “The Babe Ruth of sports memorabilia,” and described the “truly historic” items in his collection including “Shoeless Joe Jackson’s  Black Betsy bat,” and “Ty Cobb’s dentures and rifle Cobb’s mother used to shoot his father.”  All of those items used as examples of Halper’s “Cooperstown South,” however,  have been determined to be fraudulent artifacts as a result of investigative reports written by and SABR researcher Ron Cobb.

PSA also had knowledge that the card was trimmed, but slabbed and graded it a “PSA-8″  when Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall submitted it as the first card the company ever graded.  Former PSA card grader, Bill Hughes, confirmed that the Wagner was trimmed during an interview for “The Card,” with O’Keeffe.

If reports are confirmed that Mastro trimmed the card and PSA knew it was trimmed at the time of grading, the authentication company, a subsidiary of public company Collectors Universe, would now be known to have been founded on a fraudulent authentication.  PSA/DNA has also caught the eye of the FBI for their authentications of forged baseballs and even the authentication of laser-copied forgeries and stamped signatures that they have slabbed for customers in their encapsulated holders.

The infamous Wagner card is now owned by Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick who purchased it for $2.8 million in 2008.  Kendrick loaned the card to the Baseball Hall of Fame where it was displayed until this past Spring.  It is not known if the card, in its PSA holder, has been turned over to the FBI as evidence in the Mastro case.

In the course of researching for the upcoming book, Hauls of Shame: The Cooperstown Conspiracy and the Madoff of Memorabilia, we’ve come across numerous items from the hobby’s formative years.  Here’s one that is fitting considering yesterday’s news:

Bill Mastro had owned at least three Wagners by the time he reached his 20s. Mastro and his assiciate Rob Lifson have claimed to have handled more Wagner cards than anyone in the history of the hobby.

Hobby/Mastro Flashback: From Bill Madden’s October 17, 1981 “Collecting Memories” column in The Sporting News

“It is difficult to say what, if anything, constitutes a hobby coming of age and reaching a certain plane of sophistication. Recognition in the form of write-ups in the Wall St. Journal and other such financial beacons serve to enhance the hobby’s credibility. I guess, also, the amount of money poured into a hobby has a great deal to do with its position.”

“A while back, a young man, presumably of sound mind and judgment, spent the sum of $25,011 for a baseball card. ONE baseball card. The card is the 1910 Honus Wagner tobacco card long regarded as the “crown jewel” of baseball collectibles. The buyer is a collector named Bill Mastro, who makes his living as a respiratory therapist.”

Mastro said: “This is the third Wagner I’ve owned. The first one I had I sold when I was a senior in high school. I got it from a priest, who found it in his attic. Later I bought another Wagner for $1,500, which was then a record price for the card and everybody thought I was crazy. I later had to sell it for $1,000 because I needed it in a hurry for a car.”

Madden commented: “It’s a testimony to the hobby’s maturity that people such as Bill Mastro are prepared to invest huge sums on older cards. But until the greedy dealers, and other such carpet-baggers who have jumped aboard the baseball card boom of recent years, pack up and get out, would-be collectors and curiosity seekers should beware. The hobby has come a long way, but still experiencing some serious growing pains.”

Like Yogi says, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

By Peter J. Nash
July 12, 2012

Charlie Sheen made the rounds recently promoting his new sitcom on FX and when he appeared on ESPN radio with Colin Cowherd talk shifted to his baseball memorabilia collection and his alleged ownership of the Bambino’s 1927 World Series ring. Sheen told Cowherd he considered his bling the premier item in the baseball collecting universe along with his other treasure, the papers that sent Ruth to the Yankees from Boston in 1920.  Last Friday Sheen appeared for an interview taped for YES Network’s Center Stage with Michael Kay. In the interview, which aired this past Friday night, Sheen said that the Babe’s ring was his favorite item in his downsized collection. Sheen told Kay, “Babe Ruth’s ’27 World Series ring. There’s one in the world, I have it. Yeah. I didn’t give that up.”

It was just over a year ago that Sheen flashed a glimpse of Babe Ruth’s 1927 Yankee World Series ring via Twitter and soon after questions about the origins of the ring were raised in a story published on Deadspin. The Babe’s granddaughter, Linda Ruth Tosetti, questioned the rings authenticity and whether it was stolen from the Ruth family decades ago. A 1988 book writtten by her mother, Dorothy Ruth Pirone, also claimed that the Bambino’s World Series rings had mysteriously vanished sometime after her father’s death in 1948. Confusing the matter were statements made by deceased collector Barry Halper in 1990 that he had purchased Ruth’s 1927 ring from Dorothy Ruth Pirone. Pirone’s daughter, Linda, said Halper’s story was a “huge lie.”

Halper sold the ring to auctioneer, Josh Evans, who, in turn, sold the ring to Charlie Sheen in the 1990s (ESPNs Dan Patrick reported in 2002 that Sheen paid $225,000).  Since the time the actor was fired from his hit sitcom and his bizarre meltdown was chronicled 24-7 in the media, the Ruth ring has become known as Sheen’s “Winning Ring.”

But now, new information may link the Bambino’s famous ring to an unsolved FBI murder investigation and a 1988 episode of Unsolved Mysteries hosted by Robert Stack (a.k.a. Eliot Ness of Untouchables fame).

In the episode of the hit-TV show, which aired on October 12, 1988, Stack reported that the famous Ruth ring was once owned by a collector and Ponzi-schemer named Dennis Walker. After Walker’s financial fraud was exposed he skipped town and ended up a victim of what some thought was a gang-land hit. At the start of the Unsolved Mysteries episode Stack set the scene for the mystery that ensued after Walker was found dead and his multi-million dollar baseball collection vanished into thin-air. Stack introduced the episode describing the most important item in Walker’s missing treasure-trove: “In 1927 legendary Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs. The record has stood for over thirty years. Today his 1927 World Series ring is valued at $50,000. It has disappeared,” Stack said

In relation to the Walker investigation, Stack also said, “Police theorize it (Walker’s items) is being sold in undergound markets. Any item from Dennis Walker’s collection is viewed as stolen goods. Any one who traffics in such items is liable for prosecution.”

The episode then detailed the sordid tale of Dennis Walker and his collection:

Linda Ruth Tosetti remembers seeing the Unsolved Mysteries episode back in 1988. “When I saw it and heard the mention of Babe’s ring, I called up the TV shows hotline and told them I heard Barry Halper had the ring, but no one ever followed up as far as I know,” said Ruth-Tosetti. She added, “I had seen the ring pictured in Larry Ritter’s book, The Babe: A Life in Pictures, and it was credited to Barry Halper.”

The Halper/Sheen Babe Ruth 1927 World Series ring appeared in the 1988 book, The Babe: A Life in Pictures, by Larry Ritter and Mark Rucker. Linda Ruth Tosetti questioned whether this ring was the subject of a 1988 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries." (Note: Halper's alleged 1914 Babe Ruth rookie jersey pictured along with his WS ring in the Rucker-Ritter book was later determined to be a forgery.)

According to the TV show, Walker master-minded an elaborate 1980s Ponzi-scheme and funneled a majority of the cash into purchases of millions in baseball memorabilia and antiquities. In 1985, he established a museum he called the “National Sports Hall of Fame” in Medford, Oregon, which featured the 1927 World Series ring, a Babe Ruth uniform and two rare T-206 Honus Wagner baseball cards. The museum also featured Pete Rose’s diamond-studded Hickock-Belt, silver bat and other assorted Rose-related items. Pete Rose, himself, was the master of ceremonies at the grand opening of Walker’s museum in February, 1985.

In April of 1986, as Walker’s Ponzi-scheme was unravelling, he packed up his baseball collection in a van and hit the road, never to be seen alive again. On July 5, 1987, the decomposed body of the 43-year-old Walker was found in a Las Vegas hotel room with his baseball collection nowhere to be found. In 1989, the Associated Press reported that at the time of Walker’s death he also owed Pete Rose $70,000 and that Rose’s valuable Hickok-Belt, awarded to him as Athlete-of-the-Year in 1975, had also vanished.

Oregon’s Assistant Attorney General, Jim McLaughlin, appeared on Unsolved Mysteries and confirmed that the exact cause of Walker’s death was unknown. “No one has ever been able to determine what caused his death. That combined with the missing sports memorabilia, leaves many, many more questions open than closed in this case.”

Walker, who established a bank in the island nation of Tonga, in the South Pacific, paid Rose $20,000 in cash for the Hickok belt along with what Rose biographer David M. Jordan described as, “$50,000 worth of Tongan securities maturing two years later.” Rose would later find Walker’s notes were worthless but it turns out Charlie Hustle may have hustled the con-man, too. According to Jordan, in his 2004 book, Pete Rose: A Biography, before Rose sold the belt he double crossed Walker when he “secretly had the precious stones removed from the (Hickok) belt and replaced with fake gems.”

In a 1989 article published in Penthouse, Gerald Posner claimed that Unsolved Mysteries contacted Rose’s close friend, Paul Janszen, to “see if Rose would do an interview on the missing memorabilia.” Janszen told Posner Rose’s response to him was, “Hell, I don’t want to do that show, Paul. They’ll start digging and find out I got paid cash for some of that stuff. That’ll bring the IRS on me.” Janszen also told Posner that, when Walker was found dead in 1987, Rose sent him to New York in an “aborted attempt to retrieve part of the collection.”

Pete Rose with his Hickok belt years before he sold it to Dennis Walker. The belt vanished along with all of Walker's treasures at the time of his death in 1987.

In 1989, the Associated Press reported that the FBI had “reopened an investigation into the disappearance of more than $7 million in sports memorabilia, including a 1927 New York Yankees World Series ring and a $30,000 Hickock Belt that Pete Rose won.” At the time, FBI spokesperson Tom Nicodemus confirmed that the Walker case had been re-opened after “$10,000 of (Walker’s) memorabilia turned up in New York.” “Based on that, it was obvious there was interstate transportation of memorabilia,” Nicodemus told the AP.

Almost twenty-five years later, is the alleged Babe Ruth ring once owned by Dennis Walker now found in the Charlie Sheen collection housed at the actor’s “Sober Valley Lodge” in Beverly Hills?

Josh Evans, the new York auctioneer who originally purchased Halper’s 1927 Ruth ring and later sold it to Charlie Sheen, is familiar with the Dennis Walker story. In 1995 he recounted what he’d heard about the con-man to the New York Times after an alleged Babe Ruth uniform that was once part of Walker’s collection was stolen from a collector.  After the Unsolved Mysteries episode aired in 1988, a collector named Sonny Jackson returned the jersey to the Nassau County Police believing it was Walker’s missing jersey but was able to keep it after no party came forward to claim ownership.  Adding to the confusion was the fact that the uniform was not an original and believed to have been produced by a costume manufacturer.  Recalling Walker’s demise, Evans told the Times,   “One day he loaded all the stuff into a van and said goodbye, and sometime later, maybe a couple of years later, was found dead in a Las Vegas motel room, dead in a mob-style killing.”

We asked Evans last year if he knew about Walker’s 1927 ring and if he thought Barry Halper may have acquired Walker’s missing ring on the black market. Evans responded, “No comment.”

If Charlie Sheen’s prized possession is, in fact, Dennis Walker’s missing Babe Ruth ring, both Sheen and Evans can add their names to a long list of Barry Halper’s victims. Both Sheen and Evans were, no doubt, good faith buyers who may have been decieved by the late Halper, who has been implicated recently in defrauding both Major League Baseball and the Baseball Hall of Fame with sales of counterfeit items including fake jerseys of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Mickey Mantle.

Halper appears to have been in possession of at least one of Walker’s other missing items, a jersey alleged to have been Pete Rose’s spring training jersey from 1962 (his rookie year), autographed by Rose. The jersey was sold to Walker by a collector named Herb Pearo who had also secured a letter of authenticity from Pete Rose. After Halper’s death in 2005, his wife consigned items she found in her home to New Jersey auction house, Robert Edward Auctions, including Dennis Walker’s alleged 1962 Rose spring training jersey. However, the auction house description identified the jersey as a “1963 Al Worthington Cincinnati Reds road flannel jersey inscribed “Good Luck, Pete Rose” in black marker on the front (never worn by him).” Sources indicate that Herb Pearo has confirmed that the jersey sold at auction in 2007 was the same one he sold to Walker.
So how did Barry Halper end up with a missing jersey displayed in Walker’s museum as Pete Rose’s “first spring training jersey?” And was Halper’s 1927 Babe Ruth ring that ended up with Charlie Sheen on display at Walker’s Oregon museum as well?

Last year we contacted Dennis Walker’s son, Greg Walker, of Las Vegas, Nevada, and asked him if Charlie Sheen’s “Winning Ring” could have been his father’s missing ring? “Knowing my Dad, he probably had those items,” said Walker. Walker also added, “My mom has the inventory from the museum and is trying to round it up.”  Walker did not respond to our recent follow up inquiry to check on the status of the collection inventory.

This replica of Babe Ruth's 1927 World Series ring is currently being offered on eBay.

Even if Sheen’s 1927 Ruth ring was actually part of Dennis Walker’s missing collection, the self proclaimed “Messiah of Malibu” may still be in the clear, after all. Tony Green, a spokesperson for Oregon’s Attorney General’s office confirms that the Dennis Walker case has long been closed and is likely past the statute of limitations. Likewise, the FBI office in Portland, Oregon, couldn’t even locate the Walker case on their computer database. Beth Ann Steele, a spokesperson from the FBI’s Portland office referred us to the FBI’s National Press office.

Meanwhile, Linda Ruth Tosetti is still hoping the FBI can help her family determine if the original Ruth 1927 ring was stolen from his Riverside Drive apartment. Says Tosetti, “The FBI has kept in touch with me, just last week they told me they nabbed a guy related to Robert Young from the old TV show “Father Knows Best” who was selling a fake glove he said my grandfather used as a kid at St. Mary’s.  Babe leads the pack again in bringing crooks to justice.”  The Babe’s blood granddaughter also revealed that she recently purchased a few replicas of her grandfather’s 1927 ring on eBay for $350 each.  ”Boy, I guess it’s easy to make one,” she said.

Sheen was rumored to have recently purchased the Bambino’s 1920 Yankee road jersey for $4.4 million but the auction house who placed the winning bid, Lelands, would not confirm or deny that the jersey would end up joining the ring and Ruth sale agreement in Sheen’s allegedly down-sized collection. If he didn’t snag the jersey he’s still got what he considers the greatest item in the history of baseball memorabilia- the ring he tweeted as, “Class of 1927, Bambino U.”