By Peter J. Nash
April 28, 2013
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As Bill Mastro prepares for his next court appearance, perplexed that Federal Judge Ronald A. Guzman has tossed his guilty plea agreement with the government two times already, his ex-partner and the alleged government informant who dropped dime on him, Rob Lifson, is still operating his auction business, Robert Edward Auctions, and continuing his sales of fraudulent and counterfeit items, one of which is an item Mastro once owned and quite possibly shill bid back when he and Lifson were buddies and business partners.
Lot 931 in the current REA auction is described as an incredible autographed photograph allegedly presented to Pride of the Yankees star Gary Cooper by Babe Ruth. Ruth allegedly inscribed the photo, “A pleasure working with you.” The photograph was previously offered by Mastro Fine Sports Auctions back in 1999 but was sold again in December of 2010 at Legendary Auctions as part of the Bill Mastro Collection auction for $15,600. Legendary described the photo as “among the finest and most important association pieces on which the Bambino ever put pen to paper.” Next month REA will auction the photo it describes as “one of finest Babe Ruth signed photos we have ever seen and we cannot imagine a more significant Ruth-signed Pride of the Yankees piece.” The photo is authenticated by both PSA/DNA and JSA but Lifson fails to mention the photograph’s “Mastro provenance.” PSA and Steve Grad say they even graded the photo “Mint-9.” The earliest LOA linked to the photo was written in February of 1999 by Mike Gutierrez who stated, “I believe that Babe Ruth signed this in his handwriting. The signature matches that in my file.”
But there’s a very big problem with this too-good-to-be-true Lifson-REA offering: It features a bogus autograph and inscription of the Babe considered by several experts a well-executed forgery created by a forger with a distinctive style that has been appearing in sales and auctions since the 1990s.
The current high-bidder on the item at $8,000, however, reached out to Haulsofshame.com after recently learning about an article published on this site in 2010. Said collector, Ralph Gary Brauner, “After bidding $8,000 on the above item in the ongoing REA 2013 auction, I found an article saying it is a fraud. It has 3 COA’s. They will not remove my bid. Can you help me?”
The photograph the REA bidder is concerned with was featured in a Haulsofshame.com report in 2010 which chronicled the many questionable Ruth signed items that authenticated by Jimmy Spence. In that report, author and expert Ron Keurajian said of the alleged Cooper photo, “In my opinion, its a well executed forgery.”
What’s more, Keurajian specifically referenced this same photograph and the forger in his recently published autograph handbook, Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide, stating:
“One forger has created some very convincing forgeries with baseballs and 8 x 10 photographs his favorite target. The famous image of Ruth swinging and facing directly into the camera is one of his favorites. He signs the forgery “Sincerely, Babe Ruth” across his chest. He has Ruth’s hand allmost down to the fine points. Letter construction is very good but unlike a true master forger, he does not have the right speed. The forgeries are clean but methodic. The hand does not evidence a shakiness nor does it have the fast bouncy feel of a genuine Ruth. The lines are uniform and lack variant pressure. He has gone as far as to create a forged 8 x 10 photo inscribed to movie star Gary Cooper. Overall, these forgeries are very nice but they look too perfect.”
Perhaps the greatest irony of REA’s inclusion of this blatant forgery in its current sale is the fact that REA president Rob Lifson was featured in a Q&A section in Keurajian’s book where he gave advice for collectors on how to obtain authentic autographed items. As for Ruth signatures, Lifson said:
“If a Babe Ruth autograph is of interest and it looks good to your eye, but an authenticator whose knowledge you respect regarding Babe Ruth signatures is not comfortable writing a letter on it (or even worse, states that he believes it is a forgery) that should be of great concern.”
Apparently this wasn’t a great concern for Lifson when he accepted the forged Ruth photo as a consignment knowing full-well that expert Keurajian had already deemed it a forgery.
Incredibly, these same style forgeries have already even been identified by authenticator PSA/DNA who included a similar Ruth forgery in a 2012 report illustrating what to look for to avoid buying a fake. That forgery, usually signed “To John” was also found created in the form of a laser-printed forgery which featured what appears to be an original handwritten forgery of the “Gary Cooper” forger. While on one hand PSA appears to admit being duped by this particular forgery, on the other they have not been forthright in reversing their opinions on LOA’s already issued for other forgeries.
The laser-printer scam was uncovered back in 2001 by Ruth collector John Rogers of North Little Rock, Arkansas. Other similar forgeries infiltrated the market and appeared previously in Mastro auctions and were authenticated by both Steve Grad and James Spence.
The same style of forgery was even featured and utilized in PSA/DNA print advertisements placed in Sports Collectors Digest and other hobby publications. Third-Party authentication companies like PSA/DNA and JSA were first developed as the brainchild of Bill Mastro in the late 1990s and perfected by 2001 when Mastro joined forces with Lifson to form hobby auction behemoth MastroNet.com.
Mastro devised a business model that absolved auction houses of virtually all liabilities related to fakes and frauds he sold as long as they had a “Letter of Authenticity” (LOA) from his preferred authenticator. The “third-party authenticator” then crafted its own LOA incorporating language that protected itself from any liability, just like the auction house. The collusion between the two companies MastroNet and PSA/DNA (and later also adding JSA to that scheme) sufficiently shielded both entities from liability and granted the authenticators the power to turn worthless forgeries into expensive treasures, simply by writing a fancy letter. In a nutshell, Mastro and Lifson came up with a successful scheme to tell their customers: ”All Sales Final- No Returns.”
The current offering of the bogus Babe Ruth photo to Gary Cooper illustrates this perfectly as Rob Lifson and REA, who have full knowledge that experts have reported and deemed the item a forgery, feel they can justify its sale and the collection of their auction commission simply because the third party authenticators have issued a fraudulent LOA. Solidifying this point is a long-winded disclaimer printed in REA’s current catalog which basically states Lifson has no responsibility whatsoever if the autographs he sells are fakes.
One collector told us, “All Lifson is doing is playing a game created by him and Mastro. Play dumb and blame the authenticator who has no real liability and says he’s only offering an opinion. He plays Mickey the Dunce while he’s fleecing customers. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s lucky he ratted out Mastro to save his own skin I guess.”
Lifson has a long history of selling Ruth fakes dating back to his close association with former Yankee partner and collector Barry Halper. Halper hand-picked Lifson as the special consultant for the 1999 liquidation of his collection at Sotheby’s and Lifson handled and wrote the description for one of the most infamous Ruth fakes of all-time featured on what Halper bragged was his “500 Home Run Club Sheet” which allegedly featured Ruth’s signature along with every player who also hit 500 or more homers in their career. In a 1989 interview with Ruth biographer Robert Creamer for a Smithsonian Magazine cover story Halper said he first got the sheet from his father with Ruth’s signature already on it. Halper did not tell Creamer he had ever met Ruth in person.
However, by 1999, Halper and Lifson wrote up the sheet’s Sotheby’s description and claimed that Halper obtained Ruth’s signature in person at Babe Ruth Day in 1948. Experts agree that the Ruth signature is a poorly executed forgery and several sources believe that Halper himself was the forger. Lifson and Halper sold the sheet to SONY Music Publishing CEO Martin Bandier at the Sotheby’s sale for over $55,000, despite the fact that many hobby insiders questioned the authenticity of the alleged Ruth scrawl.
Gary Cooper’s daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, heads the Gary Cooper Endowed Fund For Students and has also established the Cooper Collection at the University of Southern California School of Cinema, an archive of memorabilia and films related to the Hollywood legend. The spokesperson at Cooper’s foundation, Bettina L. Klinger, confirmed to Haulsofshame.com that the Cooper collection is maintained by Mrs. Cooper-Janis and that it has never been the practice of the family to let go of or sell memorabilia or artifacts from Cooper’s acting career.
We sent Cooper’s daughter a scan of the photo being offered by REA and she is currently checking the collection for any similar items.
UPDATE: Gary Cooper’s daughter, Maria Cooper-Janis, responded to our inquiry and said, “I, of course, have seen that photograph in our family archives, (and) have several shots of Gary Cooper and Babe Ruth at some moment, but none of them are autographed and the picture you refer to was never in our possession.”
Collector John Rogers recalls the photograph surfacing at a National Convention in the mid-1990s as part of several “too-good-to-be-true” offerings of signed materials ranging from Ruth to Walt Disney. Rogers told us, “I remember at the time someone warning me to stay away from this guy’s stuff, including the Cooper photo.” It’s not clear how the photograph made its way into the Mastro auction.
Back in 1998 a similar Ruth signature appeared in a Mastro auction on a c. 1928 OAL Barnard baseball. Several experts we consulted with agreed that the signature appears to be a forgery and shares several characteristics with the forged Ruth signature on the Gary Cooper photo. The Mastro catalog description stated, “This one should inspire PSA to branch out and grade autographed balls, it would be a 10.” While the experts we spoke with would not go as far as saying the two forgeries were executed by the same hand it is clear that the PSA-Mastro connection kick-started the PSA/DNA autograph division and as they did with baseball cards and the infamous trimmed T-206 Wagner, likely founded the enterprise by authenticating Ruth fakes at its inception.
In addition to the problematic Ruth photo alleged to have been presented to Gary Cooper, Lifson and REA include another group of highly questionable Babe Ruth signed photographs in its current sale. The group of signed photos is described by REA as:
“eleven extraordinary signed photos (six Babe Ruth, three Ty Cobb, one Honus Wagner, and one Joe Cronin) that for over thirty years have been in the possession of our consignor’s family. All of the photos appear in this auction and each shares the same unique provenance. Our consignor’s mother was a state-employed healthcare worker in Maine, where she provided “in home” care to elderly residents. During the early 1980s one of her patients was a former Boston-area sports photographer. He had no wife or children and in his declining health he began giving her some of his possessions, as thanks for her kindness. One of the last gifts he presented her with was a stack of signed photos that he had accumulated during his career. He had told her that they were the only things of value he had left and he wanted her to have them. She graciously accepted them and then simply put them away in a drawer, where they remained until her son recently found them while helping her clean out the house.”
The lot description reveals little about the true provenance of the photographs, only an unsubstantiated story that many times accompanies forged material.
A close inspection of the alleged Ruth signatures, however, reveals an assortment of red flags as to the genuineness of the handwriting. None of the photographs are inscribed or personalized and all appear on unusual second generation photos. Most importantly, over a dozen hobbyists and experts we respect agreed with us that every one of the Ruth signatures appears to be a forgery. One even relpied, “Ugh.”
Incredibly, one of the photographs is even signed “George H. Babe Ruth.” Every expert, dealer and collector we spoke with said they have never seen a photo signed that way, let alone without an inscription or personalization. In our voluminous exemplar files we could only find several instances of Ruth signing “George H. Herman Ruth” on documents and contracts and “George H. Babe Ruth” on 1935 All-America Board of Baseball certificates. REA doesn’t even mention the unusual nature of this ultra-rare version of Ruth’s signature.
In addition to REA offering the Ruth-Cooper photo for sale knowing full well that experts had deemed it a fake, the auction house’s inclusion of the dubious Ruth 8 x 10s from a mysterious Boston sportswriter highlights the fact that Jimmy Spence at JSA and Steve Grad at PSA/DNA do not know Babe Ruth’s signature or handwriting. Considering the high volume of Ruth authentications these companies have turned out to auction houses like REA and Heritage, collectors should be on guard and not content that the Ruth in their collection is authentic. Says one of the most prominent collectors in the country, “Just because you have a fancy letter with fancy signatures and stickers or a plastic slab that doesn’t mean you have something that is real. Isn’t that what this hobby is supposed to be all about?”
Halfway through our independent “Operation Bambino” investigation we believe we are close to blowing the lid off the network of Ruth forgers and the massive work product they have been introducing into the marketplace for decades. (These forgeries are far superior and dwarf the scope of the FBI’s previous “Operation Bullpen”). Based upon the evidence uncovered by Hauls of Shame to date we have made this preliminary conclusion: If you own an autographed Babe Ruth item with an LOA from either JSA or PSA/DNA you should be scared, very scared. The likelihood it is authentic could be a 50/50 proposition.
Collectors are gullible and dealers and auctioneers like Rob Lifson and REA are quick to post disclaimers stating they are not autograph experts and that: ”The bottom line is that neither REA nor any other auction house or any dealer or any collector can truly “guarantee” that a given autograph is authentic. It can even be difficult to prove with certainty that an autograph is not authentic.”
The bottom line, however, is this: If a dealer or an auction house hides behind the philosophy of a Bill Mastro or a Rob Lifson they shouldn’t be selling autographs and collecting commissions. If they don’t stand behind what they are selling and look the other way when the 3rd party authenticators they rely upon are exposed as inept and quite possibly committing fraud, why do uninformed collectors keep coming back for more?
A perfect example of the gullible nature of collectors and dealers is a recent offering by Huggins & Scott of a Babe Ruth signature on an alleged ticket from his 700 HR game in Detroit. The alleged Ruth ticket sold for $12,000.
Experts we spoke with quickly dismissed the Ruth signature as a forgery pointing to the signature itself as not having the look and feel of Ruth’s genuine handwriting. In fact, as examined by the naked eye and also under high magnification it is visible that the letter “a” in “Babe” was written backwards, a clear mistake of the forger and a tell-tale sign of a Bambino fake. The signature also exhibits highly unusual and uncharacteristic ink distribution throughout the signature, especially in the “a” in “Babe.” In addition, the short and abrupt crossing of the “t” and the unusual formation created at the very end of the signatures “h” also highly suggest forgery.
Hauls of Shame voiced concerns about the Ruth ticket to Huggins & Scott via Twitter on April 6 and again via email to Huggins VP Josh Wulken on April 10. When informed that we had spoken with an expert and well-known author who had indicated that he could not authenticate the Ruth ticket Wulken responded, “I have no idea who that is and everybody has opinions. We are selling the opinions of those who authenticated it.” Jimmy Spence and JSA authenticated the ticket and in the past have issued LOA’s for several high ticket Christy Mathewson signed baseball’s that are considered by several experts to be forgeries. Huggins & Scott say they stand 100% behind Spence.
One prominent collector told us, “When collectors ignore the evidence and the opinions of true experts they set themselves up for disaster. Sad to say, but most of them get what they deserve and their collections are filled with fakes.”
Babe Ruth’s own granddaughter, Linda Ruth-Tosetti, endorsed “Operation Bambino” at its inception back in 2010 and is even more concerned now with the proliferation of Ruth fakes in the marketplace. In regard to the current offering at REA Ruth-Tosetti told us, “This is really getting out of hand. The collectors better start doing homework on what they are buying! Just because a “so called” expert says it is real does not make it so. Maybe only in the mind of the sucker who buys one of these forgeries.”
When asked what she thinks the solution might be to the problem Ruth -Tosetti added, ”The authorities should get on these “experts” along with the auction houses. What are their credentials? How do they come to a conclusion that the autograph is real?
What I have seen was deemed fake once already. Are they thinking, that it is forgotten, so lets run the fakes again? When is this insanity and greed going to stop?”
Sources indicate that the FBI is aware of the REA Ruth offerings and are investigating the sales of the questioned items.
UPDATE (April 29): The highly questionable Babe Ruth signed photographs, which several experts have deemed forgeries, have been withdrawn from the current REA auction. The auction house posted this language on each lot description:
“LOT WITHDRAWN (along with lot #’s 861, 862, 881, 917, 929, 975, 977, 983, 984): This lot has been withdrawn at the request of our consignor due to REA’s efforts to provide additional information regarding provenance being excessive (which they may have been). We are honoring the consignor’s request and apologize for any inconvenience to the consignor and to bidders.”
UPDATE (May 1): Experts Uncover More Ruth Fakes in Heritage and REA Auctions; Feds Building Cases Against PSA, Joe Orlando, Steve Grad, Jimmy Spence and Auctioneers
REA and Rob Lifson just withdrew ten autographed lots that Haulsofshame.com and other experts called out as fakes and the auctioneer’s disingenuous explanation that the withdrawal was at the request of its consignor is being widely ridiculed by collectors and dealers throughout the hobby. REA, however, has not removed the alleged photo signed by Babe Ruth to Gary Cooper despite expert Ron Keurajian calling it a fake and Gary Cooper’s own daughter confirming that the photo was never in the possession of her family or the “Cooper Collection” the family archive she curates. Sources indicate that Lifson does not believe that Cooper’s daughter Maria Cooper-Janis confirmed this information for Haulsofshame.com.
In addition, more questioned Ruth items have been presented to Haulsofshame.com for examination and it has been determined that REA and Heritage Auction Galleries are offering for sale what experts are calling four bogus Babe Ruth signed 1933 Goudey baseball cards. The cards currently have bids ranging from $8,500 to $25,000 but are all poorly executed forgeries. In fact, a forgery sold previously by Coaches Corner on a ‘33 Goudey is actually more well-executed than any of the cards currently being offered by Chris Ivy and Rob Lifson (see example above).
In his lot description for the alleged fake he is offering, Rob Lifson, states, “An autographed example of this card is virtually non-existent.” Lifson adds, “This is one of only a small number of Babe Ruth signed 1933 Goudey cards we have seen (probably fewer than 10) and the first we have handled since 1999.”
As evidenced by the REA and Heritage catalogs, amazingly, four are now available for gullible collectors to purchase, three of which have been authenticated and encapsulated by PSA/DNA. The REA example comes with an LOA from James Spence/JSA.
REA’s withdrawal of the forged Ruth photographs and their continued sale of the Ruth-Cooper photograph are currently being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a source who has been in contact with a Federal agent confirmed for Haulsofshame.com that the Feds are building cases against PSA/DNA, Joe Orlando, Steve Grad, JSA, Jimmy Spence and auctioneers like Lifson and Ivy who continue to offer bogus material with fraudulent LOA’s. The source told us, “They are just trying to get prosecutors involved to take it further.”
Babe Ruth’s granddaughter, Linda Ruth-Tosetti, has been at the forefront trying to stop the proliferation of forgeries of her grandfather’s signature and has spoken with an FBI agent about how serious the problem is.
UPDATE (May 7): Operation Bambino: Heritage Sells Alleged Bogus Babe Sigs For $82,000; REA Still Selling Fake Ruth to Gary Cooper Photo and Alleged Fake Signed 1933 Goudey; Rob Lifson Sold Barry Halper’s Fake Goudey At Sotheby’s in 1999; Spence Authenticated Sig In 2005 For SGC
Despite ridicule from a small contingent of experts who know Babe Ruth’s signature and handwriting well, Heritage Auction Galleries went ahead with the sale of the three 1933 Goudey cards alleged to have been signed by Ruth for the alleged “son of a Depression-era newspaper vendor at Fenway Park.” One card sold for $50,787 and the other two for $20,315 and $11,352 respectively. It’s true, there is a sucker born every minute.
Meanwhile, REA is still offering the bogus Babe Ruth inscribed photograph to Gary Cooper despite the fact that expert Ron Keurajian has identified it as a forgery and the Cooper family has confirmed that the photo was never part of their well known “Cooper Collection” maintained by Cooper’s daughter Maria Cooper-Janis. The bidder, who asked that his bid be removed after learning in a Hauls of Shame article that the item was a fraud, was actually outbid by someone who placed a bid of $9,000. But then that bidder, Ralph Gary Brauner, called REA again and was told by REA’s Tom D’Alonzo that the consignor of the fraudulent photo directed REA to remove Brauner’s bid, thus dropping the high bid to $8,000. It appears that another bid has been placed since at $8,500. REA has also added what appears to be a new JSA auction LOA that is undated.
REA is also still offering its own alleged autographed 1933 Ruth Goudey card despite the opinion of several experts we spoke with who believe the signature is a forgery. REA’s Rob Lifson has a history selling atrocious Babe Ruth forgeries, in particular another 1933 Goudey that he entered into the 1999 Sotheby’s sale of the Barry Halper Collection. That card, widely considered a fake, sold for $17,250 and years later was authenticated by James Spence in an SGC graded holder and sold at SCP/Sotheby’s in December of 2005.
The Ruth forgery sold by Lifson and Halper at Sotheby’s does not exhibit any characteristics of an authentic Ruth signature. We’re guessing Halper told Lifson he had that one signed in-person by Ruth when he signed his infamous 500 Home Run Club sheet on Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium in 1947. REA has also added an undated letter from the consignor of the lot descriptions for the alleged signed Babe Ruth photos that have been withdrawn from the sale.