Bill Mastro is scheduled to appear in a Chicago courthouse today for a status hearing that will likely result in either a trial date being set or a change of plea being entered if, in fact, he and his lawyer, Mike Monico, have finally cut a deal with the Feds that is agreeable to Judge Ronald A. Guzman.
Mastro was already scheduled to plead guilty to one count of fraud way back on April 9th when reports indicated that the former auction king would have to admit to altering and trimming the famous T-206 Honus Wagner card he purchased in a Long Island baseball card shop in 1985 with his old friend and former partner Rob Lifson who used to describe his partner Mastro and his cohorts as “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.” (Click here for: Lifson audio from 2002).
But Judge Ronald A. Guzman rejected Mastro’s plea deal with prosecutors for a second time because he supposedly viewed the deal too soft on the former hobby honcho. The proposed plea agreement presented by prosecutors did not require Mastro to testify against his co-defendants and former MastroNet employees and Michael O’Keeffe of the New York Daily News said that hobbyists “complained that the proposed sentence was too light.” O’Keeffe quoted anonymous collectors asking, “Where is any sign of remorse?”
Mastro would only have done 30 months (or less) in a federal pen, but that deal was taken off the table again as Judge Guzman postponed Mastro’s last scheduled court date on May 31 to today in Chicago.
Another segment of the hobby, however, is asking a different question: How did Mastro’s old partner-in-crime, REA auction head, Rob Lifson, avoid prosecution? Some say Mastro could give up evidence on his old partner, Lifson, but sources say the auctioneer was a key government informant against Mastro in the FBI’s multi-year investigation into the former ”King of Memorabilia.” Lifson recently denied Haulsofshame.com’s reports claiming that a source fingered Lifson as an informant in the case when he told blogger Murray Chass, “I was a minority owner and employee of MastroNet from 2000 to 2002. He (Hauls of Shame) knows nothing of me being a ‘government informant.’ Virtually all if not all of their crimes in the indictment occurred long after I left MastroNet so that speaks for itself.”
Lifson, however, skirts the most relevant “crime” charged in the Mastro indictment involving Mastro and his company promoting the trimmed-Wagner card as the most valuable and most pristine example in existence. The claims the government made in the indictment focused on the 2000 sale of the Wagner card by Lifson and Robert Edward Auctions when he was an officer and owner of MastroNet. Despite Lifson’s denials, one of Michael O’Keeffe’s sources has told Haulsofshame.com that O’Keeffe has acknowledged Lifson’s admission to him that he was, in fact, an informant in the Mastro case. O’Keeffe’s source claims that Lifson lied to Chass.
Both Mastro and Lifson have come a long way since the days they shared hotel rooms, dealer tables and deals in the mid to late 1970’s and 1980’s as aggressive young dealers obsessed with old cardboard. Back in the day, some say they stalked elderly collectors like prey inside their apartments and homes. Sources say that both men know of all the skeletons that have piled up in each others closets since the time they both co-wrote a book in 1983 dedicated to sideshow and circus freaks called, Enter The Sideshow. By the year 2000, both men had already established successful auction businesses and decided to join forces to form what was known as MastroNet.com, a sports collectibles auction house behemoth that became the driving force behind the the growth of the unregulated baseball collectibles industry. But it turns out the defining moment in their careers actually occurred back on a cold night in 1985 during their visit to Robert Sevchuk’s little card shop in Hicksville, Long Island, when they encountered for the first time the slice of cardboard that would later become known as “The Card.” Decades later, in 2005, Rob Lifson recounted his recollections of that night for New York Daily News reporter Michael O’Keeffe and that account was included in the book of the same name co-written by O’Keeffe and his News editor, Teri Thompson, and released by Harper-Collins in 2008.
O’Keeffe says he first met Lifson in 2000 at a press confrence in Mickey Mantle’s restaurant on Central Park West when both Lifson and Mastro were promoting the upcoming sale of that same Honus Wagner card by Lifson’s company, Robert Edward Auctions, which had just become a subsidiary of MastroNet.com. O’Keeffe said that Lifson predicted that the card could sell for over $1 million and that it was “the Mona Lisa of trading cards.” O’Keeffe says he was “mesmerized as Mastro executives talked about a trading card in terms usually reserved for fine art.” O’Keeffe then asked Lifson about the provenance of the Wagner card and was told how the Chicago collector Mike Gidwitz, known for his stash of original Mad Magazine art, was selling the card and that it was purchased in 1996 at Christie’s for $641,500. O’Keeffe then told Lifson, “You’ve only taken me back ten years. Where was this card for the first seventy years of its life?” O’Keeffe wrote in, The Card: ”Lifson gave me a funny look. He seemed uncomfortable. Finally, he said he didn’t know.” Lifson then told O’Keeffe to talk to Bill Mastro since he had “discovered” the card in 1985 and bought it for $25,000.
It didn’t take O’Keeffe too long to figure out that Lifson had not been truthful in his response as he later wrote, “Lifson failed to mention that he, too, was at the card shop when Mastro bought the Wagner, and that he even funded the transaction.” Lifson lied to O’Keeffe upon his first meeting and when O’Keeffe traveled months later to Chicago to interview Bill Mastro he was rebuked after he asked the auction honcho if there was any truth to rumors that “there was a deep dark secret behind the Gretzky T206 Wagner” and that the card had been altered or restored. O’Keeffe wrote in The Card: ”Mastro denied that the T206 Wagner has ever been restored and refused to discuss its provenance. He cursed a blue streak, then he threw me out of his office.”
By 2003, Mastro felt the same way about Lifson as the two men had become enemies and went through a MastroNet divorce by which Lifson returned to owning Robert Edward Auctions as its sole proprietor and later became O’Keeffe’s primary source for his book, The Card. In order to write the book O’Keeffe needed one of the liars to cooperate with him as a source and the liar he cozied up to was Lifson. Despite knowing that Lifson had just as much knowledge of the shenanigans related to the Wagner card as Mastro did, O’Keeffe wrote an entire chapter devoted to Lifson that portrayed him as “A White Knight” in the hobby. O’Keeffe described Lifson glowingly as a crusader fighting fraud and battling card doctors and other scoundrels who would trim and alter cards to improve their condition. To help sell his story, O’Keeffe painted Lifson as his “good guy” and pitted him against his villainous arch-rival, Bill Mastro. O’Keeffe was able to take advantage of the hatred between the former friends and business partners who had once shared tables at the National and later partnered up to form the biggest sports auction enterprise in history.
In the book, O’Keeffe carefully crafted passages that dealt with the original Mastro and Lifson discovery of the card in Hicksville in 1985 from Lifson’s perspective:
1. “Only Mastro and Lifson would be allowed in for a look at the treasure inside; and Lifson himself would barely get a glimpse, relegated to the front of the store while Mastro made the deal in the back.”
2. “The transaction took half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes, long enough for Lifson to grow bored with the cards in Sevchuk’s glass cases. After Mastro let Lifson glimpse the card for just a few seconds, he continued his wheeling and dealing as soon as he and Lifson got back into the Honda.”
3. O’Keeffe also quoted the card’s original owner: ” Alan Ray, would say later that Mastro and Lifson “knew what they were going to do with that card,” but Lifson wouldn’t see the card again for years, not until it had been slabbed between two sheets of plastic and graded, labeled as the most valuable card in the world.”
What O’Keeffe appears to have been consciously establishing in these three passages, based solely upon the testimony of Lifson, was the assertion that Rob Lifson never got a good enough look at the card in its raw state before Bill Mastro later altered and trimmed it to improve the condition of its edges and corners. Such a description of Lifson’s involvement would create cover for him and establish that Lifson could not have known for sure if the card was trimmed since he never got a good look at it on the day that he financed 100% of the deal to purchase the card. Based upon O’Keeffe’s reporting, Lifson could not be accused of having committed fraud himself when he handled the same card in 1996 and 2000.
This point is relevant to a specific charge made in the original indictment against Mastro which deals specifically with representations made about the T-206 Wagner:
“It was further part of the scheme that in marketing materials distributed on behalf of Mastro Auctions, which were intended to portray Mastro Auctions to potential bidders and consignors as a premier seller of valuable items for which a strong market existed, defendant MASTRO represented that Mastro Auctions had sold the most expensive baseball card in the world, a Honus Wagner T-206 card. In making this representation, however, defendant MASTRO knowingly omitted the material fact that defendant MASTRO had altered the baseball card by cutting the sides of the card in a manner that, if disclosed, would have significantly reduced the value of the card.”
The charge in the indictment indicates that Mastro Auctions had “sold the most expensive baseball card in the world,” however it was actually Lifson’s Robert Edward Auctions, operating as a subsidiary of MastroNet, that had actually conducted the sale of the card when it was auctioned off to collector Brain Siegel for $1.25 million in 2000. If O’Keeffe’s reporting was accurate and the current Mastro plea deal comes to fruition, are we to believe that when the card sold at REA in 2000 Bill Mastro knew the card was trimmed, but Rob Lifson didn’t?
In the course of his reporting for The Card, O’Keeffe was told the card was trimmed by the person who actually graded the card for PSA in 1996, Bill Hughes. Hughes allegedly admitted to O’Keeffe that he knew the card had been cut from a sheet when he graded it. O’Keeffe quoted Hughes as saying, “The card is so outstanding, it would have been sacrilegious to call that card trimmed and completely devalue it.” In addition, Bill Heitmann, a long time hobby veteran and author of the T206 reference book, The Monster, also told O’Keeffe he had seen the card before and after it was graded by PSA and believed it had been trimmed to enhance its condition.
In 2007, Heitmann also talked about Hughes and the Wagner card on a collector forum stating, “When PSA was first starting up, they were practically doing handstands to get to grade the T206 Wagner that McNall and Gretzky had just bought. I happened to know the pedigree of the card and knew that it had been trimmed. The guy who was going to grade the card stopped by my home on the way to PSA headquarters to grade the card. He knew that the card had been trimmed, but told me PSA had to grade the card because the good publicity that would come from grading the card was all that was important and, besides the card was within the size limitations for T206.”
Heitman even revealed that he had talked to Wayne Gretzky’s partner in the card, Bruce McNall. ”I actually talked once to Bruce McNall about this and he acknowledged that he knew the card had been trimmed. So PSA, the owners of the card and the grader of the card knew it was trimmed. But put some plastic over it and all was forgotten,” said Heitman. Mastro and Lifson rival Josh Evans, of Lelands, provided even more damning allegations related to the Wagner when he told O’Keeffe that Bill Mastro, himself, had told Evans he had trimmed the card shortly after he first sold it to west coast sporting goods magnate Jim Copeland in 1989.
Bill Mastro, of course, knew that he had trimmed the card; Bruce McNall, who purchased it for $250,000 knew it was trimmed; Bill Hughes knew it was trimmed and even Bill Heitman went on the record stating it was trimmed. Josh Evans’ revelation that Mastro admitted trimming the Wagner was the cherry on top. According to O’Keeffe’s reporting everyone but Rob Lifson had seen and (or) known the card was trimmed. The guy who originally purchased and financed the card for $25,000 in 1987 had no idea it was trimmed? Lifson was the same guy who said in his 1983 advertisement with his partner Bill Mastro: “Our condition standards are second to none.”
Bill Heitman also went on the record stating, ”A company purporting to be a grader or authenticator is only as good as the people doing the work. By 1980, I could tell whether a pre-WWII card was authentic or trimmed just by examining it closely. Why? I had handled so many of the cards that it almost became a sixth sense. The grading services would do the hobby a real service if it hired people who really know the cards.”
Another detractor was Lifson’s long-time customer, Keith Olbermann, who had for years also been of the opinion that the card had been altered. When Mastro’s indictment was made public last August, Olbermann took to his MLB.com “Baseball Nerd” blog to recount events from 1991 when his friend Matt Federgreen of the Beverly Hills Baseball Card Store had been asked to examine the card for Bruce McNall and brought back pictures to Olbermann. Olbermann remembers: “I took one look at the photos and said “It’s been trimmed.” Matt laughed. “That’s what I told Bruce. He said thanks very much, he said he thought so too, he said he’d probably buy it any way, and he walked me to the door, and he paid me a very generous fee, and I left.”
Soonafter, Olbermann found some old pictures of another Wagner that had been offered on the circiut back in the 1980s. He continued his story: “By the following Sunday I had found in my rabbit’s warren of card-related stuff, photos of a Wagner that had been offered for sale in the early ’80s by a fellow who owned a baseball card store on Long Island outside New York City. I had no doubt and neither did Matt. Between his photos and mine we were looking at before-and-after shots of the same card. Before and after somebody with the guts of a burglar and the skills of a circumcision specialist had trimmed the thing.“
In the early 1980s Rob Lifson already considered himself a “card scholar” and along with Bill Mastro, was one of the most savvy dealers in regards to the grading of cards. In fact, when Barry Halper purchased what he described as a “supermint” blank-backed T-206 Eddie Collins proof card he said that Lifson and Mastro had authenticated the card. After getting the opinion of the two guys he called “knowledgeable authorities” Halper wrote in The Trader Speaks that “The Doubting Thomas’” of the hobby could rest assured that it was “not a card which was put together with glue or taken from another series.” Ironically, that same T-206 Collins proof card is today part of Olbermann’s private collection having acquired it after actor Charlie Sheen purchased it from Halper.
Like Olbermann, Lifson could spot a trimmed card from a mile away and of course Lifson was aware of Olbermann’s opinion of the card. Several sources indicate that Lifson did, in fact, see the card before it was trimmed and confirm that Lifson was well aware of the enhancement to its condition. He was well aware of the trimming when he, himself, was the winning bidder of the card for $651,000 at Christie’s in 1996, and when he auctioned off the card at REA in 2000 for $1.25 million.
In addition to Olbermann and Lifson another MastroNet employee in 2000, Mike Guitterez, also knew the card was altered and had gone on the record in the Chicago Tribune as early as July of 1991 claiming it was trimmed. Gutierrez said, “The card was definitely cut (altered) at some point. The card was said to be mint-the best possible grade. Looking at it, you see it`s not mint. It`s near-mint to mint. It has some wear, which to the naked eye is almost invisible. I don`t know when it was cut, or by whom, but it sure was. I have no doubt.” Gutierrez made his comments while working as a consultant for Bruce McNall’s auction house Superior Galleries in Beverly Hills, Calif., which had displayed the card at the 1991 National Sports Collectors Convention. In the same article, McNall even responded to Gutierrez’ claims and said, “That (the card was trimmed) is what people are saying. We’ve heard all that talk. We talked with people before we bought the card, and we’re both happy with it. Any time you have something like this, people will say things. Sotheby’s stands behind the card. I have no intention of returning it or selling it.”
Back in 1991, McNall and his partner in the card, Wayne Gretzky, relied on the opinion of PSA founder and president David Hall who told the Tribune, “It`s in the mid-range of acceptable size. We used five-, 10- and 20-power magnification to examine the card. Compared to other (Wagner) cards, it looks about the same. It isn`t mint like Sotheby’s offered, but it`s still probably the finest specimen known.” Hall did not deny that the card was trimmed.
One of our sources, a veteran collector of high-end artifacts who was once a close associate of Lifson, revealed to this writer back in 2000 what he described as the true story behind the Wagner as he heard it directly told to him by Lifson. Our source will remain anonymous and from here on in be known simply as “Hobby Deep-Throat,” the man who confirmed that Lifson had first hand knowledge the card had been trimmed to enhance its condition and value.
The same question has even been posed to Lifson on collector forums like Net54 where in 2009 he was asked and refused to answer this question posed by a collector with the handle “MikeU”:
“Rob, When working at MastroNet, did yourself or anyone at MastroNet or anyone at PSA auction a PSA 8 T206 Wagner in 2000 that was knowingly hand cut or trimmed? We are worried about Doug taking a spoon to surface wrinkles. What about the biggest question in our entire hobby. Let the truth be known.”
Shortly after the night that Lifson and REA auctioned off the famous card in May of 2000, “Hobby Deep-Throat” revealed to this writer that Lifson did, in fact, know the Wagner card he was selling had been trimmed and that both he and Mastro had failed to disclose this to prospective bidders in the REA/MastroNet sale. Referring to a direct conversation he once had with Lifson, “Hobby Deep Throat” said, “He (Lifson) told me years ago that Mastro trimmed it.” He added, “He told me that Mastro cut it off from a full sheet and there was a guy on Long Island that had the sheet.” Of course, this conversation occurred years before The Card was published.
When Lifson was interviewed by Alexandra Peers of the Wall Street Journal for a September 21, 1996 article before the sale of the Wagner at Christie’s, the details of the original transaction were different. Peers reported that Mastro and Lifson were approached and baited with information about the card at a Philadelphia card show and that both men “bit.” Peers wrote, “Traveling to a baseball card shop in rural New York, the two men found their holy grail and more.” Lifson told her, “It was a miracle, once in a lifetime.” Peers added, “As the anonymous seller hovered in the background, the two dealers paid a total of $25,000 for the Honus Wagner card and other rarities. Mastro, however, later became sole owner of the card and bragged that someday it would be the first $100,000 collectible.” With the card close to being auctioned on the block by Christie’s, Lifson told Peers that he had already left a bid “in excess of $300,000 with Christie’s but (wasn’t) optimistic.” Lifson added, “I have less than 1-percent chance of getting it for that.” Lifson knew that he would be bidding against his friend Bill Mastro for the card. Mastro and Lifson were both aware that the card was trimmed and now the two men who discovered and purchased the card in its raw state were bidding against each other for the now transformed “Gretzky Wagner.” When the Wall Street Journal asked Lifson for his opinion of the card he said, “It’s the Mona Lisa of the field.”
Click Here: For Short Audio Clip of Hobby Deep-Throat on Lifson’s knowledge of Mastro’s trimming the Wagner
(Stay tuned for the continuation of this series and entire audio of the shocking revelations made by “Hobby Deep-Throat” in Part 4 of our 10-part series on the Mastro Investigation. Click here for: Part 1 and Part 2 )