By Peter J. Nash
June 18, 2014
(Scroll to Bottom for Update)
It’s been 100 years since Babe Ruth made his debut in a Major League uniform but he remains the most revered athlete in American sports history. The “Bambino” is still so popular that collectors are shelling out millions of dollars and bidding in online auctions on artifacts and autographs attributed to the man called the “Sultan of Swat.” But getting a real Babe Ruth autograph in this day and age can be a challenge considering the fraud and forgery that has infiltrated the sports memorabilia industry and even the Babe’s own granddaughter, Linda Ruth Tosetti, is disturbed by the volume of fakes showing up on eBay and in every major auction house in the country. Tosetti has been doing her part educating fans about the perils of collecting the Babe and in 2010 she endorsed Hauls of Shame’s “Operation Bambino” investigation which was launched to expose the Ruth forgery-rings that have become cottage industries.
The Babe’s granddaughter has even reached out to the FBI on several occasions to address the sales of forgeries attributed to her granddad and, although collectors have become more educated on how to spot Ruth fakes, law enforcement has done little to crack down on the proliferation of bad Ruth material in the marketplace. With the assistance of several talented experts, however, “Operation Bambino” has made significant strides and in this report we pinpoint and identify one specific Ruth forgery-ring that was using Mastro Auctions as their delivery man for forgeries placed on photos, books, balls, Hall of Fame ephemera and even bats.
In the 1990s, the FBI’s “Operation Bullpen” took down a large ring of Ruth forgers headed by the Marino family, but their Ruthian creations were inferior to the examples that have been ushered into the hobby via Mastro Auctions and authenticated by PSA/DNA. As Bill Mastro cooperates with the government and awaits his sentencing arising from the FBI’s Chicago-based Mastro investigation, it is possible that prosecutors could get to the bottom of the Ruth forgery epidemic with Mastro’s help pursuant to the terms of his plea agreement. In Federal Court last week, Mastro’s sentencing was postponed once again until October and, as recent news reports indicate, other auction houses like Grey Flannel are facing similar scrutiny as Mastro cooperates with the Feds.
In its current auction, Grey Flannel offered the work of one rogue-Ruth forger who placed phony autographs of Ruth and Lou Gehrig on a counterfeit baseball. The signatures are almost identical to forgeries exposed in the 1990’s and the ball was debunked by comparing its stamping, lacing and other characteristics to genuine AL balls from the period. In response to a Hauls of Shame report, Grey Flannel removed the fraudulent lot from its sale along with the two letters of authenticity from PSA/DNA and JSA signed by the so-called experts Steve Grad and Jimmy Spence.
The Grey Flannel debacle is reminiscent of the circumstances surrounding our last “Operation Bambino” report (Part 5) published last year when Robert Edward Auctions sold the now infamous forged Ruth photo inscribed to Pride of the Yankees star Gary Cooper. REA’s Rob Lifson sold that fake despite the fact that an autograph reference book written by Ron Keurajian specifically identified the same photo as a forgery and illustrated why.
But as reported in our last article, it has been established that both REA and JSA had direct knowledge that the “Sincerely Yours, Babe Ruth” salutation on the Cooper photograph matched another nearly identical Ruth salutation included in a Jimmy Spence-created display of 1927 Yankee cut signatures that appeared in REA’s 2008 sale. In its catalog, REA identified the Ruth signature as genuine, but the auctioneer posted an addendum later stating Spence said the signature was not real and “Secretarial.” But it wasn’t a secretarial signature, it was an outright forgery, and along with the Gary Cooper photo it would become a “Rosetta Stone” for uncovering Ruth forgeries.
Spence should have recognized that the forgery style mimicked another handwriting example featured in a 2004 full-page SCD ad placed by his former employer, PSA/DNA. The signature on the photo in that ad matched almost exactly the signature Spence included in his 1927 Yankee display and also mirrored the inscribed Ruth photo to Gary Cooper that first appeared with a Spence LOA in a 1999 Mastro auction. That same forgery appeared again in yet another large PSA/DNA ad to promote “Autograph Authentication and Grading” in April of 2005. By all indications PSA/DNA opined that the forgery was authentic and it was signed off in a published LOA by Steve Grad without Jimmy Spence, who had already left PSA to establish his own business, James Spence Authentication (JSA).
What is indisputable is that by 2005 PSA/DNA, Joe Orlando and Steve Grad were using a forged Babe Ruth signature in consumer advertisements offering their “expertise” and authentication services for a fee. The scenario is distinctly similar to PSA’s well documented promotion of Bill Mastro’s fraudulent and trimmed T206 Honus Wagner card that was authenticated, graded and promoted by the outfit that is a subsidiary of the public company Collectors Universe (CLCT) which is traded on NASDAQ. It was Bill Mastro’s concealment of his trimming of the Wagner card and his continued promotion of its high PSA-grade that contributed to the government indicting him in 2012. Similarly, it appears that Spence continues to promote items he has previously authenticated even though he now knows that they are forgeries.
The Ruth forgery saga dates back almost fifteen years when collector John Rogers posted another ad in SCD alerting hobbyists of a slew of Ruth forgeries he had purchased. Rogers noted that the signed photos he acquired exhibited “no pen pressure, mint condition black ink, no spreading of ink and no fountain pen stroke characteristics.” Rogers made his discovery when he bought one photo signed “To John, Sincerely Babe Ruth” that matched exactly the inscription on a totally different photo in his collection. Rogers said at the time, “These forgeries are not done with a forger’s pen and ink but with a high-tech laser printer.” According to Rogers the forger had replicated what he and others believed were genuine Ruth signatures on photos via the laser printer and PSA/DNA (headed by Spence at the time) certified them as genuine. After Rogers and others uncovered the fraud, the “To John” photo was deemed a forgery and by 2010 the photo was utilized by PSA/DNA in its report of the “Ten Most Dangerous Autographs” which featured Babe Ruth as the forger’s number one target. In the report, PSA posted an image of the forged Ruth photo with a caption that stated, “This Babe Ruth forgery would fool most people.”
As a result of our “Operation Bambino” investigation, Hauls of Shame has now identified a sizable group of other forgeries believed to be the handiwork of the same forger who produced the Babe Ruth inscription to Gary Cooper. All of these forgeries have been authenticated by PSA/DNA and Jimmy Spence and the majority of the items, which include photographs, bats, balls and Hall of Fame induction covers, were sold at Mastro Auctions and continue to be sold by auctions like REA.
Author Ron Keurajian identified these forgeries in a public forum in 2012 when McFarland published his book Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide, but he also discussed Ruth forgeries in SCD years earlier when PSA/DNA placed ads featuring the very same forged signatures Keurajian described. Keurajian illustrated a test to check Ruth autographs by examining whether the signature had been signed in “bold up and down strokes that correlated into a signature that is large, uneven, almost whimsical.” At the time, Keurajian suggested that collectors should focus on the bottom baseline of the signature and said, “The fake ones will be level as if written on a straight line.” Keurajian was describing the work of the forger who had created the inscribed photo to Gary Cooper which he described as “too neat, too perfect.”
In the course of our investigation we have identified the handwriting styles of several Ruth forgers who have created exquisite fakes on baseballs and other mediums, but the creator of the Gary Cooper forgery is particularly noteworthy. In uncovering this style of forgery several concerned individuals, including Ron Keurajian, offered their assistance in helping us determine which other Ruth forgeries were supplied to Mastro along with the Cooper photo. As a result, we uncovered a steady stream of fakes that made their way into Mastro and MastroNet auctions in the late 1990s and early 2000s and when each of these alleged Ruth signatures was compiled and viewed collectively, the results were stunning. After viewing the montage of Ruth forgeries one of the experts we spoke with said, “There is no possible way there are this many examples perfect to one another. Ruth wouldn’t do this. You and I wouldn’t do this in our own handwriting.”
Another expert recognized several similarities shared by the examples we chose and said, “The big tell tale (sign) on most of them seems to be in the “th” in “Ruth” which makes sense (because) that’s usually where a forger screws up, at the beginning and end of the signature. Although Ruth did cross the “t” high and sometimes so high it completely missed the letter, in almost all of these it crosses in the exact same place and intersects into the “h.” Another observation made revolved around the initial curved stroke of the “u” in “Ruth.” One expert noted the prevalence of this characteristic in every example and told us, “The “u” in Ruth all curl right at or after the (capital) R. Many times Ruth would curl inside the R or not curl much at all.” Several experts also pointed out what Ron Keurajian identified in his book stating, “The baseline on each signature is very straight.” In fact, when the illustrated signatures are put to Keurajian’s “straight-line” test, they all fail miserably. All of the identified forgeries lack the bounce and “whimsical” nature of Ruth’s authentic handwriting.
Here are the alleged forgeries identified in our Operation Bambino investigation that further expose the long-standing incompetence and possible fraud of PSA/DNA and JSA. The evidence suggests that both companies continue to authenticate Ruth forgeries despite having knowledge that the items they are certifying are not genuine. It should be noted that virtually all of these Ruth forgeries entered the hobby via Mastro Auctions:
1. The Forged Babe Ruth Inscription to Gary Cooper & The Babe Ruth Single-Signed “Sincerely” Baseball-
Ron Keurajian goes into detail describing these Ruth forgeries and specifically notes the Gary Cooper photo in his autograph reference book:
“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.”
In our last “Operation Bambino” report, collector John Rogers recalled the first time he encountered the Cooper photo when it surfaced 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.”
But despite that warning, the photo sold for over $25,000 at Mastro in 1999 and again for $15,000 at Legendary in 2010 as part of Bill Mastro’s collection. When it sold in 2010 the photo came with a new LOA from JSA’s Jimmy Spence, but how could Spence have certified the Cooper inscription genuine when he had already determined the same type inscription was non-genuine two years earlier in the 2008 REA auction?
The “Sincerely, Babe Ruth” inscribed baseball also appeared in the same 1999 auction as the Cooper photograph and the similarities in the inscription and signature are remarkable. In addition, Ruth rarely ever signed baseballs using the “Sincerely” salutation. In the course of our investigation we have examined images of over one thousand alleged single-signed Ruth balls and have only been able to locate four examples signed “Sincerely.” The Cooper forger executes his “Sincerely” without distinguishing between the letters “e-r-e” and they appear to be written either “e-e-e” or “r-r-r” and are written at the same height and level unlike Ruth who almost always distinguished between those letters and fluctuated up and down and never on a straight line, as noted by Keurajian.
2. The Forged 1939 HOF Induction First-Day Covers-
The Ruth signatures on these 1st Day covers are dead-giveaways that they were created by the same forger who penned the Ruth inscription to Gary Cooper. The multi-signed covers also illustrate that the forger ventured beyond Ruth and signed the names of the entire 1939 HOF induction class. These covers surfaced at the same time Jimmy Spence examined the now infamous “Honus Pocus” Honus Wagner autograph that magically appeared on a 1939 1st Day cover a few years after he had already authenticated it for Mastro when it was barely visible.
One forged First Day Cover appeared in Mastro’s April 1999 auction and sold for $8,651, but another one appeared in Mastro’s 2000 sale with a reserve of $3,500 and failed to sell. Although the signatures were nearly identical and authenticated by Jimmy Spence for PSA/DNA and Mike Gutierrez for MastroNet, the cover’s failure to sell suggests that Spence was aware that hobbyists viewed the item as a forgery and avoided it.
3. The Forged Babe Ruth Astor Hotel Tickets sold at Mastro in 2000-
Keurajian described these forgeries specifically in his book stating, “Another very well executed forgery can be found on Hotel Astor-Mayor’s Naval Committee ballroom tickets…..Again, very nice forgeries but too precise and too mechanical to be genuine.” One of these forged tickets appeared in Mastro Auctions’ sale in May of 2000 and sold for $1,995. All of our experts agreed that this signature was executed by the same hand that created the Gary Cooper forgery and the “secretarial” cut identified by Jimmy Spence at REA in 2008.
4. The Forged Connie Mack 50th Anniv. Photo Sold at Mastro in 2000-
This photograph, sold for over $16,000 in Mastro’s 2000 auction and also illustrates the forger’s skill in duplicating additional signatures including Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Eddie Collins, Frankie Frisch, George Sisler, Tris Speaker and Connie Mack. The Ruth forgery is so similar to the other fakes we identified one expert told us, “You could almost superimpose each on top of one other and they are almost dead-on.”
5. The Forged Babe Ruth “Sincerely” Photo Portrayed In PSA/DNA Advertisements As Genuine-
PSA/DNA published this alleged signed photo of Babe Ruth as an authentic example to promote the PSA/DNA autograph grading program instituted in 2004. Ron Keurajian refers to this photo specifically as a forgery in his book: “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.”
The fact that a company with the resources of PSA/DNA and Collectors Universe could regularly authenticate these Ruth forgeries over the course of fifteen years and also illustrate forgeries as genuine examples in published advertisements geared towards collectors shows just how serious the forgery epidemic is in the unregulated memorabilia industry. the magnitude of the problem prompted one of our experts to call the entire TPA system a “house of cards.”
6. The Babe Ruth Forgery On A “Pride of the Yankees” Photo Sold By Mastro in 2004-
This photograph was sold in a 2004 Mastro sale for over $8,000 despite the fact that it featured a forged Babe Ruth signature that matched exactly the scrawl found on the photo inscribed to Gary Cooper that sold for over $25,000 at Mastro Auctions in 1999. The photo also appears very similar to the laser-copy forgeries that surfaced in the hobby c. 2000.
7. The Babe Ruth Forgery On A Baseball Hall Of Fame Plaque Post-Card-
It appears that the same forger who drafted the bogus Babe Ruth-signed Astor Hotel tickets and the inscribed photograph to Gary Cooper also tried his hand on one of the scarcest mediums known that could feature a Ruth signature–an early Hall of Fame post-card plaque. The example we identified in our investigation was a rare 1938-43 style post card allegedly signed by Ruth that was the precursor to the later B&W Albertype HOF plaque postcards. The example that Hauls of Shame and other experts identified as a forgery was sold at Robert Edward Auctions in 2008 for $44,062.50. The alleged Ruth autograph was encapsulated authentic by PSA/DNA and came with a LOA from James Spence of JSA.
When the “Sincerely” inscription and Ruth signature were compared against forged examples including the Astor Hotel ticket and the Gary Cooper photograph the similarities were striking. The pen pressure, spacing, letter construction and even the ink used for the alleged Ruth inscription all suggested that the plaque post card was another well-done forgery in the same family as the examples identified in Ron Keurajian’s book. In particular, it is difficult to distinguish between the “e-r-e” letters in “Sincerely” which appear as “r-r-r,” which is another tell-tale sign of this particular forger’s work. In its auction catalog, REA and Rob Lifson described the signed plaque as “incredible” and noted it was so rare that: “Even Barry Halper was never able to locate an authentic signed sepia Hall of Fame postcard of Ruth, and in his collecting career he was able to find just about everything associated with Ruth.” It could be that Halper never acquired one because this forger’s material appears to have hit the market just as he was liquidating his collection at Sotheby’s in 1999.
8. The Babe Ruth Forgery On A Game-Used Ruth Bat That Sold For $75,000 at Mastro & Hunt Auctions-
Another example of the TPA-authentication of an alleged Ruth forgery is this bat which sold at Mastro Auctions in 2005 for $72,207. The game-used Ruth bat came with LOAs from Steve Grad of PSA/DNA and Jimmy Spence of JSA certifying that the signature on the barrel of the bat was genuine. PSA’s John Taube further attested that the bat was game-used as did Troy Kinunen and Dave Bushing of MEARS who gave the bat a grade of A-8. But the signature placed on the bat appears to be another dead-ringer for the Ruth forgeries created by the same person who penned the Gary Cooper inscription.
The same bat reappeared in the Hunt Auctions sale in February of 2013 with an estimated value of “$100,000-150,000″ and an LOA from JSA certifying the signature and two other letters of authenticity from PSA/DNA and MEARS who graded the bat as an “A-9.”b Hunt described the autograph stating, “Babe Ruth fountain pen signature on reverse barrel (rating 7 to 7/8 out of 10) is not only an extremely desirable trait in a Ruth game bat but further serves to place the bat literally “in his hands.”
But based upon the signature and the traits and characteristics of the handwriting placed on the bat, it is clear that Babe Ruth never held this bat in his hands to sign it. All of the experts we consulted with opined that the Ruth signature found on the barrel of this bat is a forgery and it is strikingly similar to the handwriting on the inscribed photo to Gary Cooper.
9. The Forged “Babe Ruth Story” and “Idol of The American Boy” Books-
When the forged Ruth-inscribed photo to Gary Cooper was sold at Mastro as lot 833 in 1999, another forged item appeared as lot 836 on the same auction catalog page. That lot was an alleged signed copy of the 1948 book The Babe Ruth Story but it included a forgery that matched the work added to the Cooper photograph. The autograph was authenticated by Jimmy Spence and another forgery that was sold by Mastro in the winter of 2004 was authenticated by both Spence and Steve Grad for PSA/DNA. The forger also executed a Ruth signature on another Ruth book (sold privately) called, Babe Ruth: Idol of The American Boy. The signatures that appear in these three books are almost identical to the other forgeries attributed to the creator of the Gary Cooper photo.
10. The “To John” Babe Ruth Forgery Identified By John Rogers In 2001 & Later Included In PSA/DNA’s-2010 Most Dangerous Autographs” List-
In 2001, collector John Rogers took out a full page ad in SCD to warn collectors about laser-printed Ruth forgeries, but the examples that were laser copied were also forgeries believed to have been executed by the same forger who created the phony inscription on the Ruth photo to Gary Cooper. Rogers’ dilemma began when PSA/DNA authenticated an initial group of the laser-printed forgeries which prompted him to purchase an additional group of forgeries.
Sources indicate that PSA/DNA only identified the “To John” photo as a forgery because it was laser-copied and that the company believed the original inscription was authentic. Experts like Ron Keurajian, however, have identified the same inscription as a forgery penned in the same hand as the forger who created the Gary Cooper fake.
With all of the expensive, high-profile blunders that the TPA’s have made in the past fifteen years collectors should not be surprised that alleged gurus Spence and Grad have been fundamentally wrong on their authentications of the player who represents the backbone of the billion-dollar memorabilia industry. As this report has illustrated, both PSA/DNA and JSA have cost collectors hundreds of thousands of dollars as they have recklessly and carelessly (and some allege intentionally) authenticated Ruth forgeries that should have been easily detected by experts collecting fees from the general public for their opinions. The TPA malpractice dates back fifteen years but as illustrated by JSA and PSA/DNA’s recent authentication of a Ruth forgery on a modern replica ball, the TPA’s problems are worse than ever. If the two leading authentication companies can’t tell what a real Babe Ruth signature is how could they ever be trusted to examine other signatures that are even more difficult to decipher?
The fact that our investigation was actually bolstered by ex-PSA employee Jimmy Spence’s admission that his “Sincerely Babe Ruth” cut was non-genuine is also strong evidence suggesting that both Spence and PSA/DNA had been covering up this information for years. The reversal of Spence’s opinion on the item he authenticated and sold is further proof that JSA and PSA/DNA may have covered up the Ruth forgery scandal to protect their auction house clients who had sold the forgeries for well over a decade.
The signatures illustrated in this report are only a small sample of the forgeries that have entered the marketplace as there are multiple forgers who have mastered signing Ruth’s signature. The different styles of Ruth forgeries show up in virtually every major auction and sale accompanied by LOA’s from both PSA/DNA and JSA. As noted, several alleged Ruth fakes appeared in the current Grey Flannel sale and Ken Goldin’s current “Babe Ruth Centennial Auction” includes others. One Ruth item Goldin is selling that is unquestionably authentic is the Bambino’s autographed palm-print that was created for a Baseball Magazine article in the 1920s. The relic was part of Bill Mastro’s personal collection and was featured in the book Smithsonian Baseball where he described how he displayed the print under glass in his hobby room and said, “Not a single person, including the handyman and the exterminator has ever entered that room without placing a palm atop the Bambino’s paw print.” The print, which was purchased by Mastro at the Sotheby’s Halper sale for $42,500, sold for $222,000 in Legendary’s sale of his own holdings in 2010 which also included the infamous Gary Cooper photo featuring the forged Ruth inscription. Experts say Mastro’s private stash also included other Ruth forgeries including a PSA/DNA “Gem Mint 10″- “Sincerely, Babe Ruth” index card, which sold for $4,200,and a signed Ruth store- model bat which sold for $36,000.
One of the experts we consulted with summed up this “Operation Bambino” report stating, “If the FBI digs deeper and exposes the sellers and consignors in the Mastro sales they very well could start to blow the lid off of this Ruth problem.”
If you purchased any of the items featured in this report, or if you feel you have been victimized by Mastro Auctions, PSA/DNA or JSA we suggest you contact either: the FBI offices in New York (212-384-1000/NY1@ic.fbi.gov) or Chicago (312-421-6700/Chicago@ic.fbi.gov); the office of the US Attorney handling the Mastro investigation (312-353-5300); or the chambers (312-435-5363) of Judge Ronald Guzman who is presiding over the Mastro case and the sentencing of Bill Mastro.
UPDATE (July 1, 2014): Ruth Forgery Identified In Operation Bambino Surfaces In eBay Auction Of Ex-PSA Grader; FBI Aware Of Listing Ended Early By Seller Andy Madec
The Pride of the Yankees photograph featuring a Babe Ruth forgery that originally sold at Mastro Auctions in 2004 for over $8,000 appeared last week in the eBay store of ex-PSA grader Andy Madec with a price tag of $17,500. The same photo was highlighted in this report as the #6 Ruth forgery executed in the same handwriting style as the infamous Ruth fake inscribed to actor Gary Cooper that was sold twice at Mastro Auctions in 1999 and 2010 and at REA in 2013.
The eBay listing illustrated the PSA/DNA letter of authenticity dated on August 3, 2005, which features an unidentified live signature and the facsimile signatures of Steve Grad, Zach Rullo, John Reznikoff, Bob Eaton and Roger Epperson. Hauls of Shame sent an inquiry to dealer Andy Madec asking when and how he acquired the photograph and whether he knew that the same photo was identified as a forgery in our current “Operation Bambino” report. Madec was hired by PSA as a grader back in 1995 shortly after he was released from a California prison after serving a sentence stemming from a statutory rape of a 14-yr old girl in 1992. Madec did not respond to our inquiry and subsequently ended the eBay listing for the bogus photograph. Sources indicate that the FBI was aware of the offering, but Madec also failed to respond to our inquiry asking whether he had been contacted by the FBI.
The bogus Ruth offering is just further proof of the blatant disregard authenticators like Steve Grad of PSA/DNA have for the general public as forgeries he and his company have authenticated continue to be distributed in the marketplace, despite the fact that he and PSA/DNA have full knowledge that the items they certified as genuine are counterfeits.