(Scroll to bottom for Update)
The release of the witness list for the upcoming trial of former Mastro Auctions employee, William Boehm, confirmed what Hauls of Shame has been reporting for the past few years —that REA auction president, Rob Lifson, was one of the government’s key witnesses in the prosecution of its case against Bill Mastro. The appearance of Lifson’s name on the list also confirms that he cooperated with the Feds and informed on Mastro after shill-bidding schemes were uncovered during an investigation of Ohio political fundraiser Tom Noe in 2006. Lifson may be called to testify against Mastro’s former IT director but he may also be a less than stellar witness with his own checkered past and his having presided over the fraud committed at the auction house when he was still a Director of the company with Mastro.
By the time the evidence of the auction house shill-bidding was uncovered in the 2006 “Coin-Gate” investigation, Lifson had already left MastroNet.com and proceeded to rat out Mastro by turning over additional evidence that further implicated his old friend with the Feds. Providing additional motivation for Lifson to turn on Mastro was the fact the former hobby heavyweight had cashed out and sold Mastro Auctions to “Flip” Filipowski for close to $5 million after buying out Lifson for what one source says was just a “few hundred thousand dollars.”
Accusations of shill-bidding at MastroNet had been made against both Mastro and Lifson as early as April of 2002 and at that time Lifson denied the charges to this writer calling the allegations “stupid” and added that he and Mastro ran “the cleanest auction on the face of the earth.” But as Mastro’s recent plea agreement describes in great detail, the auction house operated by Mastro, Lifson and Doug Allen was already shill-bidding customers like Tom Noe in its Spring 2002 Americana auction. Noe had purchased over $1 million in memorabilia from MastroNet and the plea agreement also states that in the Spring of 2002 the auction house “used a shill account belonging to a friend of an auction house employee to drive up individual (Tom Noe’s) ceiling bids.”
Now, nearly twelve years after their company’s shill-bidding schemes were in full effect, the two former friends and hobby lifers are set to appear with their former employee, Brian Marren, to help the US Attorneys convict ex-Mastro IT director William Boehm who is alleged to have lied to FBI agents about his role in the destruction of auction bidding records. The Mastro-Lifson reunion is an unlikely pairing to say the least as Mastro’s last public statement regarding Lifson appeared in Dave Jamieson’s 2010 book Mint Condition where he said, “Lifson and I were best friends at one point and we hate each other now.” Lifson, on the other hand, has been gloating and reveling in his former partner’s demise and sending out emails to associates with the plea agreements from the Mastro case.
Boehm’s attorneys will likely challenge the credibility of Mastro, Marren and other Mastro employees who cut plea deals or avoided prosecution by turning on others, including Boehm. Mastro is cooperating in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence while Marren was given immunity in the case for his full cooperation with the government. That being said, how credible will Lifson’s testimony be in the government’s case based upon his own past statements defending Mastro against allegations of criminal activity that were made as early as 2002 when both men were still running MastroNet.com?
It was in late 2002 that Lifson told this writer that the claims of fraud, shill-bidding and sales of stolen property at MastroNet were “ridiculous” and that people accusing the auction house of criminal acts were “out of their mind” and “grasp(ing) onto this stupid idea that we’re not an auction house (MastroNet), we’re criminals and that we cheat people and its stupid.” When informed that a collector was planning on filing suit against the company owned by him and Mastro, Lifson went so far as to deny any allegations and say, “I can assure you that we run the cleanest auction on the face of the earth, nobody does what we do, you know, and I don’t even know why he’s got this thing with Bill (Mastro), but you know I’m sitting here thinking, you know what, I might have more fun if he did sue us.” Based upon the Motion the government filed to admit evidence and co-conspirator statements, it appears that Lifson was lying and that he likely had knowledge of the shill-bidding schemes including fictitious bidders, bogus auction results and “dead paddles” from inactive accounts.
Lifson has denied the claims made by Hauls of Shame in reports identifying him as an informant in the Mastro case. In 2013, 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.” The Mastro plea agreements, however, clearly show that Lifson was running the company with Mastro while the significant shill-bidding of Tom Noe was in full swing. In addition, Lifson’s inclusion on the witness list speaks for itself in relation to Lifson’s role as an actual informant.
As late as April of 2002, when Lifson was still in the Mastro fold as a company director, he fully supported all of the Mastro employees who have already plead guilty in the current case saying, “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.” All of the statements made supporting Mastro and denying any criminal activity at the company were made to this writer and taped as part of an early investigation into MastroNet business practices in 2002. The actual audio of Lifson’s statements can be heard by clicking on this link: Lifson Nash audio April 2002.
In addition, how credible will Lifson appear to a jury if they hear how blatantly he has lied about his involvement in regard to the “PSA-8″ T-206 Honus Wagner card that Mastro admitted to trimming in his plea agreement. The government charged that Mastro had promoted the Wagner card as unaltered and pristine in advertisements heralding the auction company as the leader in the sports collectibles industry and Lifson is just as guilty of that same charge considering he not only fraudulently promoted the card he knew was trimmed but he also sold the card in a 2000 MastroNet/Robert Edward Auctions sale. Lifson also failed to disclose that he had been the owner of the card before it sold to collector Brian Seigel for over $1.2 million. Knowing that his partner had altered the Wagner card to enhance its value, Lifson even told the Wall Street Journal in 1996 that the trimmed Wagner was, “the Mona Lisa of the field.”
One prominent collector whose identity we have kept anonymous in prior reports and call “Hobby-Deep-Throat” told this writer on the night of the 2000 MastroNet sale of the trimmed Wagner that Lifson had approached him to be a minority partner in the purchase of the Wagner card at a Christie’s sale back in 1996. The collector declined the offer but also confirmed that Lifson had told him he knew Mastro had trimmed the Wagner card PSA had graded as an “8.” After his offer was turned down, Lifson went to Chicago area collector Mike Gidwitz to partner with him on the card and Lifson purchased the Wagner at auction for $641,000 on behalf of the duo. Lifson, however, appears to have lied to Sports Collectors Digest and other outlets when he said he was only the agent bidding on the card for Gidwitz, who he claimed was the actual owner.
Hauls of Shame contacted Gidwitz at his home in Chicago to comment on the actual ownership of the now infamous Mastro-Wagner but he declined comment. But a source who claims to have first hand knowledge of the Gidwitz-Lifson relationship, told us that Lifson and his eccentric friend went “50/50″ on the $640,500 purchase of the card in 1996 at Christie’s and that Gidwitz bought Lifson out of the card sometime before it was sold for $1.2 million at MastroNet/REA in 2000.
Lifson’s own past criminal history as an institutional thief could also cloud his testimony in Federal Court. Lifson was caught stealing rare CDV’s and cabinet cards at the New York Public Library while he was a student at the Wharton School of Business at UPenn in 1979. Lifson confessed to this writer that he was caught “palming” a rare CDV at the NYPL but claimed that his theft was a one-time occurrence. Lifson contradicted that story when he told Sports Illustrated that he had stolen more than one item and previously lied to the New York Daily News stating he never stole anything from the institution. Most all of the stolen NYPL artifacts ended up in the collection of Lifson’s top customer, Barry Halper, who is said to have orchestrated the NYPL thefts according to a high-placed hobby and baseball source.
Complicating Lifson’s testimony even more is the fact that items he is believed to have stolen from the NYPL’s Spalding Baseball Collection were actually sold by MastroNet while Lifson and Mastro were directors of the company and had full knowledge that they were selling stolen materials. Some of the items appearing in the MastroNet auction that have been identified as NYPL property include an autographed 1874 Warren cabinet card of Harry Wright, three autographed 1872 CDV’s of George Wright, Ross Barnes and Cal McVey, an 1875 CDV of the Hartford Dark Blues featuring Candy Cummings and an 1887 cabinet card of the Buffalo Bisons featuring Frank Grant among other items. All of these unique artifacts appear on the original 1922 Spalding inventory and the subsequent 1987 “Missing List” prepared by the library after conducting an updated inventory of the collection and most of the items sold by Lifson and Mastro bear unique inscriptions documented on the original NYPL inventory from 1922.
MastroNet even sold items stolen from the Boston Public Library’s famous M. T. McGreevey Collection that are suspected to have been stolen by Lifson in conjunction with a similar scheme also orchestrated by deceased New York Yankees general partner Barry Halper. One smoking gun BPL item sold by Mastro and Lifson was an 1882 cabinet photograph of the Boston BBC which had its library ownership stamp defaced to conceal its provenance. Lifson and Halper sold over a dozen other rare photographs stolen from the BPL’s McGreevy Collection at Sotheby’s in 1999 and Lifson recieved several other stolen BPL items consigned for his REA auction from Halper’s widow after his death in 2005. When Lifson and Mastro were accused of selling items stolen from the NYPL in 2002 Lifson responded stating sarcastically,“That’s what we do, we sell stolen property because we like to. We sell stolen property because that’s what we do, ya know. No one wants to give us the un-stolen property we have to sell the stolen property. You know, it’s just stupid.”
When Lifson first told FBI agents about the misdeeds committed at MastroNet and Mastro Auctions they were totally unaware of Lifson’s apprehension for stealing at the NYPL and his well documented sales of stolen items from the NYPL and BPL. In fact, Lifson made the FBI aware of several stolen items and assisted with the recovery efforts of at least one cabinet photo of Harry Wright which had been offered for sale by dealer Lew Lipset in 2005. It wasn’t until July of 2009, when Hunt Auctions and MLB offered a rare cache of documents addressed to Harry Wright that were stolen from the NYPL’s Spalding Collection that the FBI became fully aware of Lifson’s theft from the NYPL and the full scope of the alleged Lifson-Halper involvement in the milion-dollar heist from the library. After the FBI was made aware of Lifson’s history related to the Spalding Collection, his help in recovering the Harry Wright cabinet card was viewed differently as one FBI special agent told this writer, “He (Lifson) was just throwing us a bone” and “trying to look like he was helping.”
Lastly, Lifson’s credibility is challenged by his own past history as an alleged “card doctor” and accusations by veteran hobbyists that, like Mastro, he regularly trimmed, cut, bleached, colored and took creases out of cards to improve their condition and value. The accusations against Lifson as a card doctor were even alluded to in a letter to Judge Ronald Guzman who is presiding over the Mastro case. The subtle mention of Lifson’s card-altering skills was written by hobby veteran Lew Lipset and published by the Court describing Bill Mastro as “despicable” and recounting a particular instance when Mastro was viewing cards at a dealer table in the 1980’s. Lipset recalled how Mastro told the dealer, “…these look a little short (i.e. trimmed), did you get them from me or Robert (Lifson)?” Lipset added for the Judge, “Bill’s tendency to trim cards was widely known throughout the hobby.” In an interview with Lipset for our upcoming book, The Madoff of Memorabilia, he also stated that Lifson’s trimming of cards was also well known throughout the hobby. Several other sources have recounted disturbing card enhancement activities perpetrated by Mastro and Lifson in hotel rooms they shared at major shows and conventions.
The fact that Lifson is also the most litigious individual in the history of the hobby could also be problematic for prosecutors if the Boehm trial moves forward. By his own admission, Lifson spoke of his proclivity for litigation when he and Mastro were accused of shill bidding and other fraudulent activities back in 2002. In response to the accusations, Lifson told this writer, “I think I mentioned this to you (what) my record is. I’m undefeated. Because as nice a guy as I am, you know, when somebody is attacking me, I am the most incredible animal on the face of the earth, and that’s why I live in a mansion and could retire many, many, many times over and I will win and others will lose when the chips are down, and that’s not going to change. I’m better now than ever and it’s nice to hold a good hand because we (MastroNet) haven’t done anything.”
But the court documents and plea agreements filed in Chicago show that the auction house was committing crimes and Lifson’s claims of an undefeated record in court appear to be limited to his home turf in Somerset County, New Jersey. Lifson and his attorney, Barry Kozyra, have had great success litigating memorabilia cases at the Somerset County Courthouse including one victory against this writer who sued Lifson but ended up signing a stipulation of settlement in favor of Lifson and his auction house for over $760,000. Lifson won another case in 2008 against a consignor from Baltimore, Maryland, named Anthony Raymond who chronicled his legal battle with Lifson at The Rip-Off Report.
Lifson, who hails from the family that co-founded the Dominion Electrical Manufacturing Company, has had the advantage of utilizing a family waffle-iron fortune to back his memorabilia businesses ever since he was a teenager placing ads in publications stating that he had “unlimited capital available for (his) wants.” More recently Lifson has advertised that he has “unmatched financial security, millions in assets, no liabilities (and) millions of dollars available at all times at a moment’s notice for cash advances.” Lifson’s financial wherewithal has enabled him to litigate adversaries into submission in his own backyard of Somerset County but more recently he is facing some much more formidable opposition.
Lifson is currently facing multiple claims of fraud in a lawsuit filed against him in Federal Court in Newark, New Jersey, by collector and real estate developer Corey R. Shanus of Purchase, New York. Despite claims made by attorney Barry Kozyra that the lawsuit was frivolous, the Court has allowed the case to proceed with Shanus’ claims that Lifson sold him fakes, artificially inflated prices and schemed to defraud him. Lifson’s counterclaim filed against Shanus, however, was dismissed in its entirety. The litigation is on-going. (Some of the items Shanus claims Lifson sold as fakes were once owned by this writer and Barry Halper.) When Lifson served as the auction consultant for the Halper sale at Sotheby’s in 1999, he oversaw and cataloged several million dollars in fraudulent and counterfeit artifacts attributed to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and a host of 19th century Hall of Famers.
An example of just how litigious Lifson can be is found in a 2010 counter suit the auctioneer filed against the State of New Jersey along with third-party complaints he filed against the prosecutor, assistant prosecutor and investigator of Bergen County who had pursued the consigned assets of a Lifson client named William Stratcher. Stratcher made a large consignment to Lifson before being arrested for the illegal distribution of prescription drugs and the auction house was subsequently sued by the State. Lifson filed the actions seeking damages for alleged violations of his federal and state constitutional rights and for tortuous interference, but the complaints were dismissed and he later refiled them claiming that his due process rights under the U.S. Constitution were violated. Lifson’s counterclaims were dismissed again and he also lost an appeal filed with the New Jersey Appellate Division.
Lifson is no stranger to the court room and if he does take the stand in the Boehm trial he could be joined by Mastro, Marren and at least nine other individuals including Frank DiRoberto, whose account was used to shill-bid scores of auction house customers. While some observers feel that William Boehm might still enter a guilty plea like his co-Defendants others feel that the case will still move forward on September 9th. If it does, one thing is for sure. While many of the witnesses appearing for the government have checkered pasts due to the crimes they committed at Mastro Auctions, none of them, except perhaps Bill Mastro, will have as many credibility issues as Rob Lifson.
UPDATE (Aug. 28, 2014): Mastro-Lifson Courtroom Reunion Nixed By Scheduled Guilty Plea of Auction House IT-Guy
Papers filed in Chicago Federal Court on Tuesday indicate that ex-Mastro Auctions IT director William Boehm will be joining his co-defendants and pleading guilty for lying to FBI agents in 2007 about destroying bidding records that revealed rampant shill-bidding at the once prominent auction house. The scheduled guilty plea set for September 2nd also puts to bed the chances of a Courtroom reunion of ex-hobby friends and rivals Bill Mastro and Rob Lifson of Robert Edward Auctions.
A source familiar with the case told Hauls of Shame last week that Boehm would likely plead guilty because the government’s evidence against him was particularly strong and included recovered computer data from Mastro company IP addresses and allegedly one of Bill Mastro’s own computers. So much for the memorabilia trial of the century.
UPDATE (Sept. 8, 2014): BOEHM PLEADS GUILTY; LAWYER DENIES LIFSON ROLE IN MASTRO FRAUD; WERE SMITHSONIAN & HENRY FORD MUSEUM VICTIMS OF SHILL-BIDDING ON ROSA PARKS BUS?
Former Mastro Auctions and MastroNet Inc. IT Director, William Boehm, plead guilty last week to one count of lying to FBI agents in the course of the Mastro investigation. Boehm’s plea agreement states that the maximum sentence for his offense is 5 years imprisonment but the Government is asking that he be sentenced to between 0 to 6 months with probation. The plea agreement also details Boehm’s involvement in destroying bidding records and disabling fraudulent bidding accounts in an attempt to conceal a massive company shill-bidding scheme. After Boehm was interviewed by FBI agents in Kirkwood, Misouri, in 2007 he called Bill Mastro and told him “not to worry about the FBI’s investigation because he ‘took care of it,’ meaning that defendant Boehm made false and fraudulent statements to the FBI agents in an attempt to intentionally mislead them.”
In response to our original report about the Boehm case, the lawyer for REA auctioneer Rob Lifson claims that his client was not involved in any MastroNet wrongdoing. In a cease and desist letter, attorney Barry Kozyra told Hauls of Shame, “Your latest report on the Mastro Auctions prosecution is a most bizarre attempt to turn reality upside down as to Mr. Lifson and REA. After outlining the prosecution’s case as to Mastro Auctions and the individuals involved, including those pleading guilty to felonies for fraud, you suggest that somehow Mr. Lifson is both guilty of the crimes of the Mastro Auctions defendants and is the key witness for the Government, neither of which is true.”
Of course, Hauls of Shame has accurately depicted Lifson as “one of the Government’s key witnesses” and Lifson’s appearance on the US Attorney’s witness list speaks for itself. In addition, the Boehm plea agreement sheds some more light on how far back the Mastro crimes extend and illustrates how they encompass the time period when Lifson was the President of MastroNet Inc. and was one of only three members of its Board of Directors along with Bill Mastro and Doug Allen, both of whom have already entered guilty pleas in the case.
Boehm’s plea agreement states that “In or around 2001, (Bill) Mastro requested that defendant Boehm provide him with a “dead paddle,” a paddle associated with an inactive bidder account, which he could use in order to place shill bids. After Mastro told defendant Boehm what he needed, defendant Boehm told Mastro that he could use the F.D. (Frank DiRoberto) account. Frank DiRoberto was a friend of defendant Boehm’s, and, as an accommodation so that he would receive free catalogs from the auction house.” Then, by 2003, the plea agreement details how, “Mastro, in an effort to conceal shill bids he had placed using the F.D. (Frank DiRoberto) account, asked defendant Boehm to destroy all Auction House under bidder records associated with the F.D. account.”
Contrary to the claims made by Lifson’s attorney, Barry Kozyra, the Boehm plea agreement shows that the Mastro shill bidding schemes were in effect during Lifson’s tenure as a President and Director of MastroNet from 2001 to the Spring of 2003. Kozyra had no answers as to why his client lied to Murray Chass in 2013 and said the Mastro crimes “occurred long after” he left MastroNet. Back in April of 2002, an interview with Mastronet VP Doug Allen on David Cycleback’s The Vintage Collector website revealed who had control of the auction house business. When asked how MastroNet secured “unequaled sports material, both in quality and volume,” Allen responded stating, “Bill Mastro and Rob Lifson (President of Americana Division) are the biggest catalysts for doing this.” The current plea agreement shows that Mastro had instructed Boehm to destroy bidding records in 2003 and a source tells us that was when Mastro decided to split with Lifson and that he feared his old partner and rival might someday turn on him.
Between 2000 and 2003 Lifson and Mastro presided over the single largest collectibles auction house in the world conducting over twenty major auctions that grossed well over $100 million—and all of those sales took place during the time period Bill Mastro has admitted to engaging in fraudulent shill bidding schemes. That being said, according to Lifson’s lawyer, Barry Kozyra, his client is “not guilty of the crimes of the Mastro Auctions defendants.” As for Hauls of Shame’s reporting of the Mastro case and Lifson’s involvement Kozyra added, “Your continued attempt to cast Mr. Lifson and REA in a negative light with lies, innuendo and twisting of words-often fabricated or extracted from bits and pieces of reality and placed in a fictional world of your own- is most unfair and damaging.” Kozyra also claims that the Hauls of Shame reports regarding the Mastro case are a “wrongful attempt to humiliate, embarrass and damage Mr. Lifson.” Kozyra, however, had no explanation for Lifson’s staunch defense of Mastro in 2002 when he told this writer, “I can assure you that we (MastroNet) run the cleanest auction on the face of the earth.” Kozyra has also requested that we remove the audio of Lifson defending Mastro claiming it was “illegally obtained.”
Despite the statements made by Lifson’s lawyer, the Mastro guilty pleas have focused even more scrutiny on major items sold by Mastro and Lifson during the time they were partners. In particular, several sources allege that the Mastro shill-bidding machine may have been in full swing during the bidding for the alleged Rosa Parks bus which was discovered by Lifson on eBay and sold to The Henry Ford Museum for $492,000 in the MastroNet’s first Americana auction in 2001. It was in MastroNet’s second Americana auction in 2002 that Mastro shill-bid Ohio political fundraiser Tom Noe and admitted to it in his recent guilty plea.
It was Lifson who secured the 2001 consignment of the bus from owner Donnie Williams and along with Mastro advanced $25,000 to the consignor in exchange for a higher than usual auction house fee upon sale. MastroNet placed a minimum bid of $50,000 on the bus which had failed to sell for a $100,000 minimum previously on eBay. After the bus appeared on eBay a second time, Lifson contacted the seller who withdrew the item and then consigned it to MastroNet. Sources indicate that the bidding approached a record $500,000 via shill-bidding that allegedly defrauded The Henry Ford Museum, The Smithsonian and the City of Denver, who were all bidding on the bus.
We asked one prominent collector familiar with the FBIs shill-bidding investigation whether he believed the Rosa Parks bus was shill-bid and he responded, “With Mastro, the (surviving) bidding records which weren’t purposely destroyed reveal that if it could be shilled it was shilled. Nothing was sacred to Mastro and no money was ever left on the table. I have no doubt that they committed fraud in the Rosa Parks bus auction.”
Hauls of Shame contacted the Henry Ford Museum to ask if they were aware of the Mastro guilty pleas and the evidence included in the plea agreements suggesting that the Mastro shill bidding schemes were in play when they were bidding on the bus. A representative of the Ford Museum said that the individuals responsible for acquiring the bus were no longer working at the institution. The Henry Ford public relations department did not return our call for comment.