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By Peter J. Nash

November 22, 2014

(FOR UPDATE SCROLL TO BOTTOM)

When kids and collectors opened up their Donruss “Timeless Treasures” packs back in 2005, a select few were thrilled that they pulled “relic cards” celebrating the baseball career of Native American Olympic champion and Football Hall of Famer Jim Thorpe. The slick and graphically appealing cards were like miniature museums housing what the company claimed were ultra-rare and historic relics. When the consumers, both young and old, turned over their “lucky ticket” cards they read the Donruss statement endorsed by both MLB and the Baseball Hall of Fame which read:

“The enclosed piece of jersey was cut from an Authentic Jersey personally worn by Jim Thorpe in an official Major League Baseball game. The authentic Game-Worn Jersey was obtained and is guaranteed by Donruss Playoff L.P.”

The statement was definitive and unwavering with the additional visuals of the official logos of Major League Baseball, the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Cooperstown Collection, and the Giants featured prominently alongside the Donruss guarantee.  Today these same cards are selling in the secondary market on eBAY and at Heritage Auction Galleries for prices ranging from $80 to $2,800 and are described as hobby treasures by media outlets like Beckett.com. Little did the kids and collectors realize, however, that every Thorpe card pulled from packs between 2005 and 2014 were outright frauds and actually housed old pieces of vintage flannel that the great Jim Thorpe never owned let alone ever wore in an actual Major League baseball game.

The flannel jersey that the card company had sliced and diced was a vintage New York Giants road jersey manufactured by A. G. Spalding Bros. sometime between 1921 and 1923— three to five years after Jim Thorpe played his last game for John “Mugsy” McGraw’s Giants–thus making it impossible for the Native-American legend to have ever worn the garment being promoted and sold by one of the most prominent players in the unregulated billion dollar sports memorabilia industry.

But how could this be?  How could Panini America (formerly Donruss) and the powers that rule Major League Baseball be involved in such a scam targeting consumers?  Were they all duped, or could it be that each of the entities involved failed to conduct their due diligence and should have known better? Or is it possible that they knew that there were serious problems with the bogus jersey fragments they were unloading on unsuspecting customers and collectors?

Jim Thorpe's alleged 1918 jersey sold for $46,000 in 1999 at Sotheby's. 1918 was one of the few years in which the team included a "G-I-A-N-T-S" logo across the chest. Photos from the early 1920s show Giant players Casey Stengel, Art Nehf and "Irish" Meusel wearing the exact same style with a distinctive placement of the letter "A" which separated into two parts when unbuttoned. These examples match the jersey sold by Halper and illustrations on the uniform database of the Baseball Hall of Fame (inset) which shows a matching 1921 jersey.

To understand the entire scope of the Jim Thorpe relic-card fraud we have go back about fifteen years to the sales floor of Sotheby’s in New York City when the original uncut Thorpe jersey was sold on the auction block as part of the once prominent baseball collection of the late New York Yankees minority partner Barry Halper.

Halper’s alleged 1918 Thorpe jersey was advertised as an authentic New York Giants road jersey manufactured by Spalding with the name “Thorpe” chain stitched in black thread in the back of the collar next to the Spalding label.  Without any photo documentation of Thorpe wearing this exact same jersey in a game, the chain-stitched name was the only evidence suggesting that the jersey was made for Thorpe’s use in Major League games.   Sotheby’s lead cosultant, Rob Lifson, of Robert Edward Auctions, described the jersey in his catalog description as an “important relic” and said that it  ”may be the only surviving Jim Thorpe jersey from his professional baseball career.”

Lifson also hired Richard Russek and Andy Imperato of Grey Flannel to authenticate the Thorpe jersey (and every other garment in the Sotheby’s sale) and in the auction catalog Lifson stated, “Grey Flannel Collectibles Inc. is honored to have had the opportunity to evaluate and authenticate this wonderful collection of uniforms and jerseys belonging to Barry Halper.” Months before the auction, the hobby newsletter the Sweet Spot published a story about Grey Flannel’s work with the collection and indicated “It is believed that the origination of some of the jerseys will be questionable.”   Imperato told the Sweet Spot that many of the older jerseys were missing tags and that it would be “uncertain who wore them.”  Imperato noted that “jerseys of certain eras should have names stitched in, but do not” while “others have undergone number changes.”  He added, “There will be stuff where we just don’t know and we’ll have to do the best we can.”  When Grey Flannel authenticated the Thorpe jersey it appears that the chain stitched name  in the collar was the only link to alleged game use by the Olympic champion.

The Thorpe jersey sold again in 2004 for almost $60,000 at Grey Flannel (left). The jersey had been legitimized through authentications and manufactured provenance provided by Richard Russek (top), Rob Lifson (bottom) and original seller Barry Halper (pictured with the bogus "Shoeless" Joe Jackson jersey he sold the HOF.)

With the blessing of Lifson and Grey Flannel and its Halper Collection provenance, the Thorpe jersey sold for $46,000 to Greg Manning & Co. a sports collectibles company headed by Greg Manning who was identified in post-sale reports as one of the biggest buyers in the Halper sale. Shortly after his company’s purchase of the Thorpe jersey, Manning ran a full page ad in Sports Collectors Digest showing off his new acquisitions including Thorpe’s 1918 Giants jersey which he described as “the only one in existence.” Manning’s company, however, soon after liquidated many of his Halper acquisitions including the Thorpe jersey which ended up in a Grey Flannel auction in 2004 where it sold for $59,542 and was again authenticated by Russek and Imperato who said in their lot description, “The legendary Jim Thorpe wore this NY Giants road flannel jersey during the 1918 baseball season.  It is from the collection of another legend, Barry Halper.” Back in 1998 (before the Sotheby’s sale) Halper had also sold some of the gems in his collection for close to $8 million to MLB and the Baseball Hall of Fame and in 1999 the Barry Halper Gallery was created in the Cooperstown museum to honor Halper’s career as a collector.  But the authenticity of many of Halper’s uniforms had already been challenged by auctioneer Josh Evans of Lelands who informed Halper, Lifson, Grey Flannel and Baseball Hall of Fame board member Bill Gladstone that he believed that many of Halper’s jerseys from the Dead-Ball era and earlier were forgeries.

After the hammer dropped at the Grey Flannel auction in 2004, the new owner of the Halper-sourced Thorpe jersey was the Donruss Trading Card Company and they had plans to cut the jersey up into pieces and create Jim Thorpe-themed “relic cards” to serve as an incentive for collectors to buy more product in their quest to collect cards incorporating authentic game-used memorabilia. In 2005 Donruss began producing the first of over two thousand relic cards which housed actual swatches of Halper’s old jersey and in 2012 and 2013 the same company, which had been purchased by Panini, was even using the buttons from the Thorpe shirt to create new “button cards” with manufactured rarity.  The 2012 issue was called “Panini National Treasures” and was licensed and endorsed by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Donruss and Panini produced Thorpe relic cards with manufactured rarity in select "limited edition" runs of 25-50-150 and 250 Thorpe "relic cards" which were endorsed by MLB and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But by 2012, it was public knowledge that a large portion of Barry Halper’s vintage jerseys sold to the Baseball Hall of Fame and at Sotheby’s were counterfeits and fabricated frauds.  The alleged rare jersey he claimed was once worn by “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was exposed as a fake in a report published by this writer for Hauls of Shame and subsequent testing conducted by the Hall of Fame proved that the jersey was created with materials manufactured well after Jackson’s playing career.  Other jerseys attributed to Mickey Mantle’s rookie year and to Negro Leaguer Buck Leonard were exposed as frauds and dozens of jerseys sold at Sotheby’s were also proven to be counterfeits by this writer and uniform expert Dave Grob, of MEARS.  One particular jersey attributed to 19th century star Wilbert Robinson sold for $32,000 in the 1999 Halper sale and later sold for only $1,000 at Legendary Auctions after it was also exposed as a fake. Another 1907 jersey attributed to Hall of Famer Jimmy Collins was rejected by Grey Flannel nearly a decade after the company authenticated it for the Halper sale.  In a letter to the collector who paid over $30,000 for the Grey Flannel-certified Collins jersey, Russek said, “As you are well aware, those 19th century (Halper) jerseys are full of controversy and we would be uncomfortable running it.”

With stories published in the mainstream media in the New York Post and Deadspin, the Halper frauds were well documented and much more than just controversial.  That being said, it appears that Panini, MLB and the Baseball Hall of Fame either failed to conduct proper due diligence related to Halper’s Jim Thorpe jersey or, perhaps, decided to conceal the reality that the Thorpe jersey was a fraud just like so many other Halper-sourced garments from the Sotheby’s sale.  Earlier this month collector Michael Jacobs from Pennsylvania filed suit against the Barry Halper estate and Grey Flannel Auctions claiming that an alleged 1951 Willie Mays rookie jersey he purchased for close to $70,000 was also exposed as a fake by uniform expert Dave Grob. The collector had arranged a sale of the jersey for $675,000 to Lelands Auctions but the transaction was nixed when Grob’s findings were revealed.  To date, none of the major card companies, MLB or the Baseball Hall of Fame have ever retained the services of Grob who has been widely known as the leading expert for uniforms and jerseys for the past fifteen years.

The HOF uniform database, based on the work of Mark Okkonen (right), shows that the 1918 Giant uniforms differ distinctly from the 1921 and 1922 uniforms worn by the team. The alleged Jim Thorpe jersey dates it to the 1920s making it impossible to have been worn by Thorpe.

What is truly stunning about the Thorpe jersey used by Panini is that it could have easily been identified as a fraud by simply visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame’s website to view its “Dressed to the Nines” uniform data base.  That online data base, created from the published work of uniform historian and SABR member Marc Okkonen, shows that the alleged Thorpe jersey features letter placement of the letters “G-I-A-N-T-S” that was only used by the ball club during the early 1920s.  Okkonen’s illustrations of the Giant uniforms in 1921 and 1922, in particular, show a distinctly different placement of the letter “N” in opposition to the 1918 version and the same as the Halper jersey.

Vintage images of the 1918 NY Giants, including a blurry image of Jim Thorpe (inset), show that the 1918 team jerseys incorporated the letter placement shown in the Okkenen database. The photos of John McGraw and Ross Youngs (above) prove that the Halper Thorpe jersey was not genuine.

Not relying simply on the illustrations created by Okkonen, we researched photographs of the Giant players in 1918 and those images supported Okkonen’s illustrations and verified that 1918 Giant road uniforms incorporated the “N” in “GIANTS” directly in the center of the jersey on the middle fabric strip that the buttons are sewn upon.  Unlike the Giant uniforms from the 1920s (and the Halper jersey) the 1918 uniforms featured an “A” placed to the left of the middle strip of the shirt and in one piece that does not separate into two when the shirt is unbuttoned.

Photographs show the Giants wearing different road jerseys in 1918 including Ross Youngs and John McGraw (bottom row). In 1921 and 1922 the jerseys worn by Youngs and George Kelly (top row) were distinctly different. The alleged Thorpe jersey cut to create the Donruss/Panini relic cards was manufactured several years after Thorpe left the Giants. Mark Okkonen's illustrations also show it is impossible for the Halper jersey to be genuine.

The evidence illustrating that the Halper jersey was never worn by Jim Thorpe is quite definitive.  It is impossible for Thorpe to have played in a MLB game wearing a uniform that was manufactured two to three years after he was no longer playing with the team. In addition, the details regarding the dating of the uniform suggest that the “Thorpe” name which was chain-stitched into the shirt’s collar next to the Spalding label was placed there in the past few decades and, like the name stitched into Halper’s bogus “Shoeless” Joe Jackson jersey, is an intentional forgery.  In 2005, Donruss created a special card which incorporated the section of the Thorpe jersey featuring the swatch of flannel with the entire chain-stitched name.  The card was featured in Donruss advertisements and published in hobby magazines and the Beckett Price Guide.   Despite the fact that the company expended considerable capital to promote these cards as historic “relics,” every single Thorpe card created by Donruss and Panini since 2005 has been a fraud featuring a swatch from a jersey that Thorpe never wore.

The bogus chain-stitched "Thorpe" name included in the Donruss card is similar to the Joe Jackson forgery sold to the Hall of Fame (center) and two alleged Joe DiMaggio uniforms (right) sold by REA as replicas.

By the time Donruss created and sold the first Thorpe relic cards in 2005, it was already well known among hobby insiders that there were serious authenticity issues with the majority of Halper’s early vintage flannel jerseys.  In 2007, Halper’s lead consultant at Sotheby’s, Rob Lifson, was also fully aware that several important jerseys Halper had represented as genuine and had sold to MLB and the Hall of Fame for hundreds of thousands of dollars were forgeries.  Despite that knowledge, however, Lifson sold off several of those jerseys after Halper’s death in 2007 and sources say he intentionally misrepresented them as “replica jerseys“.  Mickey Mantle’s 1951 rookie jersey and his Kansas City minor league jersey, which Halper sold to MLB and the Hall of Fame, were decribed by Lifson in his REA sale as:  ”Garments (that) were created using vintage flannel jerseys from the period as a foundation, thus giving them the true look and feel of 1950s style jerseys. The lettering, numerals, and stitching in the collar too were carefully applied to mimic those used on actual Yankee jerseys.”

In another lot sold in 2007, two fraudulent Joe DiMaggio jerseys were described by REA and Lifson as:

“These two unique replica jersey were created with vintage materials in order to more accurately commemorate Joe DiMaggio’s early career. Joe DiMaggio later signed (7/8″) each jersey in the collar as a favor for Barry Halper. Neither of these jerseys would ever fool an expert, anymore than a modern-day replica would, nor are they intended to, but at a glance both look very much like authentic Joe DiMaggio 1930s style Yankees road jerseys…The lettering, numerals, and stitching in the collar too were carefully applied to mimic those used on actual Yankee jerseys.”

REA was correct that the jerseys were meant to mimic the originals but as forgeries, not replicas. While Lifson claims that these jerseys could never fool an expert, the facts show that the DiMaggio “replica” was purchased by MLB and the Hall of Fame from Halper in 1998 and it had even fooled DiMaggio.

Even more remarkable is the fact that since the day the bogus Thorpe jersey hit the market at Sotheby’s in 1999, all authenticators had to do was purchase a copy of Marc Okkonen’s MLB uniform compendium, Baseball Uniforms of The 20th Century, and compare the Halper example to the illustration the author depicted as the style the 1918 Giants wore. Just by looking at that page in Okkonen’s book would have given authenticators, Sotheby’s, Donruss, MLB and the Baseball Hall of Fame sufficient pause to question the authenticity of the jersey and the attribution of Thorpe’s game-use.  In fact, the Hall of Fame endorsed the Donruss product back in 2005 when Okkonen’s analysis was illustrated on the Hall’s own website in the online exhibit known as “Dressed To The Nines.”

The fraudulent chain stitched Thorpe name from the Halper jersey was featured in its own relic card and advertised in Donruss ads in 2005. In 2011 Panini CEO signed a partnership deal with the Baseball Hall of Fame headed by Chairman Jane Forbes Clark and President Jeff Idelson.

Not only should the Hall have referred to their own online resource that showed the jersey was problematic, but by the time of the 2012 Panini release they should have seriously questioned and investigated any Halper-sourced garment after other fakes had already been exposed in their own collection that they had displayed as genuine to hundreds of thousands of visitors and fans.  Knowing that the jersey had a Halper provenance should have raised red flags for the Hall regarding the legitimacy of the jersey and its licensing agreement with Panini.  Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson did not respond to our inquiry asking what due diligence his staff conducted in relation to their agreement with Panini/Donruss.

We also contacted MLB’s Commissioner’s office and asked Matt Bourne, MLB’s VP of Business Media Relations, what due diligence MLB or the MLBPA conducted in relation to Panini producing relic cards with alleged “game-used” materials and bearing the MLB logo?  We also asked him whether MLB conducted additional due diligence on materials sourced to ex-MLB owner Barry Halper knowing that Halper had defrauded MLB in 1998 when he sold millions in bogus artifacts to the Hall of Fame? Bourne and MLB did not respond to our inquiry.

In reviewing the Beckett.com database it appears that, at a minimum, Donruss and Panini have sold over 2,000 Thorpe relic cards created from the fraudulent Halper jersey.  In the October issue of Beckett Sports Card Monthly editor Chris Olds states that the Beckett database also shows that “there are 1,001,558 different memorabilia cards of the game-used (or event used) variety out there for collectors to chase.” According to Olds, that number has increased by 263,163 in the past three years.” While Olds notes the growth of the relic card population in such a short time period, he makes no mention of the recent controversies linked to the FBI investigation that nabbed several dealers who were selling a significant volume of fake materials to the card companies for game used relic cards.

Barry Halper sold millions in fakes including a bogus Joe Jackson jersey to the HOF, but Beckett Media's Chris Olds (inset right) has defended him along with REA's Rob Lifson and blogger Murray Chass (inset left). Olds featured a fake Thorpe relic card in his October Beckett column (center) which says there are over 1 million relic cards in the hobby.

In 2012, Olds published a post at Beckett.com commenting that a small number of fraudulent modern items shouldn’t taint the larger population of game-used cards but his commentary never addressed the probability that a good majority of the vintage materials the card companies were purchasing had even greater issues regarding authenticity. That being said,  Olds’ recent October, 2014, column illustrates a bogus Thorpe-themed relic card produced by Panini/Donruss.  In his column, Olds has publicly defended Halper’s well-established frauds along with REA’s Rob Lifson, blogger Murray Chass and Halper’s son, Jason, and has claimed that this writer’s reporting of the late Yankee partner’s frauds is just “mud-slinging“.  Olds, who sources say lacks credibility because of his close ties to the card companies, did not respond to our requests for comment.

Our on-going investigation into relic and game-used card fraud extends far beyond the bogus Thorpe uniform swatches and a perfect example of how widespread the problem is the discovery last week by collectors at the Blowout Cards Forum that Panini produced fraudulent 2014 NFL cards that were advertised as containing “game-used” materials.  The collectors pointed to unquestionable proof that the company used generic “event” products instead of actual “game used” materials actually worn by players like Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. In response to the exposure of the problem Panini published a press release on its website authored by CEO Mark Warsop stating that what had occurred was just a “regrettable mistake” and that the “event worn” materials were used in error.  Said Warsop, “There is nothing we take more seriously here at Panini America than the ironclad authenticity of our products — and the memorabilia and autographs we use to make them.”  The CEO of the NFL licensee added,  ”There was no intent to deceive or to portray those pieces of memorabilia as anything other than what they are: Event-worn by those players. The error in this case occurred in the labeling of those cards, not in producing them. We pride ourselves in being true to our consumers and in standing by every product we make. We absolutely will do that in this regard.”

We called Panini and informed the CEO and its product manager, Tracy Hackler, of the issues regarding the company’s Thorpe-related products and we also wanted to ask for the company to specifically identify which jerseys and bats it acquired to cut up and create its relic cards from 2005-2014 of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Stan Musial. Neither Warsop or Hackler have responded to our inquiry.

When the dealers convicted of selling Panini bogus “game-used” materials were sentenced in 2012, their attorneys claimed that Panini was complicit in the crimes and that they invited fraud with their sub standard acquisition methods for obtaining “game-used” materials at a discount.  Panini, in turn, filed a “Victims Impact Statement” for the “Jersey-Gate” cases claiming damages and requesting restitution in the millions from the presiding judge.   The court, however, denied their request and decided not to award the company any restitution whatsoever, not even a penny.

UPDATE (Dec. 10, 2014): PANINI STILL SILENT ON JIM THORPE FAKES AS COMPANY DUCKS CONSUMER INQUIRIES ABOUT GUARANTEE; eBAY SELLERS STILL OFFERING RELIC CARDS WITH FABRIC FROM FRAUDULENT HALPER JERSEY

Over two weeks after our initial report was published, Panini America is still silent on its creation of over 2,000 bogus Jim Thorpe relic cards created from the fraudulent New York Giants jersey sold by Barry Halper at Sotheby’s in 1999. While Panini recently issued a statement regarding alleged “mistakes” with its current “Flawless” NFL product, the company has not addressed the Thorpe situation. Hauls of Shame submitted additional questions for Panini CEO Mark Warsop through product manager Tracy Hackler but those inquiries have not received a response. According to several collectors with bogus Panini Thorpe products in their possession, the company has also failed to respond to customers inquiring about the alleged “guarantee” referenced on the backs of Panini and Donruss cards.

Since the time our report was published, there also appears to have been an increase of Thorpe relic cards listed on eBay and despite the news revealing that the Thorpe cards are frauds, eBay seller Probstein123 sold one 2012 Panini “National Treasures-Remarkable Rarities” Thorpe card for $743.00 in an auction that ended on Monday.  Rick Probstein told Hauls of Shame that there appeared to be no irregular bidding on the card and that the high bidder on the card was from Ohio.  Hauls of Shame asked Panini if the company, or agents of the company, were buying the cards on the secondary market to remove the fakes from circulation, but Panini and Hackler did not respond.

One collector who once owned as many as forty of the bogus Thorpe cards told us he currently owns fifteen of the fake cards and asked us, “I unfortunately was one of the collectors that spent thousands of dollars on these cards.  In your investigation did you find that the issue was only with their “game worn jersey” or was it also with their “game used jacket cards.”  Hauls of Shame did not investigate the football jacket-cards and only found issues with the baseball jersey cards. The collector also told us, “I have contacted Panini and Heritage, the auction house where I purchased most of these cards and have not heard from them yet” and added “I am curious though since the cards are “Guaranteed.” I want to know what Panini/Donruss thinks that means?”

A source familiar with the government’s prior investigation into bogus “game-used” materials being inserted into trading cards told us that Panini is not the focus of any current FBI investigation.  However, considering the large volume of fakes that the company has manufactured and distributed, the source suggested that collectors who feel they are victims of Panini’s marketing and sale of the bogus Thorpe cards (and others) contact the Dallas office of the FBI at 972-559-5600 and file a complaint.

We asked Rob Bertrand, the Voice of the Collector and host of Cardboard Connection Radio, for his thoughts on Panini’s silence regarding the Thorpe situation and he said, ”It’s unfortunate these problems continue to exist within the hobby. I would like to believe that once companies are made aware of potential issues regarding authenticity, with regards to game used material, that they will do everything in their power to investigate the alleged issue, rectify the situation from happening again and fairly compensate collectors if warranted.” Bertrand, whose radio show counts Panini as a sponsor and features Tracy Hackler regularly as a guest, asked us to pass along his offer to have collectors with fake Thorpe cards in their possession on his broadcast adding, “I don’t believe there is any great conspiracy to cheat collectors simply to sell more product. That would be short sighted thinking and these companies have shown that they are in the business for the long haul.”

UPDATE (Dec. 11, 2014): PANINI SENDS OUT E-MAIL TO JIM THORPE RELIC CARD OWNER BUT FAILS TO ADDRESS SITUATION ON COMPANY BLOG

The collector who is the owner of 15 bogus Jim Thorpe relic cards issued by Panini/Donruss tells Hauls of Shame that the company sent out a ‘generic” email addressing the Thorpe cards from its “customer service portal” stating, “We are looking into the investigation and will provide any information we find.”  The collector, who also informed Panini he had “spent several thousand dollars over the years” on the Thorpe cards, also told us he had submitted a comment/question about his cards on the company’s “Knight’s Lance” blog and that Panini did not post that comment on the its website. Since we published our report exposing the Panini/Donruss Thorpe cards as frauds, product manager Tracy Hackler has published close to 40 posts on the company blog and none of them have addressed the Thorpe situation.


By Peter J. Nash

November 12, 2014

Hot on the heels of the recent auction withdrawal of the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirate photo that was stolen from the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, another vintage image of the 1921 Red Sox, was removed from another auction after it was identified by Hauls of Shame as also having been stolen from the archives of the Baseball shrine.

The photo was once part of the collection of the late artist, Richard Merkin, and was being offered by Hake’s Americana in York, Pennsylvania. Like other rare and valuable photographs stolen from the Hall featuring the portraits of Christy Mathewson, Nap Lajoie, Mickey Welch and others, this photo features Hall of Famers Hugh Duffy and Herb Pennock and also shows evidence of Hall of Fame library ownership identifications being obscured to conceal its Cooperstown provenance. But unlike other sports auction houses like Heritage and Huggins & Scott which have refused to withdraw stolen item from sales, Hake’s President, Alex Winter, immediately removed the photo from the sale when informed that the library accession number was visible on the reverse of the photo.  Said Winter, “The item has been removed. We will make sure the photo finds its way back to where it belongs.”  Winter said he would contact the Cooperstown Police Department to inquire how the photo can be returned to the Hall.  When similar stolen items have appeared at auction, however, the Hall of Fame has failed to claim title or attempt to recover the artifacts.  One case in particular involved a a rare 1870 CDV photograph of the Philadelphia Athletics that was sold by Legendary Auctions despite photographic evidence that documented the item was once part of the Hall’s collection.

The attempt to conceal the fact that the 1921 Red Sox photo was stolen from the library was unsuccessful as the library accession number is still clearly visible in black ink on the reverse of the photo. That number, which reads: “BL-11,608-89″ was transformed into “BOSTON” with a blue sharpie, but is still clearly visible. The number represents the 11,608th item donated to the National Baseball Library in 1989. The photo also shows evidence of the handwritten letters “PD” in the upper right corner which is written on photos at the library which are in the public domain.  Former Hall of Fame librarian, Tom Heitz, did not respond to our inquiry asking if he could identify the handwriting of the accession number.

The back of the 1921 Red Sox photo being offered by Hake's reveals two sections that have notations obscured by modern sharpie writing. When magnified it is also revealed that these notations were added to conceal the Hall of Fame accession number of the photo which reads: "BL-11,608-89." The number indicates this was the 11,608th item donated to the institution in 1989 and is New York State property.

The appearance of the stolen photo at auction is just further evidence of the multi-million dollar thefts that occurred at the Cooperstown institution in the 1980s.  As scores of reports published by Hauls of Shame have proven since 2011, the objects stolen from the Hall and listed on our “HOF Hot 100 list” have been scattered all over the hobby and have ended up in the hands of many unsuspecting parties.  This particular photograph was owned by the late artist Richard Merkin.

The handwritten HOF accession number covered by the blue sharpie ink on the stolen photo (top left) matches another accession number on a photo still in the HOF collection identified as: "BL-5160-88." An accession number appears on a Hugh Duffy cabinet photo donated in 1956 (top right) and another from 1986 (bottom right). The "PD" notations to the right signify that the HOF considers them "public domain."

Last month, when a 909 Pittsburgh Pirate photo appeared in a Huggins & Scott auction, Hauls of Shame alerted the Cooperstown Police Department and also submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. The Cooperstown Police are currently investigating the situation and sources indicate they have been in contact with Huggins & Scott Auctions, the consignor of the photo and officials from the Hall of Fame.  Hall officials, however, have refused to comply with our FOIA request which they were supposed to respond to within five days of receipt under New York State law.  All of the artifacts in the Hall’s collection are owned by New York State, not the Hall of Fame, and it is our contention that all documentation and information related to donated artifacts is subject to FOIA guidelines.

Red Sox exec Bill James was critical of HOF leadership in his 1994 book (inset). Current HOF leadership under Jane Clark and Jeff Idelson is refusing to honor FOIA requests made by Hauls of Shame.

Bill James, in his 1994 book, Whatever Happened To The Hall Of Fame, said as much when he wrote:

“Before anything else, the Hall of Fame belongs to the State of New York.  There are state regulations regarding the operation of a museum and the care of its artifacts, and these regulations have the force of law.  The state is the ultimate owner of all of the Hall of Fame’s property.  If you give something to the Hall of Fame, you are giving it to the State of New York; if you were to steal something from the Hall of Fame, you would be stealing it from the State of New York.”

James, who is currently an executive with the Boston Red Sox, also wrote about a 1980s Hall of Fame scandal involving the sale of donated artifacts by, Joe Reichler, an assistant to then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.  When James wrote his book, however, he was unaware of the massive thefts and only had knowledge of a small selection of missing items involved in the Reichler scandal. All of those artifacts, mostly World Series programs, were ultimately recovered by the Hall after New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams sent a letter to Bowie Kuhn.

The current Hall President, Jeff Idelson, and Chairman, Janes Forbes Clark, appear to be at odds with James’ statement regarding New York State laws, and sources familiar with the inner workings of the institution have confirmed that the Hall’s stonewalling of our request is directly related to the continued cover-up of the thefts which expose the gross negligence related to the institution’s care of artifacts and even greater negligence in their failure to actively pursue recovery and claim title to stolen items that have surfaced in public auctions and in private collections.

L to R: Self-Portrait of artist Richard Merkin; 1993 "The New Yorker" cover by Merkin; Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album featuring Merkin (inset and in red).

Throughout the past few decades the materials stolen from the Hall of Fame have made their way into the unlikeliest of places and the inclusion of the 1921 Red Sox team photo in the collection of the late artist Richard Merkin is a testament to this.  Merkin was a noted artist with works in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art and his illustration work also graced the covers of magazines including The New Yorker.  Merkin also served as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair Magazine and was also a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.  In his 2009 New York Times obituary writer Tom Wolfe said, “He was the greatest of that breed, the Artist Dandy, since Sargent, Whistler and Dali.  Like Dali, he had one of the few remaining Great Mustaches in the art world.”

Merkin was also a prominent collector of baseball artifacts and memorabilia with a particular focus on Cuban baseball and the Negro Leagues and throughout his career Merkin created many paintings of baseball legends ranging from 19th and early 20th century baseball pioneers such as Harry Wright and Rube Foster.  After Merkin passed away in 2009, his baseball collection began to appear for sale at Hake’s Americana which was founded by Merkin’s friend Theodore Hake. The auctioneer has been offering Merkin’s significant baseball holdings (and other treasures) in sales that have spanned over the past few years.  Merkin also had a notable collection of erotica which was the subject of his 1979 book Velvet Eden: The Richard Merkin Collection of Erotic Photography and he is also well known for his appearance on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album released in 1967.

Hake’s estimated that the value of Merkin’s 1921 Red Sox photo was about $400 but several experts we spoke with believed the photo was worth over $1,000 if it had clear title. Baseball Hall of Fame and President Jeff Idelson did not respond to our inquiry as to whether they will attempt to recover the photograph from Hake’s and failed to identify who donated the Red Sox photo back in 1989. The Cooperstown Police Department, which is currently investigating the theft of the 1909 Pirate photo withdrawn from a Huggins & Scott sale, became aware of the Hake’s offering and its withdrawal after they were contacted by Hauls of Shame.


By Peter J. Nash

November 6, 2014

Last spring, Heritage Auctions sold a bogus letter alleged to have been written by 19th century Hall of Famer John M. Ward.  The sale of the letter was a prime example of the auction house’s deceptive practices and its marketing of non-genuine autographed materials. Despite the fact that the Ward autograph was identified as a secretarial signature in a hobby reference book and in several reports published by Hauls of Shame, Heritage continued with the sale of the bogus document for close to $9,000 even though the letter was only worth a few hundred bucks.

Heritage continues its tradition of offering items that experts have questioned as fakes in its current sale which includes signed baseballs purported to bear the signatures of Honus Wagner, Dizzy Dean, Babe Ruth, Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, Nap Lajoie and others. Our reports over the past few years have identified similar Heritage offerings which experts have opined were fakes but were accompanied by third-party authentication company certificates claiming they were genuine. As the world’s largest auctioneer of collectibles, Heritage moves an enormous amount of vintage material through the hobby but it appears that they offer more fakes than most of their competitors.  The signed baseballs in the current sale are so substandard that the experts were aghast that the items were actually hitting the market with LOAs from PSA/DNA and their alleged expert Steve Grad.

So, why does Heritage attract so much material that experts we spoke with claim are forgeries and how do they get these questionable items authenticated?

Experts are of the opinion that the signatures on these baseballs being sold by Heritage are not genuine (or have been enhanced) but they have all been authenticated by PSA/DNAs alleged expert Steve Grad who also appears with Rick Harrison as an expert on Pawn Stars.

To answer that question one has to look no further than Heritage’s two in-house consignment directors, Mark Jordan and Mike Gutierrez who, before they had an affiliation with the auction giant, were the most prolific sellers and authenticators of forged materials in the hobby.

In addition to being the prime suspect in the massive thefts of genuine signed documents from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Mike Gutierrez has also been linked to the authentications of numerous groups of fraudulent materials including scores of Babe Ruth secretarial signatures, the infamous Ty Cobb forgeries created by Al Stump, items attributed to the 90s forger known as Johnny Fang, numerous problematic items sold by Richard Wolfers Auctions and MastroNet as well as the sale of numerous forgeries to private collectors who returned materials to him and signed non-disclosure agreements in lieu of receiving refunds.  From the late 1980s through the late 1990s Gutierrez was considered one of the leading authenticators of baseball autographs and was hired by numerous auction houses (including Sotheby’s) for his alleged expertise.  Along with Jimmy Spence, Gutierrez was also responsible for authenticating many of the Babe Ruth forgeries that entered the marketplace through Mastro Auctions and have now been identified as the work of a forger who created the now infamous Ruth inscribed photograph to actor Gary Cooper.

Like Gutierrez, Mark Jordan, was also once considered a leading authentication figure in the hobby through the 1990s but fell out of favor with the hobby powers that be after he was linked to the authentications of hundreds of big ticket forgeries that were offered and sold by Richard Wolfers Auctions and Sports Heroes Inc. in the 1990s.  Jordan authenticated dozens of forged single-signed baseballs for Sports Heroes and Wolfers in 1992 and some of those same baseballs are the subject of a current lawsuit filed against Mastro Auctions and Mike Gutierrez in Chicago that alleges Gutierrez authenticated forged baseballs for Bill Mastro and his former auction business. Jordan authenticated an entire collection of single signed baseballs around the same time that a forged letter from Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey surfaced stating that he had once owned a collection of rare signed baseballs from the likes of Jack Chesbro, John Ward, Cap Anson, Rube Waddell and others. (The current HA sale features a single-signed ball of Branch Rickey (shown above) that was part of Jordan’s problematic 1992 authentication for Jerry Zuckerman of Sports Heroes and it was also offered as Lot 56 in Wolfers’ 1992 “Treasures” auction). Jordan also authenticated dozens of other items alleged to originate from the estate of sportswriter Fred Lieb including alleged “game-used” baseball gloves and baseballs bearing forgeries of Cy YoungJosh Gibson, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson.

HA consignment director Mark Jordan was once the leading authenticator in the hobby but he certified hundreds of forgeries that appeared in auctions during the 1990s including his certification of over 100 single signed balls including forgeries of Jack Chesbro, Sam Thompson, Tim Keefe, Josh Gibson and Amos Rusie (all inset).

Gutierrez and Jordan joined the staff at Heritage Auctions in 2006 as consignment directors and it is no surprise that they are responsible for referrals from their old customers and for the procurement of materials they have either sold or authenticated in the course of their hobby careers.

While Gutierrez and Jordan were once the final authority for many auctioneers in regard to the authentication of autographs, the formation of PSA/DNA in 1999 paved the way for the emergence of one of Jordan’s ex-employees at Mark Jordan Inc., Jimmy Spence Jr., who worked for PSA and later established his own authentication company now known as JSA.

Mark Jordan (inset) was the principal authenticator for Richard Wolfers Auctions in the 1990s and he certified many forgeries including baseball gloves bearing forgeries of Ty Cobb (top) and Josh Gibson (bottom).

Gutierrez has also worked for PSA/DNA in the past and is currently listed as an expert consultant for James Spence Authentication (JSA). Although Gutierrez and Jordan are employees of Heritage working under the auspices of HA sports director, Chris Ivy, the auction house relies primarily on the authentication services of PSA/DNAs lead authenticator, Steve Grad.  According to his Twitter account, Grad spent September 16th and 17th authenticating materials slated for Heritage’s current sale.  According to several sources, it was on this authentication trip to Dallas that Grad authenticated the questionable materials for the company that is considered one of PSA/DNAs biggest hobby clients. One source familiar with the autograph examination process told us, “There’s no way you can properly examine that volume of material in that short a period of time with just one guy.”

Heritage and Chris Ivy, however, appear to be comfortable with Grad’s solo skills as an authenticator despite his very public authentication mishaps which we’ve chronicled in detail in our Worst 100 report of 2013. They also appear to support Grad despite the revelations that he has misrepresented and lied about his education and also perjured himself in court ordered depositions in which he stated he was a college graduate when he has never graduated from any college or university.

Steve Grad (center) tweeted how he spent just two days authenticating items for Chris Ivy (right) and Heritage's current sale.

PSA/DNA is a subsidiary of the public company Collectors Universe (CLCT) and Grad has clearly violated the company’s “Code of Business and Ethical Conduct” which is published on the company website. Curiously, it appears that Collectors Universe has taken no action against Grad for his perjury under oath but that might be explained by language included in the company’s annual report for 2014 which was released to shareholders last month.  In that report the company states they are “dependent on (their) collectible experts” and state:

There are a limited number of individuals who have the expertise to authenticate and grade collectibles, and the competition for available collectible experts is intense.  Accordingly, our business and our growth initiatives are heavily dependent on our ability to (i) retain our existing collectibles experts, who have developed relatively unique skills and enjoy a reputation for being experts within the collectibles markets, and (ii) to implement personal programs that will enable us to add collectibles experts as necessary…..

Collectors Universe also states in the report they are very concerned that “Some of our experts could leave our company to join a competitor or start a competing business.” That could explain why Grad has not been terminated by the company for his violations of the code of conduct, however, Grad’s authentication malpractice and his spectacular mistakes appear to have been overlooked by the company as well.  In the annual report, it appears CU should be concerned about damage to the company reputation resulting from Grad’s mis-authentications as they state: “Failures and errors in authentication or grading processes, such as inconsistent application of grading standards or incidents that put the integrity of those processes into question, could significantly impair our reputation in the marketplace which, in turn, could lead to a loss of customer confidence and a decrease in the demand for our services…”

It appears, however, that CU and PSA are flourishing despite Grad’s incompetence as the company just announced that its trading card and autograph authentication revenues are already up 8% for the first quarter. But although the cash appears to be pouring into the company coffers, the 2014 annual report released in October includes a few points of concern for PSA/DNA as 2015 approaches. Collectors Universe tells shareholders that there is no current litigation that would adversely affect the company’s financial standing but sources indicate that PSA and CU could be dragged into the class action lawsuit filed against PSA authenticator Bob Eaton and his company RR Auctions.

The class action suit vs RR Auctions deals with signed Rock n Roll items that were rejected by Steve Grad and PSA/DNA. PSA rejected a signed Eagles guitar (left) and in a deposition an attorney for RR and PSA said that PSA could reverse their opinion and make the item genuine (inset).

This week the plaintiff in that lawsuit, Michael Johnson, posted on the lawsuit website his own deposition testimony and his exchanges with RR’s attorney Suzanne Storm.  Storm and her lawfirm Attlesey & Storm, interestingly enough, also represent PSA and PSA/DNA and in the course of her questioning of Johnson revealed that a group of autographed items rejected by PSA could actually be reversed by the company and now be deemed genuine.  Johnson’s claims involve his purchase of about twenty signed entertainment items and record albums from Eaton and RR that were all subsequently rejected by Grad and PSA/DNA as non-genuine.

In the deposition exchange posted on the website, Storm suggests that PSA could change their opinion on all of Johnson’s items that were deemed non-genuine and Johnson asks, “If PSA/DNA was willing to issue new certificates of authenticity?  So, they’re going to change the old stuff that was bad, now they’re going to issue new ones and say they’re good now?”  Storm answered him and said, “Correct.”

The exchange between the PSA/RR lawyer and the plaintiff illustrates how much power the TPAs like Grad and PSA/DNA hold as they can render opinions that can make items either extremely valuable or worthless simply by issuing their letter of authenticity bearing the facsimile signatures of Grad, Eaton and other PSA consultants.  The conflicts of interest involved with sellers who are also authenticators is striking and the past employment of authenticators at auction houses is also problematic. Steve Grad, for instance, was first employed by Bill Mastro at Mastro Auctions in the 1990s and got his start at PSA in large part due to Mastro’s relationship with PSA as their biggest client at the time.

Sources familiar with the current class action suit against RR say that PSA potentially has exposure in the case and the fact that Attlesey & Storm represents both PSA and RR suggests that there is a conflict of interest and possible collusion between the auction house and the authenticators. One source told us, “Why would that lawfirm represent RR Auctions when they already were representing the authentication company that was involved in the same case?” One source also suggested that other victims could join the class and implicate other auction houses like Heritage for engaging in similar practices with PSA/DNA.  Currently, PSA has failed to appear at depositions and has also failed to comply with other discovery requests.  One source familiar with prior PSA litigations told us, “That’s just the PSA playbook, delay, delay, delay and then throw a bunch of cash at the problem to make it go away.”

The Collectors Universe annual report for 2014 shows increased net revenues for PSA and PSA/DNA despite controversies related to revelations about the trimmed T206 Wagner card and reports that the company is under FBI scrutiny.

Speaking of cash, Collectors Universe says that the company had net revenues exceeding $60 million and that “trading cards and autographs” certified by PSA and PSA/DNA were responsible for about $14 million.  The increase in revenue has come in the midst of PSA being exposed for grading the now infamous trimmed PSA-8 Honus Wagner card and reports from several sources stating the company has been under investigation related to the Mastro Auctions fraud case. According to the financial report PSA/DNA, led by senior authenticator Steve Grad, examined 431,800 autographed items which was up from 376,600 items authenticated in 2013.  Based upon those numbers, PSA/DNA is examining close to 1,183 items per day.  Included in that number are the items appearing in Heritage auctions that Grad spends just a day or two examining. The CU report also claims that “As of June 30, 2014, we employed 6 autograph experts with an average of 25 years experience in the autograph memorabilia market…”  If those six individuals actually handled all of the incoming PSA/DNA authentications, each of them would have to examine close to 200 items each per day.

One interesting passage in the CU annual report listed under “risk factors” notes that the collectibles industry is “not currently subject to federal, state or local regulation.”  CU believes that if the government does “impose restrictions on the collectibles industry” or regulates “the conduct of auction businesses” it could have a negative effect on its bottom line.  CU says, “Adoption of laws or regulations of this nature could lead to a decline in sales and purchases of collectibles and, therefore also to a decline in the volume of coins trading cards and other collectibles that are submitted to us for authentication and grading.”

Collectors Universe may have good reason to present the regulation issue to its shareholders. Hauls of Shame has confirmed that several disgruntled PSA/DNA customers have approached elected officials in their own districts seeking regulation of PSA/DNA and the autograph industry. In addition, Ron Keurajian, an attorney and the author of Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide, has drafted proposed federal legislation that could be used to regulate the authentication industry. Hauls of Shame has confirmed that the authentication issue is on the radar of the FBI and federal prosecutors and that Keurajian’s proposed legislation is currently in the hands of interested parties.