Breaking News

By Peter J. Nash
December 18, 2015

Hobbyists and autograph experts have for years alleged that the proliferation of Babe Ruth forgeries in the marketplace has been bolstered by the shoddy work of the authentication companies PSA/DNA and JSA. In the six previous installments of our “Operation Bambino” investigation, Hauls of Shame has illustrated how both companies have authenticated perhaps millions of dollars in fake Ruth signatures for decades. Now, in Lelands current auction we have identified yet another bogus Ruth that further exposes an entire group of big ticket single-signed baseballs as forgeries created by what several experts believe is the same forger. When Hauls of Shame informed Lelands of the possible fake and showed the auction house four other Ruth forgeries almost identical to their offered lot, the auction house pulled the alleged treasure from its sale.

In part 2 of our special investigation we identified several different handwriting styles of forgers creating bogus Ruth single-signed baseballs and one of those styles was identified by illustrating different baseball that had sold in Mastro, REA and Grey Flannel auctions.  One of the balls identified by us ended up in Lelands current sale and when compared to the other similar baseballs it is clear that both PSA/DNA and JSA have been authenticating forgeries of Ruth signatures that have fetched anywhere between $20,000 and $300,000 at auction.

This style Babe Ruth forgery appears on at least seven big-ticket auction lots that have been sold with either JSA or PSA/DNA letters of authenticity. The ball pulled from the Lelands sale appears highlighted in red.

Representatives from Lelands agreed with our determination and proceeded to remove the alleged forgery from the current sale. Our second installment of the “Operation Bambino” series had already identified these balls as forgeries in a distinctive handwriting style of a specific forger that contrasted two other styles of Ruth forgeries.  Even when viewed by hobbyists without any background in handwriting analysis it is quite evident that these style signatures are highly problematic.

This group photo appeared in our second part of the Operation Bambino series and identified each of these baseballs as Ruth forgeries. The ball pulled from the Lelands sale appears on the left side of the middle row.

Each signature is executed methodically and appears almost identical to every other example. The signatures are also placed on the same section of each ball’s “sweet spot.” But what’s even more troubling is that PSA/DNA declined to write an LOA for one of these forgeries when it appeared in a Mastro auction back in 2008.  In its lot description Mastro said:

“We emphatically assert that this is truly one of the finest Babe Ruth “singles” in the hobby. (The relic’s legitimacy is so certain, in our view, that Mastro Auctions is presenting the Mint-condition gem without a PSA letter, as that company declined to provide one.)”

The bogus ball was authenticated, however, by James Spence Authentication (JSA).

This Ruth forgery was sold by Mastro in 2008 with an LOA from JSA. PSA/DNA declined to authenticate the ball at the time, thus suggesting that PSA may have known these balls were forgeries as early as 2008. The "mint" ball sold for just under $20,000 in the Mastro sale.

We asked Lelands, “Have they (PSA/DNA) been aware these are fake since at least 2008?  Please ask, because they surely won’t give answers to me or any customers of theirs.” Mike Hefner of Lelands responded saying, “I have not spoken with Steve Grad for over a year.” Leland’s founder Josh Evans thanked us for informing him about the fake and said, “We are pulling it.” Lelands could not divulge who the unlucky consignor/victim is.

The ball that was being sold by Lelands was accompanied by a PSA/DNA LOA dated in 2003 and signed by both James Spence and Steve Grad at a time when both were employed as experts by the company that operates under the Collectors Universe umbrella. The same authenticated ball appeared in a May 2004 auction conducted by Grey Flannel where it sold for $41,672. Grey Flannel describe the ball as “a blazer.”

This is the PSA/DNA LOA that accompanies the forged Babe Ruth baseball appearing in Lelands current auction catalog. The LOA was signed by both James Spence and Steve Grad.

We showed the entire group of forgeries to several experts, dealers and collectors we respect and asked for their observations and opinions. They responded stating:

-”So where were these (Ruth balls) the last 4 decades ? Even back in the 1970’s & 80’s when SS Ruth balls were selling for a couple grand I NEVER even remembered anything in this condition being offered for sale by any dealer or auction company.”

-”It certainly appears they are all done by the same hand. Amazing, (I) never really saw a nice clean ball signed by Ruth until the 90’s.”

-”The signature on that ball is a very poor forgery of Ruth. It’s a joke that PSA or JSA authenticated it but not surprising.”

-”Can you imagine how many flat items this forger has created and flooded the market with?”

Our on-going investigation has revealed many more troubling aspects of the third party authentication system first orchestrated by Bill Mastro, MastroNet Inc. and PSA way back in 1999. No doubt there are likely millions of dollars in forged Ruth balls in private hands accompanied by worthless (and perhaps fraudulent) LOAs issued by both PSA and JSA.  Mastro just began serving a prison sentence which resulted from an FBI investigation into fraud at Mastro Auctions and Legendary Auctions. One collector told us, “If you own a high grade Ruth ball, you gotta be very nervous. If you bought one from Mastro you’re living on the edge.”

Experts allege that this group of Ruth "blazers" is full of fakes and forgeries. These balls have broken auction sales records and have all been authenticated by PSA and JSA. These balls, when compared to the forgery pulled from Lelands, illustrate the handwriting of an additional forger who is fleecing collectors.

As illustrated by our previous Bambino reports many of the record-breaking Ruth balls that have sold for several hundred thousand dollars have been forged in a hand different than the ball pulled from Lelands.  Each of these Ruth forgeries was executed in a distinct and contrasting hand, different than Ruth, himself, and also different than the other multiple forgers.

We informed Babe Ruth’s granddaughter, Linda Ruth Tosetti, about the PSA-certed Ruth forgery pulled from the Lelands sale and she told us, “I am always telling people to stay away from these guys. People are buying their sales pitch and getting ripped off. I have now come to the point to tell fans to beware of all Babe Ruth autographs.  It is a sad state of affairs. People will not buy a piece unless it is PSA-DNA certified.” Ruth-Tosetti has been outspoken about the Ruth-forgery epidemic and has been in touch with the FBI in an attempt to help clean up the troubled autograph authentication industry. Ruth- Tosetti added,  ”This PSA-DNA has dirtied the collecting market. What a shame. I applaud the FBI in their continued help in bringing these guys to justice. To my grandfather’s fans, BUYER BEWARE! Do your homework and know who you are dealing with.”

Linda Ruth-Tosetti (left) has strong words for PSA President Joe Orlando and his senior authenticator Steve Grad (second from right). James Spence of JSA (far right) authenticated the fake Ruth ball withdrawn from the current Lelands sale.

Both of the embattled authentication companies are also currently fighting lawsuits filed by dealers Nelson Deedle and Todd Mueller alleging both fraud and racketeering.  In addition, in another lawsuit filed against RR Auctions by Michael Johnson, PSA President Joe Orlando and senior authenticator Steve Grad had been avoiding service of subpoenas compelling testimony in that case, but have since been served papers to appear at depositions. Since being served, however, their attorney Keith Attlesey has refused to produce both clients for their scheduled depositions.  Sources indicate that PSA is concerned that Grad’s steady authentication of fraudulent materials will be a topic of interest in the depositions. Despite his shortcomings as an authenticator and his well-documented history of certifying fakes as genuine, Grad also serves as the on-air autograph expert for the popular cable TV show Pawn Stars on the History Channel.  One industry executive told us, “Grad is a hack but he seriously thinks he’s a TV star now.  I’ve heard he’s got too big for his britches even with PSA.  I wouldn’t be surprised if PSA cans him before the authorities have a shot at putting him out of commission.”

Neither PSA or JSA have ever responded to Hauls of Shame’s inquiries about forgeries their so-called “experts” have certified authentic.  The one time PSA did respond to HOS was in 2013 with a letter from attorney Keith Attlesey threatening a lawsuit for a report we published stating that the company was “founded on a fraud.” Our statement, however, was based upon the fact that the first baseball card they graded (the Gretzky-McNall T-206 Wagner) had been trimmed by auctioneer Bill Mastro and that the PSA employee grading the card, Bill Hughes, knew it had been trimmed.  Shortly after Attlsey sent us his cease and desist letter, Mastro admitted to fraudulently trimming the now infamous T-206 Honus Wagner card as part of a plea agreement with the government.  It should be noted that while PSAs card division was, in fact, founded on a fraud, its autograph division was also founded on a similar fraud based upon the company’s authentications of gem-mint Ruth single-singed balls that are considered forgeries by many experts in the field. Sources we spoke with could not confirm whether the FBI is currently investigating PSA and JSA for their ties to fraudulent Babe Ruth memorabilia.