Dec. 12, 2011
This investigation into the authenticity of high-end Babe Ruth single-signed baseballs took decades to develop. Over the years, I would collect images of Ruth signatures appearing in the latest auction catalogs for my exemplar files and, after a while, I noticed distinct inconsistencies in the handwriting featured on the gem-mint Ruth balls that were surfacing and selling for record prices. Other collectors I’d spoken with also noticed the same differences when comparing signatures.
The first person with a background in handwriting analysis to tell me they doubted the authenticity of gem-mint Ruth balls was the legendary handwriting expert, the late Charles Hamilton. Hamilton thought that two early examples that were sold at Richard Wolfers Auctions in the early 1990s were not genuine.
The first of the pristine Ruth balls to command a high five-figure price was Barry Halper’s signed Babe Ruth portrait ball that sold in the 1999 Halper sale at Sotheby’s for $46,000. The next was the first-ever PSA/DNA certified Ruth ball that sold at Mastro Fine Sports Auctions in November of 1999 for $55,600 and was utilized prominently in PSA’s advertisements. Another example that appeared in Robert Edward Auctions’ July, 2000, sale topped all previous auction records with a hammer price of $76,020.
But as more of these mint balls surfaced in auctions over the next decade I began to notice that these snow-white examples exhibited their own signature styles which appeared to differ from auction to auction. Most all of the signatures were alleged to have been signed by Ruth on official Major League Harridge AL balls and Frick NL balls dating between 1934 and 1948 (but most alleged post-1940).
Last year I began to organize my images of each Ruth ball from past auction catalogs and assigned them to specific groups of similar alleged “styles” of Ruth signatures. I then showed each group of the Ruth balls to expert Ron Keurajian and he expressed to me his doubt that any of the Ruth autographed baseballs featured in the illustrations were genuine.
Keurajian is the author of McFarland Publishing’s soon-to-be-released baseball autograph study, Signatures From Cooperstown and, while not an authenticator by trade, is considered by many in the hobby the most skilled analyst of Hall of Famer signatures. Keurajian is particularly familiar with Ruth’s handwriting and its unique characteristics and can easily detect a wide range of Ruth forgeries.
Last week, when I showed him the images of the balls included in this report Keurajian stated, “Out of the twenty-seven images of Ruth balls you have sent, there is not one I would feel comfortable in pronouncing as genuine.”
Here are the three groups of alleged ”Ruth Signature Styles”:
Ruth Style 1:
This style of Ruth signature on a high-grade ball appears to have first surfaced in a 1994 Lelands auction and was featured on the cover of its November, 1994, ”Grand Slam Auction” (top, right).
The next example that appeared at auction was a ball (center) that sold for a record price of $46,000 in the 1999 Halper sale at Sotheby’s. The auction house and their lead consultant, Rob Lifson, stated in the catalog that the ball was one of 200 Ruth signed balls in the Halper Collection and that, “Barry Halper always considered this ball to be his favorite.”
Soon after the Halper liquidation another strikingly similar ball sold at Robert Edward Auctions in July of 2000 (top, left) for close to $50,000. The auction house president, Rob Lifson, wrote in his catalog, “Of the hundreds of Babe Ruth baseballs we have handled over the past thirty years, this is one of only four Ruth singles we have ever graded 10/10. One of the finest Babe Ruth single signed autographs in the world.” (The same ball that sold at the REA auction appears to have first surfaced publicly in a Sports Collectors Digest ad placed by Art Jaffe and Left Field Collectibles on April 21, 2000.)
Most recently, in August of 2010, Heritage Auctions sold one of the other examples illustrated (bottom left) for $83,650. Heritage quoted PSA authenticator Steve Grad in their lot description as saying the offering was the “finest Babe Ruth signature I’ve ever seen on a baseball.”
Ruth Style 2:
This style of Ruth signature is the most prevalent of the alleged gem-mint specimens and appears to be labored and slowly executed in similar blue inks. The first examples (top row, left and center) appeared at Richard Wolfers Auctions’ early 1990s “Treasures of the Game” auctions.
By 1999, an example (2nd row, left) was sold by Mastro Auctions for $56,500 as the first PSA/DNA authenticated Ruth ball and in 2000 another example (2nd row, right) sold at Hunt Auctions for a then-record $72,600. In 2005, MastroNet offered another example (3rd row, right) that was graded a “9″ by PSA and sold for $87,720. The ball was utilized in PSA print advertisements with the heading, “So, You Don’t Think Grading Matters? Think Again…have your prized signed baseballs graded by PSA today.”
One of the examples shown in this group (bottom, left) sold at Heritage for $50,787 in 2008, but failed to sell last month when it was offered by Gem Mint Auctions with a minimum bid of $25,000. This ball was authenticated by PSA with a grade of 8.5.
Joe Orlando of PSA recently reported via Twitter that the example appearing in the second row, to the right, recently changed hands in a private transaction for $300,000. The ball, graded a 9.5 by PSA (their highest grade ever), was also sold at Mastro in 2002 to collector Joe Verno for $61,047 and in 2004 Verno sold the ball privately to collector Kevin Coleman for $115,000. In 2005, Coleman is reported to have sold the ball to “an east coast collector” for $150,000.
Ruth Style 3:
This style of Ruth autograph exhibits a swiftly executed signature with little hesitation and flourishes that create a distinctive look. In 2000, Grey Flannel sold one of these balls for over $37,000 (bottom, left) and in 2003 MastroNet sold another for $43,000 (top, left). In 2004, Grey Flannel sold another for $41,672 (middle, left) and between 2003 and 2004 Mastro offered several others that sold in the $20,000 range (top, left and center).
Additional balls have surfaced with similarities to this group although they could be considered their own “style” or a fourth grouping:
In July of 2000 one of these balls (left) sold at Robert Edward Auctions for $76,020 (it first sold at Superior Auctions in Beverly Hills, CA in 1992 for $12,650). REA president, Rob Lifson, called the ball, ”the finest single signed Babe Ruth baseball Robert Edward Auctions has ever seen, let alone had the privilege of offering.”
The second example (center) was sold by Grey Flannel in 2004 for $44,438 and Jimmy Spence of PSA/DNA noted, “this is one of the nicest Ruth singles I have ever laid my eyes upon.” Spence also told the auction house, “Oh my God, what a blazer!” The same ball had been previously sold at the 1995 Sports Collector’s Convention by Bill Mastro in his “Best of Yesterday Auction.”
The third ball (right) was auctioned off by Sotheby’s/SCP in 2004 for $63,250 as “an example of the Bambino’s signature that is unparalleled.” The ball was accompanied by a vintage photo of Ruth signing a ball for a young boy, but the auction house made no direct claim in the lot description that the photo and the ball offered were related.
Although all three (or four) apparent styles of Ruth’s signature appear to have been executed in different hands,each of the balls illustrated share a common trait: they have all been certified as authentic by either PSA/DNAand JSA (James Spence Authentication) or Mike Gutierrez (formerly of PSA and currently of JSA).
Considering PSA/DNA’s status as part of the publicly held company, Collectors Universe (NASDAQ-CLCT), and that the company has utilized several of these questioned baseballs in their advertising campaigns, the authentication outfit could be scrutinized closely by federal regulators if it is proven they authenticated bogus items on such a grand scale.
The credibility of the company and their authenticators was first challenged by Wall Street observers in a 2006 article, “Kinda Sorta Genuine” written by Neil Martin and published in Barron’s. In that article Barron’s published a quote from the Pen and Quill written by Steve Zarelli who stated, “It has become apparent that PSA/DNA has some weakness in authenticating autographs outside the sports field — as well as some glaring oversights from within the sports area. It’s not uncommon to see a PSA/DNA [expert] ‘authenticating’ an autograph that is certainly not authentic.” Barron’s writer Neil Martin added, “The Bottom Line: The stock, which has fallen 26% from its 52-week high, could drop another 25% amid questions of credibility.”
Today, five years after the Barron’s article was published, the CU stock is currently trading at about $14.00 and has had a 52-week low of $12.26 and a 52-week high of $18.80. Authenticating is big business as indicated by Collectors Universe Chief Financial Officer, Joseph Wallace, on the November 7, 2011, earnings conference call where he told stockholders, “Our service revenues increased by $2.2 million or 23% quarter on quarter and comprised increases of $1.9 million in authentication and grading fees and $0.3 million in other related services. The increased grading and authentication fees were driven by increased coin fees of $1.7 million or 22% and cards and autographs of $0.2 million or 8%.”
James Spence was the first and primary authenticator employed by PSA in the late 1990s and in 2001 MastroNet made PSA/DNA their official “third-party authenticator.” Soon after that announcement, MastroNet’s former employee and in-house authenticator, Steve Grad, left the auction house to work solely for PSA and continued to authenticate MastroNet items. By the time the 2006 Barron’s article was published Spence had left PSA/DNA and established his own company, JSA.
JSA and PSA, have handled most all of the authentications of the suspect Babe Ruth baseballs featured in this report, however, it appears that they either did not notice the inconsistencies in the Ruth handwriting or disregarded the evidence and authenticated the items anyway.
It is well established that Ruth’s signature evolved during his career from the time he signed his name with “Babe” in quotes in 1927, to his later years with his better-known classic autograph. However, it is a mystery how the Bambino could have transformed his signature into so many disparate styles when signing on gem-mint baseballs manufactured during the last decade of his lifetime.
Should the suspicions about these Ruth balls be reinforced and supported by the handwriting experts and ex-law enforcement officials who will examine them as part of ”Operation Bambino,” PSA and JSA will have a lot of explaining to do to collectors who already seriously question their credibility. Could PSA and JSA have authenticated close to $1.5 million of bogus Ruth single-signed balls?
The focus of this investigation is to determine how the most prolific autograph signer in the history of American sport could have signed his name in several different styles within such a relatively short time period in the late 1930s to 1940s? Could any of these identified “styles” of Ruth’s signature actually have been executed in the hand of the “Bambino” ?
(If you have any other examples of suspect high-grade Ruth balls that have sold or, if you have information that would support the authenticity of any of the balls illustrated in this article, please email us at: Tips@haulsofshame.com )