June 22, 2012
The infamous T-206 Honus Wagner card rests comfortably in a display case at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, on loan courtesy of Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick. It became the world’s most expensive baseball card when Kendrick purchased the PSA-graded cardboard in a 2008 private sale for $2.8 million. It’s a loaded question to ask if it’s also the most valuable card in the world, because most experts, veteran collectors and one major newspaper consider it the hobby’s greatest fraud believing it was trimmed to enhance its condition. The “holy-grail” of baseball cards is said to be a product of deception much like MLB ballplayers and their statistics in the steroid-era. The game and the hobby that lives off it run parallel with players injecting PEDs for an edge while collectors and dealers trim cards, forge autographs and alter fabrics on uniforms for quick paydays.
Now that Kendrick’s Wagner is on display at the Hall it’s in close proximity to another relic that is a legendary product of deception and the original anchor artifact in the Cooperstown collection- the “Doubleday Baseball.”
It was that tattered little ball, allegedly purchased for $5 bucks by Singer Sewing Machine heir, Stephen C. Clark, that was subsequently bequeathed to the newly founded Baseball Hall of Fame in 1935. With that original donation, Clark, a philanthropist and owner of one of the world’s most prolific art collections, created one of baseball’s first collected and revered relics. Some may argue that with his donation, the seeds for the future baseball memorabilia craze were planted near the site of Elihu Phinney’s storied Cooperstown cow pasture that baseball magnate Albert G. Spalding schemed to make famous. That was the mythical field Abner Doubleday and Abner Graves never played or tossed that ball upon.
It’s fitting that both of these alleged fraudulent artifacts are now under the same Cooperstown roof as they both play an important role in telling the story of baseball’s long-standing ties to deceit and avarice and the rise of the unregulated, billion-dollar baseball memorabilia industry. The story of the T-206 Honus Wagner card, now a possession of an MLB owner, has also played a part in the fall from grace of the hobby’s once most powerful figure and past owner of Kendrick’s controversial card, Bill Mastro.
In 2007, the New York Daily News’ sports editor, Teri Thompson, and one of her reporters, Michael O’Keeffe, devoted an entire book to the subject of Kendrick’s T-206 Honus Wagner and the men involved in its journey through the sports marketplace. Their book, The Card: Collectors, Con Men and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card, was alleged to tell the “true story” of the card and the complex cast of characters who had handled it over the course of the last century. In marketing their “true story” they took advantage of a real-life feud between the two men who had originally discovered the near-mint card in 1985 at a baseball card shop located a few miles off exit 23 on the Long Island Expressway.
Rob Lifson and Bill Mastro established themselves in the baseball card business as youngsters in the 1970s and decades after selling the infamous Wagner for over $100,000, joined forces to form the sports auction behemoth known as MastroNet. But by 2004, the two former friends were arch-enemies and the New York Daily News would play a key role in doing the bidding of Rob Lifson who sources allege turned FBI informant against his old pal supposedly turning over evidence allegedly implicating Mastro in schemes related to shill bidding and other fraud. In their book, The Card, reporters O’Keeffe and Thompson utilized Lifson as their “unfailingly generous” source and painted a picture of him as a “White Knight” who was “fighting against the evils that lurk within the hobby.” Conversely, when O’Keeffe had attempted to interview Mastro in 2001 to question him about his involvement in altering the famous Wagner card he was cursed out and ejected from Mastro’s Chicago offices.
From 2006 through 2010, O’Keeffe and Thompson in their book and on the pages of the New York Daily News waged a war (in over twenty published articles) against Mastro at the behest of their source and FBI informant, Rob Lifson, who was Mastro’s then-fiercest competitor in the auction arena. Thompson, O’Keeffe and their newspaper appear to have abandoned their journalistic integrity by telling only part of the story that benefited their source and the promotion of their own book published by Harper’s. This 10-part series will reveal the true story behind their biased reporting, the genesis of the Lifson-Mastro feud and the FBI investigation that ensued.
My own investigation of MastroNet started over a decade ago when I first started doing business with the company, but intensified in April of 2002 when a collector named Paul Reiferson asked me to aid him in his plans to start a class-action lawsuit against Mastro alleging shill-bidding and other wrongdoing. Reiferson, of Weston, CT, is a hedge fund manager at Americus Capital Advisors and a collector of original Charles Conlon photographs (and also the former owner of the infamous 1908 Merkle-Boner ball) who believed items he had bid on in past sales were bid-up by Bill Mastro and in some cases claimed that Mastro actually was the winning bidder on rare Conlon photos that he actively bid on. Reiferson knew that I had also been conducting my own investigation into Rob Lifson and his then-alleged thefts from the New York Public Library’s Spalding Collection. I had already sent Reiferson solid proof that an 1872 Warren cabinet photo of Harry Wright that sold in MastroNet’s November, 2000, auction was stolen from the NYPL (that same auction included several other items stolen from the NYPL) Reiferson had interest in the NYPL thefts but he really wanted me to see if Lifson would open up or admit having knowledge of fraud committed by Bill Mastro.
So, in fulfilling Reiferson’s request, I soon after asked Lifson rather awkwardly about the bad blood between Reiferson and Mastro and even informed him that Reiferson had plans to bring a class-action lawsuit against his company. (In 2000, Lifson’s company, Robert Edward Auctions, joined forces with Mastro under the umbrella of the new auction giant MastroNet Inc. Lifson was a Director of the company). I also told Lifson that Reiferson alleged that Bill Mastro had access to a special computer program in the MastroNet system that sent bids of customers directly to him so that he could shill them or, in other words, bid them up.
Lifson responded, “He is out of his mind. He is disturbed and he can do anything he wants, he can accuse us (MastroNet) of murder if he wants, it’s stupid. He’s sitting there realizing he’s not the kind of guy that can admit that he’s wrong, and he’s gotta like grasp onto this stupid idea that we’re not an auction house, we’re criminals and that we cheat people and its stupid.”
I told Lifson that Reiferson said the suit would be for $44 million and would seek treble damages. Lifson again responded contentiously, “You know what, I can assure you the first chance if he were to ever sue us, God help him if there’s an opportunity for a counter-suit, because we don’t lose.” Lifson added, “He (Reiferson) obviously has emotional problems.” I disagreed with him and he retorted, “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, but you know I’m sitting here thinking, you know what, I might have more fun if he did sue us. You know, cause we’ll figure out, it won’t be very hard to figure out some way to have it, turn it around and cost him a fortune, you know, it’s not gonna cost us anything. I think he needs a psychiatrist, you know, that’s what I think. I don’t say that flippantly, I mean, I mean literally.”
I then told Lifson that Reiferson said he had a lawyer who had worked other big cases and also said Mastro was selling stolen property. Lifson responded even more vehemently (and 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 I told Lifson it appeared he was moving forward with his proposed litigation he responded, ” He (Reiferson) is moving forward with his head so far up his ass that its gonna pop out his mouth again- that’s what he’s moving forward with. He’s an asshole.”
After I mentioned to Lifson that Reiferson was a Harvard business school graduate with connections and not your everyday low-level memorabilia collector, Lifson again responded, “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.” He then added, “If I hear this guy talking, you know, and I hear it from other places, not just you, but if I were to hear this from other places about these types of allegations and accusations, then I’m going to turn it over to our attorney and say hey, this guy is spreading rumors and they’re hurting our business. Then we’ll sue him. But look, I think I mentioned this to you 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 haven’t done anything.” Click here for: (Lifson Nash Audio April 2002)
It was the type of provocative exchange that revealed quite a bit about the MastroNet empire and the close relationship that Lifson and Mastro had as late as April of 2002. (In March of 2001, O’Keeffe and Bill Madden of the Daily News had already written an article suggesting that Mastro had trimmed or altered the Wagner card.) It was the type of revelation that you’d expect seasoned investigative reporters like Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson of the New York Daily News to uncover in their quest for the truth about Mastro, Lifson and “The Card.” You’d think that the award winning editor and reporter of the Daily News I-Team who were experienced covering the likes of Bonds, Clemens and Sandusky would have mentioned Lifson’s standing as an officer of MastroNet; his rather strong defense of his old pal Bill Mastro; and his defiant statements that both he and Mastro were not criminals engaging in shill bidding and fraud.
Maybe they knew it all along and it just didn’t fit into their game-plan. Maybe it wouldn’t have pleased their master to report the truth. They may have thought having a real villain pitted against a “white knight” would help sell more books. O’Keeffe and Thompson wrote in The Card that Lifson “split with Mastro in late 2002″ and that he “got a modest sum for his 30 percent interest in the company but he felt like he’d won the lottery, or at least walked out of a fog with a clear path ahead.”
The Daily News writers failed to mention that Lifson was said to have been ousted by Mastro for poor performance in his position as a director of the company. Sources familiar with Lifson’s exit say Bill Mastro didn’t think his long-time friend was pulling his weight at MastroNet.
In a very short time the divide between the two old friends would deepen. As Mastro told Dave Jamieson in his 2010 book Mint Condition, “Lifson and I were best friends at one point and we hate each other now.”
(Watch for our next installment, Part 2, in this 10-Part Investigative Series-Coming Soon.)
UPDATE: Mastro Indicted on Fraud Charges Related to Famous Gretzky-McNall Wagner: click here for news release.