By Peter J. Nash
Aug. 2, 2012
The Federal indictments leveled against Bill Mastro and former Mastro employees last week revealed that Mastro has supposedly admitted to trimming the infamous Gretzky-McNall Wagner, which was graded by PSA as a “Near Mint 8,” the highest graded Wagner known. The controversial card is currently the property of Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick, who paid $2.8 million for it in 2008.
The FBI’s mention of Mastro’s admission confirmed the suspicions hobbyists have had for years about the card, but also illustrate how the authentication giant PSA/DNA was founded on a fraud, knowingly grading a trimmed and altered card. Most recently PSA has also been implicated in the authentication of laser-printed forgeries that they encapsulated in PSA holders just like the one the Wagner card is housed.
Mastro’s fraudulent Honus Wagner card is the same one pictured on the Collectors Universe 2010 annual shareholders report (CLCT:NASDAQ) as a shining example and symbol of the company’s excellence in authentication and its standing as the leader in the industry. Also appearing on the CU report cover is another controversial collectible that has also for years been suspected to be the product of fraud and trickery, the record-breaking $300,000 single-signed Babe Ruth baseball that is currently being offered by Heritage Auctions at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Baltimore, Md. It shares another thing in common with the fraudulent Wagner card, it, too, has ties to Mastro Auctions as it was sold by Bill Mastro in a 2002 auction for $61,000. The ball was authenticated by James Spence and Steve Grad of PSA/DNA and Mike Gutierrez of MastroNet. The same ball first appeared at auction in 2000 and was sold by David Hunt of Hunt Auctions in Exton, PA for a then-record price of $72,600. The record price surpassed the sale of another very similar Ruth ball sold by Bill Mastro at Mastro Fine Sports for $55,660.
At the time the record was broken Mastro told the Maine Antique Digest, “We set the table when we sold a Babe Ruth ball for over thirty thousand dollars back in June at our West Coast auction, and that was considered miraculous. Then a ball sold at Sotheby’s Barry Halper sale in September for nearly fifty thousand, and that set the table for us to get almost sixty thousand last November and more than sixty thousand for our Ruth and Gehrig ball. There is a frenzy for these big-ticket mint Babe Ruth balls. Does a better one exist? Probably. There is always a better one.”
The Hunt auction description said their Ruth single-signed ball “was acquired on the set of the Babe Ruth Story in California and given by Claire Ruth to a United Artist publicist. It is being consigned by his family and will be accompanied by a detailed letter of provenance from the family along with a letter of authenticity from Michael Gutierrez.” The ball was sold with what was said to be its original Reach box as well.
That same ball is being offered at Heritage, with an alleged current bid of $280,000, and makes no mention of an original ball box accompanying the ball. Heritage also states:
Accompanying the ball is a letter from Stephen Stoll dated August 17, 1999, which states “My father, William Stoll, was a Hollywood publicist who worked on the movie called “The Babe Ruth Story.” The movie starred William Bendix as Babe Ruth. Mr. Ruth’s widow gave this ball to my father and it’s been in my family ever since.”
Despite the alleged letter of provenance, autograph expert and author of “A Guide to Hall of Fame Autographs (McFarland, 2012),” Ron Keurajian, told us, “In my opinion the signature on that ball is not genuine.”
Stephen Koschal first questioned the Ruth ball and its inclusion on the cover of the CU annual report in a report published on Autograph Alert in 2011.
Authenticator Richard Simon has also been suspicious of the ball, “”I always wanted to have it in hand, for a real examination, because I was never sure if it was good, I am not saying it is not good, I just would like to see it in person and study it.”
The record-breaking Ruth ball, along with several others, has long been the subject of controversy and has been part of our continuing Operation Bambino investigations.
To see just how treacherous the collecting of high-grade single-signed baseballs is, one only has to pick up a copy of Koschal’s new book “Collecting Signatures of the Presidents of the United States on Baseballs.” In the book, Koschal illustrates a Harry Truman single-signed baseball that appeared for sale at Mastro Auctions in May of 2001 and at R&R Auctions in November of 2004 as a low grade example of the former President’s signature. The ball originally came with a MastroNet LOA at the time Mike Gutierrez was working for the company and when it sold at R&R its authenticity was described as, “COA John Reznikoff/PSA/DNA & R&R COA.”
Then, miraculously (and reminiscent of the now infamous magically appearing Honus Wagner signature in another Mastro sale) the exact same Truman ball appeared in EAC Galleries’ February, 2005, sale as the highest graded Truman ball in existence. It was described as “bold and pristine” and the “finest example extant.” When it sold in 2005 EAC’s description stated, “Provenance John Reznikoff.” Reznikoff is the primary authenticator of political and historic autographs and manuscripts for both PSA/DNA and James Spence Authentication (JSA).
In relation to the high-grade single-signed balls in the hobby, Koschal states in his new book, “The recent discovery and example may certainly be the answer to all those beautiful white baseballs that have appeared in auctions during the last dozen years that contain a “10″ signature of Babe Ruth that have sold for $100,000+”
Koschal also states his belief that the Truman ball appears to have been “professionally cleaned” and the signature enhanced possibly by some form of chemical enhancement. The Truman signature has confounded experts who find it hard to believe the signature could have been enhanced by hand like a signed forgery. However, the same experts and also members of law enforcement have not been able to determine what process this forgery was created with.
PSA/DNA authenticator John Reznikoff authenticated the Truman ball when it was barely visible and was listed as “provenance” when it sold at EAC as the “finest extant. Reznikoff’s website for his company University Archives states: “He (Reznikoff) is the first and only expert to combine his primary work as an autograph authenticator with a great study of forensic document examination. His lab is one of the most advanced of its kind outside of the FBI.”
Sources indicate that Reznikoff also authenticated the alleged hair of Elvis Presley that was deemed non-genuine by the FBI in the Mastro indictments. Collecting hair is even more dangerous than collecting autographs as evidenced by Robert Edward Auctions sale of a bogus lock of Babe Ruth’s hair from the Barry Halper collection. For years Halper held the hair out as genuine and claimed that it was authenticated by Ruth himself in an accompanying letter and envelope. The letter and envelope were determined to be forgeries. James Spence stated that the letters were non-malicious secretarial signatures when REA sold the hair to an unsuspecting victim for $38,000.
We made an inquiry to PSA/DNA head-honcho, Joe Orlando, for a comment on the authenticity of the highest graded PSA Babe Ruth ball appearing in Heritage. We also asked for his explanation as to how his employee, John Reznikoff, could have authenticated the Truman ball for PSA when the signature was barely visible, and then be listed as the ball’s “provenance” when it was later sold as the “finest extant.” Orlando did not respond to our request. Orlando has also failed to respond to other media inquiries about his company’s grading of the controversial PSA-8 Wagner that is tied to the Federal indictment of Bill Mastro. Orlando’s top autograph authenticator, Steve Grad, is a former MastroNet employee and authenticator. Orlando and PSA appear to have scrubbed profiles they had written about Bill Mastro and Doug Allen on the PSA website.
Chris Ivy, of Heritage Auctions did respond to our inquiry about the Ruth ball. We asked Ivy to provide the original letter from 1999 written by the son of the man who worked on the set of the Babe Ruth movie in 1948, and we also asked if he had verified the story detailed in that letter. Ivy was also asked if the original box accompanied the ball. Ivy did not forward a copy of the letter and said, “Between meetings with industry people and the demands of press coverage of the auction, I’m afraid it will be a few days before I can address your provenance questions in the detail I’m sure you’re hoping to receive. I should note, of course, that both PSA/DNA and James Spence are fully confident in the authenticity of the signature.”