The Mark McGwire jersey has Major League
Baseball's seal of approval, but the autograph that would boost its
value is as phony as a corked bat.
At least half and possibly 90 percent of items in the $1
billion sports and celebrity memorabilia market are fake, federal
investigators said Wednesday.
Their three-year probe, dubbed Operation Bullpen, has led to 25
arrests and turned up thousands of photos, baseballs and other
items bearing counterfeit signatures in the largest investigation
yet into the memorabilia industry.
"You can't tell unless you see it autographed personally or you
know the history of the item," said Phillip Halpern, the assistant
U.S. attorney who coordinated Operation Bullpen.
The counterfeit McGwire jersey, priced at $3,995, was displayed
in an FBI storage room Wednesday as federal authorities showed off
results of their probe.
A genuine autographed McGwire jersey would sell for thousands
more, said Richard McWilliams, president of the sports collectibles
company Upper Deck, which assisted the FBI and Internal Revenue
Service in the investigation. McWilliams said his company protects
itself by having a representative witness all signings.
"If the price doesn't seem to agree to the item, then you've
got to be very careful. Because it's probably too good to be
true," McWilliams said.
Many of the fakes are sold over the Internet and through
catalogues. But the forgery ring at the center of Operation Bullpen
shipped memorabilia to retailers in at least 15 states, including
Arizona, Oregon, Hawaii, Georgia and New York, investigators said.
Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, who assisted investigators, said
he found counterfeit versions of his autograph in one of the team's
official gift stores.
Since the investigation began in 1997, investigators have seized
thousands of items, including a baseball supposedly signed by
Mother Teresa, and fake autographs from Michael Jordan, Albert
Einstein, Abraham Lincoln and Jerry Garcia.
An FBI agent posed as a representative of an exporting firm who
wanted to ship collectibles to Asia. The investigation eventually
led authorities to a forgery ring allegedly run by a family in
Most of the 25 people charged in the forgery ring were in
Southern California, and as many as 40 more arrests in other states
are expected in the coming months, U.S. Attorney Gregory Vega said.
The forgers searched garage sales for vintage paper and ink, and
hired unscrupulous authenticators to falsely verify their work,
He said the investigation also led him to doubt the authenticity
of items he had purchased for his own sons.
"As I sit here today I'm wondering if they are counterfeit or
not," he said.