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Authorities: Up to 90 Percent of Collectibles
on Market Are Fake

By Ben Fox    Associated Press
SAN DIEGO — 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 Escondido.

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, Vega said.

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.

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