(This story originally appeared in the NY Daily News)
By Michael O’Keeffe
BALTIMORE – An agent from the FBI’s Chicago division crashed the National Sports Collectors Convention for the third consecutive year on Aug. 5, interviewing industry executives at sports memorabilia’s largest annual show for what appears to be an extensive investigation into fraud, counterfeiting and shill bidding.
Sports memorabilia dealers, authenticators and collectors interviewed by the Daily News at the show, held this year at the Baltimore Convention Center, said they believe the Chicago grand jury investigating the hobby will hand down indictments by the end of the summer, if not sooner – another black eye for an industry that has long been rocked by scandal and allegations of illegal and unethical activity.
“The perception of our industry is not good, and this won’t help,” said Bill Huggins of Huggins and Scott Auctions, a Silver Spring, Md., auction house.
Memorabilia insiders are already taking steps to contain the damage from the impending storm: Denver attorney Marshall Fogel, whose memorabilia collection is said to be worth millions, held a meeting Wednesday night at the convention center to discuss the creation of a national trade association that would police the industry. About two dozen memorabilia executives attended Wednesday’s meeting; another sit-down has been scheduled for Saturday evening.
“If it puts the industry in a positive direction, I’m all for it,” said J.P. Cohen, the owner of Memory Lane, a Southern California memorabilia firm. “It should have been done a long time ago.”
Other industry officials, however, questioned Fogel’s efforts to clean up the scandal-stained hobby. Some said there have been several failed attempts to create memorabilia trade organizations in the past. Organizing the world of memorabilia is like herding cats, they said. “You can’t get two guys in this business to even agree that this is a phone,” Huggins said, holding up his cell phone.
Others questioned Fogel’s motives – the Colorado lawyer is a close friend of Bill Mastro, whose now-defunct Mastro Auctions appears to be the primary target of the three-year federal investigation. “Marshall is trying to protect his collection and his investment,” one dealer said. “He says he wants to help us, but I suspect that means he wants us to help him.”
Fogel did not return a call for comment.
The Chicago FBI investigation is the third major federal memorabilia probe in 15 years, but while Operation Foul Ball and Operation Bullpen targeted underground forgers who flooded the memorabilia market with millions of dollars worth of bogus athlete and celebrity autographs, this investigation appears to focus on some of the hobby’s most prestigious firms. Mastro Auctions was sports memorabilia’s largest auction house before it folded in 2009; executives from other prominent companies – including Grey Flannel, Heritage Auction, Professional Sports Authenticators, Hunt Auctions and Lelands have all been questioned by investigators.
Dealers and collectors say agents are focusing on shill bidding, counterfeit memorabilia and card doctoring.
The government has also inquired about the hobby’s “Holy Grail,” the T206 Honus Wagner card once owned by NHL star Wayne Gretzky. The card, previously owned by Mastro, is widely believed to have been cut from a sheet decades after it left the printing press and trimmed after that, a cardinal sin in the card hobby. The card is now owned by Arizona Diamondbacks managing general partner E.G. (Ken) Kendrick, who bought it for $2.8 million in a private sale in 2007.
Federal investigators attended the past two Nationals to interview dealers and authenticators and deliver subpoenas requiring executives to produce records or appear before the grand jury.
Cynthia Yates, a spokeswoman for the Chicago FBI, said the agency does not comment on ongoing investigations.
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