When Matt Federgreen was approached by a man with a dozen items autographed by baseball great Roberte Clemente, the hair on the back of his neck stood up.
The collection included a check signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates All Star, but the seller was not aware of the value of his items and acted suspiciously.
"He claimed that the items belonged to his father who had passed away, but I assumed that the signatures were phony," said Federgreen, owner of Beverly Hills Baseball Card Shop.
It turned out that they were authentic after all but stolen.
About a week later, Federgreen received a call from someone looking for his collection of autographed Roberto Clemente memorabilia that was taken from a storage locker.
Welcome to world of sports memorabilia, where a significant growth in forgeries and the trade in stolen items has dampened enthusiasm for what had been a rapidly growing pastime among rabid fans and high-brow collectors alike.
While forgeries and stolen goods are a problem with museum objects, antiquities and other collectibles, they have posed a special problem for sports memorabilia with its broad appeal and availability to millions of sports fans.
The problem is so extensive that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been conducting an investigation of sports memorabilia fraud since 1997.
The investigation, dubbed Operation Bullpen, at one point involved the establishment of a fake company that traded in sports memorabilia; it helped identify forgers and dealers who were distributing fake items. The first phase of the probe led to 26 convictions in Southern California while the second phase resulted in an additional 40 arrests.
"Muhammad Ali is probably the most forged signature in the world," said FBI special agent Tim Fitzsimmons, the lead investigator for Operation Bullpen, which is being led by the bureau's San Diego field office.
Law enforcement officials aren't the only ones attempting to combat the problem. With millions of dollars at stake, collectors, legitimate dealers and even the athletes themselves are taking steps to quell fears among collectors.
Some athletes, for example, are turning to marketing firms and other specialists that authenticate memorabilia bearing the athletes' signatures before they hit the market. Athletes also rely on the firms to track down and destroy forgeries.
"Some people can make millions of dollars a year off of licensing and their image," said Harlan Werner, founder of L.A.-based Sports Placement Service Inc., a company that represents retired athletes including Sandy Koufax, Joe Namath, Jim Brown and the Ali brand. The company recently announced the addition of Mike Tyson as a client.
"I've traveled to England and Japan tracking Ali's signature and there are probably more than a million signatures of Ali that aren't real," said Werner, who values the fake memorabilia at well over $200 million.
Also assisting in the effort is technology. Major League Baseball has attempted to combat fraud by affixing a numbered hologram to autographed baseballs and other items it offers for sale. The number is logged into an online database where buyers and others can verify authenticity.
Prova Group is a third-party authenticator based in Irving, Texas, that uses RFID tags to verify authenticity. The company already has deals in place with the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams to tag each jersey which is then logged in and out by players before use during a game.
It is also used when retired players for those teams such as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin sign autographs at trade shows. The tamper-proof RFID tag is applied to an item before signing and records the exact time of the signature to the second when the item is placed within 12 inches of an antenna set up near the athlete's hand.
"We give you a way to track an item's ownership history similar to a title search on a house," said Craig Noonan, chief marketing officer. "We're protecting authenticity from generation to generation," Noonan said.
Independent third-party authenticators also try to establish the provenance of an item to determine its authenticity.
Newport Beach-based Collectors Universe Inc. authenticates all types of items. Its sports division certifies more than 100,000 baseball cards and tens of thousands of signatures per month. The company charges a fee to authenticate items that varies depending on the value of the item.
"Why spend $75 when you know that an item is fake?" asked Joe Orlando, president of the company's sports unit.
Most items sent to the company are not obvious forgeries. Nevertheless, some athletes such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle have rejection rates exceeding 50 percent. "What's scary is that even items sent to us by top dealers and auction houses are forgeries," said Orlando.
Meanwhile, Federgreen continues to run the baseball card shop that he has owned for 23 years. These days, though, he's more cautious than ever in dealing with the memorabilia that passes through his business.
"You don't get a real Gucci bag for $25 at the swap meet. If a deal is too good to be true, then it probably is," he said.
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