Whistleblowers

By KEVIN NELSON
Featured in AUTOGRAPH JULY 2009
Images courtesy of University Archives

Order the July issue to see all the images in this article

Retired Ohio homicide detective Gary Rountree is an autograph collector who volunteers for A Kid Again, a nonprofit organization that helps children with life-threatening illnesses. One of his jobs for the organization is to acquire signed collectibles for selling at its benefit fund-raising auctions. Hearing that Troy Smith, the NFL quarterback and 2006 Heisman Trophy winner for Ohio State, was appearing at a shop in Columbus, Rountree decided to get a couple pieces autographed by him.

This Noel Coward forgery by Lee Israel, previously in the Charles Hamilton Collection, is now owned by John Reznikoff.
Little did he know that the event would put him on the hunt for a forger. He bought two OSU jerseys signed by Smith—one for his own collection and one for an upcoming A Kid Again auction. Then, as collectors are inclined to do, he went on eBay to see what other Troy Smith material was selling for. That was when Rountree, who still works as a private investigator, spotted the forgeries. “I knew it was a fake from the beginning,” he said. “It was so off, it was garbage.” But Rountree didn’t click away from these obvious counterfeits and ignore them. Instead he decided to see if he could track down the forger and blow the whistle on him.

Rountree is not alone. “Whistle blowing,” a term generally used to describe individuals who speak out against corporate or government malfeasance, has become part of the vocabulary of collecting, too. More and more collectors and dealers are using blogs, Web sites, online chat groups and even YouTube to fight against the forgeries staining their hobby.

After the publication of my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History (see Autograph, April 2009), many of them have contacted me to tell me their stories. “I am writing you this email due to your involvement in writing about the Marinos and Operation Bullpen,” said one email correspondent. “I am trying to get in touch with someone about an East Coast auction house that I truly believe is doing the same thing as the Marinos and Co. I have been an avid collector and I think I have a great eye for authentic items, and I hate that [the crooks] are taking advantage of good people who believe they are getting real autographs.”

Passionate, sharp-eyed, issuing warnings to others about the danger—that’s a thumbnail definition of this new breed of forgery whistleblowers, all of whom recognize that they’re vastly outnumbered by the sheer volume of counterfeits available in today’s teeming online autograph bazaar. “If I were a Dutch boy and had 10 hands to plug the dike,” said John Reznikoff, a Connecticut autograph expert, “I couldn’t keep up with the flow of sports forgeries.” But there are fakes in every category of collecting, Reznikoff concedes, and he says he is currently assisting law enforcement in forgery investigations into his specialty of historical autographs and documents.

“I love to bust the bad guys,” he adds. But who are the bad guys? Sometimes it’s hard to tell in the anonymous fake-front world of the Internet. Reznikoff says the fraud artists write blogs that attack him and other legitimate dealers, and yet many other bloggers do the reverse: expose forgeries. The same is true with Web sites. Some sites, such as autographdealernews.com, seek to out forgers and bogus dealers. Meanwhile plenty of merchant sites sell blatant fakes authenticated by “court-certified” forensic examiners with credentials appearing legitimate, but whose work can only be described as suspect.

A clever secretarial version of the Beatles, part of the John Reznikoff collection of forgeries.

“Many people aren’t sure who’s legit and who’s not,” Autograph publisher Steve Cyrkin told me when assigning this story. And that’s what the crooks want. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, they seek to sow confusion and even chaos in the marketplace, undermining the ideas of trust and authenticity and rendering them meaningless. But the whistleblower—and Cyrkin is another outspoken one, using the bully pulpit of Autograph to call dealers and authenticators out by name in his editorials and articles—refuses to give in to the confusion, trying to get the public to see the difference between good and bad, real and fake, and to act accordingly.

One of the causes recently espoused by Cyrkin has been that of Frank Caiazzo, a renowned authority on Beatles autographs who is being sued by American Royal Arts for identifying what he and other experts believe are obvious forgeries. An auction house asked Caiazzo to authenticate the signatures of John, Paul, George and Ringo on a Revolver album that a client had put a deposit on from ARA and wanted to consign. He said they were fake, and the client asked ARA for his deposit back. When the seller heard about Caiazzo’s role in the now-defunct deal, he sued him for damages.

When I called him in April for this article, Caiazzo could not speak about the specifics of the lawsuit, although he was confident that he would prevail in the end. I asked him generally what effect his case might have on others who are tempted to speak out—whether they, too, should fear being put in the crosshairs of a hired legal gun. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “Typically people trafficking in non-authentic material would rather focus on selling instead of suing. They are busy trying to peddle a never-ending supply of what should be rare material, at way below market prices, with no verifiable proof of where the material came from.”

A similar lawsuit is being pressed by Donald Frangipani, a Brooklyn documents examiner who authenticated material forged by the Bullpen ring and who was the subject of a 2006 HBO “Real Sports” investigation into his widely suspect practices. Last year Frangipani sued HBO and others for $5 million, claiming its false allegations have ruined his reputation and business. This type of lawsuit is referred to in general terms as “SLAPP,” which stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” A SLAPP suit may not even need to be filed to achieve its purpose, just the threat of it alone might be enough to bully people into shutting up.

Christopher Williams, another email correspondent, uses a method that is the most unique and confrontational that I’ve seen. He does his whistleblowing on YouTube. Go on the Internet video site and type TomTresh2 into the search box—no spaces, all one word—and up will pop his blue-eyed face speaking from inside his dark, homemade television studio (actually, his TV room). Talking directly into the camera, he “vents”—his word—about specific autographed items he calls forgeries, sold by sports auction sites that he believes traffic in fakes.

This Neil Armstrong signed stamp block is a forgery generated by scanning and laser printing an original.

Williams hammers two points home in every broadcast. First, the people who buy fakes are part of the problem—they’re keeping the forgers in business. The other point that he emphasizes in video after video is that these fakes are selling at a fraction of their book value. The TomTresh2 videos have spawned an equally voluminous forum dialogue on sites such as the Net54 Vintage Baseball Card Forum (www.network54.com), where most agree with Williams, but wish he would show examples of genuine autographs to substantiate his charges.

One subject the blunt-spoken Williams will not talk about is where he lives. “I am still concerned about the bad guys that I’ve put out of business, especially now that my face is on video,” he says, explaining why he couldn’t tell me the city or state where he lived. “I’m not scared by any means. I just want to be careful.”

Williams’ caution seems prudent given that these “bad sellers,” as he calls them, have sent him emails detailing where he lives and what car he drives, each one carrying with it an implied threat. After the second message, his friends urged him to report it to the local police.

But Williams seems less bothered by the apparent attempts at intimidation and more discouraged by how hard it is to get his message across to people who think they’re getting terrific autograph bargains but are really just getting ripped off. “People do not want to believe that what I’m telling them is really going on,” he said. “I find it incredible.”

Joe Maddalena, owner of Profiles in History, a historical and celebrity collectibles firm in California, expresses similar feelings, only his frustration is directed at law enforcement. “The biggest issue is getting someone in government to pay attention and care about this problem,” he said. “Forget the Internet. You go into these [autographed memorabilia] stores and they’re wall to wall forgeries. How they allow this to function is amazing.”

Maddalena’s frustration stems from his passion for what he does, a passion shared by other whistleblowers and legitimate collectors, authenticators and dealers. They love what they do and they want others, especially newcomers to the hobby, to love it too and not get burned. Maddalena has complained to the FBI many times and “they say the same thing every time,” he says. “‘Are you a victim? Did you buy it?’ See, I would have to buy a phony piece, knowing it’s a forgery, to make myself a victim. Then I’d have to go get some experts to say it was fake and then take it back to the FBI. It’d cost me thousands of dollars and it still wouldn’t be enough because it takes multiple victims to make a case.”

Maddalena has gotten little satisfaction from the police and FBI in part because it is so devilishly difficult for them to prove that these forgeries are, in fact, forgeries. “It’s hard to prove criminal intent by the sellers or the forgers without admissions from them,” explains John Ferreira, a former FBI agent of 27 years who served as the undercover agent in Operation Bullpen. This was a big part of Ferreira’s undercover job—winning the confidence of the crooks and getting them to admit, on tape, that they were dealing in forgeries and knew it. The first phase of Operation Bullpen, a three-year investigation into a nationwide ring that ripped off American consumers for an estimated $100 million, involved Ferreira and hundreds of other FBI and IRS agents. They conducted extensive undercover and surveillance activity, compiled thousands of hours of secret audio and videotape recordings, and amassed a mountain of evidence of illegal activities that led to the takedown of the original ring in late 1999. Since then the FBI has conducted a second and smaller phase of the investigation, and other FBI field offices and police have brought local cases against forgers in various jurisdictions around the country.

Although the Bullpen ring is out of business, other forgery rings have emerged to take its place, and Ferreira, a lifelong collector who runs an autograph and card shop in Eugene, Ore., sees evidence of their handiwork virtually every day on eBay. Conceding that “law enforcement does not know or see the whole picture with forgeries,” he nevertheless says that forgery cases rank at the bottom of the law enforcement totem pole, if they’re even on it at all.

“There’s usually no rush to investigate a forgery ring like there would be for a murder case,” he says. Every law enforcement agency has dollar threshold limits, below which the crime is deemed too minor and not worthy of an investigator’s or prosecutor’s time. At the Eugene FBI, for example, it’s $100,000; in Los Angeles it’s $1 million. “Anything less than that is not investigated unless there are confessions,” he told me. “With forgeries it’s very hard to determine a loss, thus law enforcement stays away from investigating it.”

Another obstacle in prosecution is the difficulty of proving to a jury that material is forged. Juries hear conflicting testimony from expert witnesses hired by the opposing sides, and can be very hard for the novice to understand authentication enough to feel comfortable voting to convict the defendant.

In an ideal world the law enforcement system would collar the perps and throw them in the can just like the pretend cops do on TV. But this is far from an ideal world. “You can’t count on them to police it,” advises Joe Maddalena. “You’ve got to police it yourself.” Thus, the rise of today’s whistleblowers.

Gary Rountree bought a fake Troy Smith jersey in order to ingratiate himself with the vendor who sold it to him and find the man who forged it. The shop steered him to the Cleveland suburb where the forger lived. Rountree found that the local cops already knew about the man because he had other criminal tendencies in addition to a propensity to fake celebrity signatures. But because Rountree only paid a measly $61 for the bogus jersey, “the prosecutor wouldn’t touch the case,” he said. “She said it was too small on the totem pole to mess with. That kinda ticked me off.”

Unable to get satisfaction from the law, Rountree emailed the 10 people he had seen listed on eBay who had bought fake Troy Smith merchandise. He told them they had all been scammed but only one person cared enough to call him back about it. “Even the people who bought the fakes didn’t care,” he said.

But Rountree cares, and when the charity auction for A Kid Again took place in Columbus, he felt good because the signed Troy Smith jersey that people were bidding on was real, not fake. In a world seemingly given over to chaos and confusion, this was a small but not insignificant victory.

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