Identifying fake sports autographs

Learn identifying sports autograph forgery and purchase wisely authentic sports memorabilia

Fake sports autographs are widespread in the sports memorabilia market. If many collectors are aware of this, it can be hard to determine which sports autographs are real and which are not because of the skills of professional signature forgers.

Beginners and experts alike can be a victim to sports autograph fraud but with thorough study about the tactics of autograph fakers, the risk can be lessened.

Sports collectibles: A profitable industry susceptible to fraud

The sports memorabilia industry became big business since the 1800s. Unlike some other trends, sports collectibles was not merely a fad. Proof to that is the continuing demand for the sports cards, game-worn jerseys, and game-used sporting equipment. until today.

Sporting memorabilia and sports autograph values also increase through time. Another evidence of the industry’s success is how many people, from collectors to entrepreneurs, took advantage of the profitable opportunity sports memorabilia offer – only that some of these individual make the profit the wrong way.

The biggest forgery scam in the sports memorabilia industry

The late 1980s posed a threat to the sports collectibles and memorabilia business. And this was easily observed by no less than the long-time sports collectors. During this era, the supply for vintage sports memorabilia was supposedly very scarce but there came a big surprise when there was a huge number of antique sports memorabilia flooding the market readily available to answer the high demand for such items. The seemingly flourishing trade became an avenue for doubts and questions which eventually led to investigation.

Sports autograph forgery Rings vs. Operation Bullpen

In the middle of 1990s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Chicago Division initiated the Operation Bullpen for the investigation that targeted a sports memorbilia forgery group.

It turned out that this network of forgers was not only composed of expert autograph fakers but also of trusted sports memorabilia dealers, distributors, and sports authenticators. It was in itself a serious business which earned them a lot of cash, faster than many legit sellers of sports autographs, collectibles, and memorabilia.

The forgery ring made sales of up to $100 million for fake sports autographs and other collectibles which they sold through the internet, TV home shopping networks, auctions, sports shops, and others. That was also equal to thousands of deceived sports collectors.

In an evaluation made by the top sports authenticator in the industry, Professional Sports Authenticator or PSA, they found out that among the 10, 000 autographs of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, only 33% were real. That is about 3 300 authentic sports autographs and the 6 700 were counterfeit sports autographs.

The FBI had put the sports autograph forgers and fake memorabilia sellers to jail. It also confiscated more faked sports memorabilia from the group. Unfortunately not all faked sporting collectibles and memorabilia which had been traded were recovered. Many of these facsimile sports items can still be actively traded in the market until today. And sure enough there are also new sports phonies produced by plenty other new forgers.

How did the sports memorabilia fakers do it?

There was no doubt about it, the forgers were masters of their craft. An example of fake sports autograph that they have sold is Babe Ruth’s on vintage baseballs. What did they do to make the Babe Ruth forged baseball autographs look and feel real?

This process is according to the forgers themselves as told in the book by Kevin Nelson, Operation Bullpen: The In side Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in the American History.

They would buy ordinary old baseballs from sports shops. They had to make sure that the balls had no label or any identifying marks at all.

They washed the balls with soap and water.

They would give the balls to the “master forger”, also known as the “Michelangelo of forgers”, Greg Marino who would sign the balls using a fountain pen from Babe Ruth’s era, 1930s to late 1940s. (Marino had also made fake signatures of Mother Teresa – still on baseballs).

The balls still would not look antique, so they would dip the balls in a gallon of orange-rust shellac varnish to make it appear old. It is said that in Babe Ruth’s time, baseballs were actually shellacked for the purpose of preserving them.

But the process is not done yet – the autographed baseball did not only have to look old, it also had to smell old. The fake Babe Ruth baseballs would be put inside a sack of moth balls and/or in a bag of dog food for a few days. After that, the balls will be left under the sun. The faked baseballs would indeed smell different, but whether that was how sports equipment from 1930s or 1940s smelled, the consumers never really knew. What mattered to them was that there was that weird smell and that could probably because they were “vintage” baseballs.

Types of fake sports autographs

Be careful when buying a signed sports memorabilia because the autographs can be faked in many ways:

Forged – this is done by merely copying an athlete’s signature – the stroke, the pen used, etc. A forger hand signs the sports memorabilia using his “expertise” and he must know the “science” of how sports stars make their signature.

Trivia: According to expert signature forger Greg Marino, to master Joe DiMaggio’s autographs on baseball bats, he had to watch closely a video showing DiMaggio signing bats at the Louisville Slugger factory. The professional forger claimed that he and Joe have very similar techniques in signing. Greg Marino had made fake sports autographs from around 1994-1999.

Autopen – autopen is a machine that signs an autograph following a certain athlete, a politician, or a celebrity’s handwriting. This is usually used by personalities in answering mails, writing memos, and signing autographs. A celebrity would sign his name on a sheet of paper which will be used in making a template for the machine. Once the template is installed, the autopen could already be functional in recreating signatures.

To spot an autopen signature, observe the thickness of every stroke in the sports autograph. If it shows consistent thickness or thinness through the entire signature, then that must be an autopen autograph. Also notice dots (in letter “i” or at the end of the signature) should there be any. When dots are also of the same size or thickness, then undoubtedly, these are autopen signatures. And lastly, compare autographs of the same athlete. No two authentic sports autographs can be exactly identical, especially in size.

Secretarials – signature forgeries which are often authorized by the athlete but still do not pass as authentic sports autographs. Signers could be a secretary or anybody hired or assigned for the job.

Sports autograph reprints – are merely printed copies of the signatures. It is easy to detect a sport autograph reprint, simply touch the signature. If the signature feels the same as the texture of the entire surface of the item, then most likely a pen, much more the hands of your favorite athlete, never touched that sports memorabilia.

In case of signed sports photographs or autographed sports cards, try to see the back of the picture under some light. If you find no signature impression on the back of the photo, then that is only a reprinted autographed sports card or photo and not a hand signed autograph.

Stamped Autographs – are very easily detectable because of ink quality; signatures made from stamps (e.g. rubber stamps) can be pretty smudgy. Only very few forgers would risk using stamps to fake an autograph.

What should buyers do to avoid forged sports autographs?

  1. Think like sports autograph forgers

You have to think like a signature forger but you do not have to act as one. Greg Marino, the master autograph forger, did not become an expert at copying sports signatures if he did not study them.

If you study sports signatures very keenly, you would be familiar with the strokes, the rounds, the lines, the dots, and the pattern of a signature. When you become aware of these, it would be easy for you to spot which are faked sports autographs and which are not.

Michael Jordan, for example, writes his letter “M” in a way that it would look like the number 23. His signature is one of the most forged sports signatures.

  1. Do not welcome bargains

When an autographed sporting memorabilia is unusually affordable for you, that piece must be a phony or it must bear a counterfeited sports autograph. A low price can be the easiest and most obvious hint that you are a step close to be a sports autograph fraud victim.

  1. Familiarize sports autograph contracts

There are certain sports memorabilia shops and dealers that are affiliated with sports leagues and associations like National Basketball Association (NBA) or Major League Baseball (MLB) to mention a few.

These sports merchandise companies may have contracts with athletes and bring such athletes in to sign their products in person. For example, Michael Jordan may just sign exclusively for Upper Deck. New York Yankees players may sign autographs for Steiner only.

  1. Certificate of Authenticity is not a guarantee to sports card autograph authentication

It had been a common advice to sports collectors to look for the autograph Certificates of Authenticity (COA) in buying sports cards and sports memorabilia. In today’s context, it is not anymore a matter whether there is a certificate.

Instead, it is a matter of where the COA comes from – from reputable third party authenticators like Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), Upper Deck, Steiner Sports, etc. See important information on the certificate like authenticators’ name, company address, and contact number. You must accept original certificates, not photocopies.

  1. Be inquisitive to the sports autograph seller

Ask a lot of questions to the seller of the sports autograph – How did he get the autograph? When was the sports memoribilia signed? It is highly encouraged that you also verify the seller’s answers to your questions – look them up on the internet and try to connect the details of the story. If the stories are hard to trace, they could be just made up.

  1. Be wary of rare sports autographs being easily sold (especially at eBay)

When you see rare sports autographs sold at eBay, that should make you think twice. See how many items are available for sale or for auction. For example, Mark McGwire autographed sports memorabilia can be very scarce since he does not participate in paid sports autograph signings. He himself advised his fans not to buy from autograph dealers.

  1. Do not believe in online customer feedbacks

Positive consumer feedbacks are not always a guarantee that you would not be getting a fake sports autograph. Like in eBay, many fraudulent dealers simply create different accounts and usernames. Such “different” users give the positive comments when the truth is, only one person writes them.

  1. Demand a money-back guarantee and other forms of assurance

If the seller offers you a money back guarantee and other warranties, then it gives you security of the authenticity of the sports autograph – given that you know the seller to be of good reputation. Again, it is preferable that you go to dealers who are affiliated with the sports association and leagues.

  1. Get the sports autographs yourself.

Participating in sports autograph signing the best way to get an authentic sports memorabilia simply because your sports collectible will be signed by the athlete in person.

Catching your sports idol can be quite challenging but then again, for a passionate collector and an avid sports fan, it is always worth it.

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