FBI and USPS Question Dealers, Authenticators at The National
As in years past, the National Sports Collectors Convention attracted thousands of attendees from far and wide last week in Cleveland. But while most hobbyists may not have realized it, amidst the dealer tables and autograph lines there were also representatives of two federal agencies, gathering information for ongoing investigations into the seamy side of the sports memorabilia business.
Both the FBI and the United States Postal Service were present at The National, questioning dealers and auction houses and issuing subpoenas. According to the New York Daily News, prominent hobby companies approached in the probe - though not necessarily targets of it - included Heritage Auctions, Lelands, PSA, SGC, Legendary Auctions and Grey Flannel.
There are actually two separate issues for which the feds are following leads. The one that's gathered most of its momentum over the past few months centers on a number of high profile sports memorabilia pieces that have been identified as stolen or fraudulent.
Several media outlets have been pursuing the story of items that have been linked back to the late Barry Halper, a former limited partner in the New York Yankees known as an avid collector of big money baseball memorabilia. Though much of Halper's collection sold in a multi-million dollar auction a decade ago, it's only recently been revealed that some of those rare collectibles had actually been reported missing or stolen years earlier.
The Boston Herald discovered that rare 19th Century baseball photographs in the auction had been lifted from the Boston Public Library, while one of the earliest known examples of a professional sports contract had gone missing from the New York Public Library. Former Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell also penned a column for the Detroit Free Press about a forged diary that was presented as the work of Ty Cobb, also from the Halper collection.
To this point, the common link between some of the items has been the name of Rob Lifson, the president and founder of Robert Edward Auctions who assisted with the Halper sale. Adding fuel to the fire are accusations from baseball collector and writer Peter Nash (formerly Pete Nice of the rap group 3rd Bass), who has alleged that Lifson may have been involved in the thefts himself, a claim that the auction giant has vehemently denied.
After questions arose about more memorabilia scheduled to be auctioned off on the weekend of the MLB All-Star Game, the FBI began increasing its attention on the investigation. A New York-based agent was reportedly in Cleveland as a result.
The longer-running concern is a more general crackdown on fraudulent or deceptive practices by some sports memorabilia dealers. Stories of fake game-used equipment, forged autographs and doctored sports cards are certainly nothing new in the hobby, but the feds have paid especially close attention to the industry over the past two years.
Former industry powerhouse Mastro Auctions was one of the names at the center of the investigation last year, and some of its employees deserted the Mastro booth at the 2008 National when the FBI came to call. The company no longer exists, but the Daily News reported that its former president Doug Allen (now running Legendary Auctions) was one of the subpoenaed parties over the weekend.