Sign right here, please. And, oh yes, while you're at it, could you sign these eight others, too? You know, for my friends.
One card, maybe. Eight and players begin to get suspicious, especially in today's wheel-and-deal climate of sports collecting.What once was an innocent hobby for fans has turned into a $1.5 billion industry and, according to New York State attorney general Robert Abrams, "40 percent phony."
Abrams proposed legislation Tuesday that would require dealers who sell memorabilia for more than $50 to provide their customers with a certificate of authenticity. Failure to do so, or selling counterfeit materials, would result in treble damages. The bill is endorsed by Major League Baseball Properties and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
"The FBI is investigating this scam in a half-dozen states," Abrams said. "Phony autographs have become big business, lining the pockets of unscrupulous people. People are paying thousands of dollars and getting ripped off."
How do you tell if an autograph is a phony? Well, one way is to get it yourself, the way Abrams did Tuesday with former pitcher Ralph Branca. Another way is to be suspicious if you see the same handwriting for a Mickey Mantle as you do for a Joe DiMaggio.
According to The National, Mantle, DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Bob Feller all were interviewed by FBI agents seeking their help in identifying counterfeit autographs as part of a year-long investigation based in Las Vegas.
Herman Darvick of the Universal Autograph Collectors Club explained how autographs help dealers turn a fast profit. "I can buy a National League baseball for $5," he said. "If I get Ralph Branca to sign it, the value goes up to $20. Where else can you get four times the return on your investment that quickly?"
Abrams' bill, first of its kind in the nation, would require a dated and signed certificate guaranteeing authenticity of items sold. It would have to identify the item sold, where and when it was signed by the sports personality involved, and the dealer's name and address.
In the case of a "limited edition" item, the certificate must detail how the item and edition is numbered and how many were signed.
Abrams said he felt the legislation was necessary because autograph and memorabilia collecting has grown almost out of control.
"The world has changed since I grew up, waiting outside Yankee Stadium for autographs," he said.
He cited a recent Sotheby's auction limited to baseball collectibles which did $4.6 million in business. Included in that auction was the sale of a Mickey Mantle card for $49,500 and a Honus Wagner card for $451,000 to Bruce McNall, owner of the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Argonauts, and hockey star Wayne Gretzky. The Wagner card was valued at $100,000 just a year before.
"And Mantle's top salary was $100,000," Abrams said.
The attorney general displayed a number of phony autographs, including a framed color picture of Jackie Robinson which he said had been sold as authentic. One dealer, he said, was found to be selling a baseball billed as signed by manager Gil Hodges and the 1973 New York Mets. Hodges died in 1972.