Throwing Collectors A Curve

To a true fan, the ad in the Oct. 27 edition of Sports Collectors Digest was a dream come true. Stan's Sports Memorabilia Inc. of Caldwell, N.J., was offering baseballs signed by Baltimore Orioles iron man Cal Ripken Jr. for $39.95--less than half what the balls cost elsewhere.

Dream on. "Stan's selling a fake signature, not even a very good fake," says Ira Rainess, counsel to the Tufton Group, exclusive licensee for Ripken autographs, and an expert on the shortstop's signature. Rainess examined a ball purchased from Stanley Fitzgerald, an Essex County (N.J.) Sheriff's Office detective who moonlights as co-owner of Stan's Sports. Fitzgerald says if the signatures are fake, he's an innocent victim. He says he bought the balls and other signed Ripken merchandise from a California wholesaler.

BUSY WRITERS. For most of the century, collecting sports memorabilia meant saving your favorite baseball cards in a shoebox or using a chance encounter with Joe DiMaggio to get an autograph for your kid. No more. Athletes began signing for cash at card shows in the late 1970s. A hot ballplayer can now get $50 apiece signing balls directly for fans. In addition, top athletes today systematically sign thousands of baseballs, footballs, and hockey pucks a year that go straight to wholesalers. That has pushed sales of sports collectibles close to $2 billion a year and caused legal problems of a different sort for other big-name ball players. Former Brooklyn Dodger Duke Snider agreed to pay a $5,000 fine earlier this month for tax evasion stemming from the practice. "People now see these items as investments, not souvenirs," says Thomas Mortenson, editor of Sports Collectors Digest. "Twenty years ago, that was unheard of."

Collectors scour the market for signed trinkets, driven not by love of a sports hero but by visions of hitting a home run on the collectibles circuit. Sotheby's began handling sports memorabilia in 1991, the year it sold a Honus Wagner baseball card for $451,000. A Babe Ruth bat went for $63,000 three years later. But along with the commercialization has come fraud--fake signatures churned out by unscrupulous dealers. "All you need is an 89 cents Bic pen, a $4 baseball, and you're in business," says Rainess.

Ripken has recently become a favorite among the con artists. He broke into the top tier of collectibility last summer when he broke Lou Gehrig's record for most consecutive games played. But since he only signs around 8,000 balls a year--a fifth of what other big names pen--there's little Ripkeniana around. That has helped create a frenzied trade in bogus Ripken collectibles. Rainess estimates that sales of fake Ripken collectibles could reach $15 million this year, compared with just $5 million for the real stuff.

Unlike many athletes, Ripken, who earns $6 million a year from the Orioles and about $2 million in endorsements, refuses to sign for cash at card shows. He does a few bulk signings for Score Board Inc., the exclusive source for Ripken's signed merchandise, based in Cherry Hill, N.J. Score Board wholesales signed Ripken balls for around $70. "It should send up a bright red warning flag to any collector if anybody is selling Ripken baseballs in bulk for less than $60," says Chief Executive Ken Goldin.

CERTIFIED FAKES? There should be plenty of those red flags. "We see guys in here every month trying to pawn off fake Ripken stuff," says Thomas Lyddane of Burton's Baseball Cards & Coins in Frederick, Md. And forged baseballs aren't the only Ripken ripoff. Mick & Menu Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif., advertises lithographs of Ripken by artist Angelo Marino and "autographed" by the baseball great. Cost: more than $1,000. But Ripken never signed the lithographs, says his spokesman. Marino says he sold the lithographs to Mick & Menu unautographed. Mick & Menu didn't return phone calls.

Most dealers, including Fitzgerald, will take back merchandise if buyers have doubts. But few victims want to believe they've been duped. Maryland's Consumer Protection Div. hasn't received a single complaint concerning Ripken fakes. Most dealers offer a certificate of authenticity with their goods. "Don't be fooled," warns Steven Rotman, president of Sports Collectibles Association International. "Those certificates are only as good as the person who's giving them out." After all, it's not much harder to sign a certificate than it is to autograph a baseball.

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