Sunday, August 12, 2001

Forged autographs cost collectors dearly

By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        You paid $75 for a bat autographed by Pete Rose, $25 for a ball, and now you learn that the items in your trophy case might actually represent the penmanship of ... Tommy Gioiosa.

        Collectors of Rose memorabilia might recall that Mr. Rose's one-time roommate was portrayed in 1989 as a Rose autographer — even Mr. Rose himself admitted as much at the time.

        “He did it one time,” Mr. Rose testified in his deposition to Major League Baseball in 1989, acknowledging that Mr. Gioiosa knew how to sign his name.

        In a Vanity Fair article released last week, Mr. Gioiosa detailed how he'd forged thousands for Mr. Rose, warning a new generation of collectors.

        Take Steve Gilley, who came to Cincinnati from Angelus Oaks, Calif., with his two brothers to see his favorite team, the Reds, on Friday night. The Gilley brothers have an autographed photo of Mr. Rose, which their uncle bought.

        “We've kind of wondered” whether it's real, Mr. Gilley said. “There's no real way of knowing.”

        But there is reality in this: The questions go beyond Pete Rose. Batboys, clubhouse workers, friends and wives have been signing on behalf of baseball players since the days of Babe Ruth.

        “It's nothing new,” said Jimmy Spence of Orwigsburg, Pa., one of a handful of handwriting experts who specialize in authenticating athletes' autographs. “Years ago, it was done innocently. In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, a lot of Dodger items were signed by adult batboys. After 1959, team balls signed by Mickey Mantle were actually signed by the Yankees' clubhouse attendant. Wives did it.”

        In years past, though, collecting autographed sports memorabilia wasn't the high-stakes obsession it is today. Cards, game-worn jerseys and autographed equipment and photos now have more investment allure than technology stocks. A baseball signed by single-season home run champion Mark McGwire — catalog-valued at $1,500 — is worth more than 100 shares of

        With so much money changing hands, counterfeiters are cashing in. In 1998, as part of a nationwide crackdown, the FBI seized $10 million worth of autographed items that were forged, including 10,000 baseballs and items bearing the faked signatures of President Reagan and Mother Teresa. Mr. Spence said 40 percent of big-ticket, big-name sports autographs are forged.

        The problem has become so widespread that the collectibles industry, in tandem with Major League Baseball, has made the signing of bats, balls and photos more controlled than the issuance of driver's licenses and passports.

        In January, Major League Baseball employed the national accounting firm Arthur Andersen to vouch for every autograph at formal signing sessions and to oversee the removal of all used equipment after games. When a player signs an item, an auditor is there to witness. Then the items are stamped with a hologram.

        The program gave MLB the occasion to enter the authenticated-collectibles business itself, selling the items on its Web site. When MLB promoted the program before a national audience at last month's All-Star Game, it said it had sold 15,000 authenticated items.

        More and more, collecting autographs at premium prices hinges on authentication. Today, more than 90 percent of all autographs signed by Reds center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., one of baseball's most popular players, are witnessed by auditors, including those from Upper Deck, one of the leading marketers of sports cards and memorabilia.

        “They (Upper Deck) have a new device known as Pen Cam that takes a picture of of the autograph being made,” said Mr. Griffey's agent, Brian Goldberg. “The autograph comes along with a compact disc that has the picture on it.

        “The downside to that is there is cost associated with it that goes into the price of the autograph.”

        In sports memorabilia stores and on Internet auction sites such as eBay, collectors are willing to pay top dollar for autographed goods certified by reputable companies such as Upper Deck, PSA/DNA and Arthur Andersen.

        “When it comes to autographs, it's the paperwork that accompanies the autograph where the value is derived from,” said Joe Orlando, editor of Sports Market Report, a monthly price guide of sports cards and autographed items.

        A Rose-signed baseball on eBay, for example, sold last month for $46 with a PSA/DNA certification. Two days earlier, a noncertified ball sold for $20.60.

        To people in the sports collectibles business, Mr. Gioiosa's re-revelation had less impact than a foul tip.

        “Pete legitimately signed so much at shows and at private signings that a certain amount of forgeries out there isn't really going to have a great effect on the value of his memorabilia,” Mr. Orlando said.

        That guide puts the value of a Rose-signed baseball at $50, a bat at $100 and a photo at $30. If anything, Mr. Orlando said, the value of Rose items is going up.

        Mr. Spence, whose autograph-authentication service is a subsidiary of Collectors Universe, also doubts that the existence of any Gioiosa-signed items would hurt the value or demand for Rose memorabilia.

        “Pete has signed like a banshee over the years, so his autograph is plentiful,” Mr. Spence said. “I wouldn't put it past him that he had someone sign for him. His is a simple signature to forge. It's not terribly intricate.”

        When Mr. Rose was banned from baseball in 1989 for misconduct related to gambling, autographed sports items had nowhere near the value they do today. So Mr. Gioiosa's admission in Vanity Fair that he signed thousands of items on Mr. Rose's behalf would seemingly carry more weight.

        But the collectibles industry yawned, treating Mr. Gioiosa no differently than countless forgotten batboys and assistants who signed the names of Mantle, Gehrig and Ruth.

        Mr. Gioiosa was a teen-age baseball player when he met Mr. Rose. They became so close, he moved in with the Roses from 1978 to 1984. Along with learning their living habits, he learned how to sign Mr. Rose's name — well enough to teach others how, too.

        One of his students was Mike Fry, who owned Gold's Gym in Forest Park and who once contemplated taking Mr. Rose on as a business partner. In a deposition given more than a decade ago, Mr. Fry said he signed Mr. Rose's name on baseball cards, posters and pictures.

        “Gio (Gioiosa) taught me how to sign Pete's name, 'cause Pete didn't have time to sign all the autographed things that were being required of him at the time,” Mr. Fry said in the deposition. “Gio signed also. Gio signed everything for Pete almost.”

        Mr. Rose, in the 1989 MLB deposition, denied that Mr. Gioiosa was a regular stand-in.

        “I can honestly say he did it one time, and he did it — he sat right down in my condominium one night because I received 750 envelopes from a guy named Wiley in St. Louis. And I had to have them signed by the next morning and mail them back out. And I signed 500 of them, he signed 250 of them.”

        All three men wound up with federal rap sheets. Mr. Rose pleaded guilty to income tax evasion in 1990 and spent five months in prison. Mr. Gioiosa received a five-year prison sentence for cocaine trafficking and tax evasion. Mr. Fry got eight years for coke possession and under-reporting drug profits.

        More than a decade later, autograph collectors have to wonder whether the signatures they bought — of Mr. Rose or otherwise — are legitimate. Mr. Spence charges $50 to post-authenticate a single signature, a high price to pay for credibility.

        Enquirer reporters Dan Klepal and Malcolm C. Knox contributed to this story.


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