Each Monday morning FBI agent Bob Walker trades his
uniform--white dress shirt, dark suit and 10-mm Smith &
Wesson--for a T-shirt and jeans. For four hours, at an FBI
storage facility in Chicago, he becomes the antifan, defacing
boxloads of pricey sports memorabilia.
Walker sprays paint over Michael Jordan's signature on a
basketball. He uses an industrial-strength solvent to remove Dan
Marino's name from a football. He covers Anfernee Hardaway's
autograph with indelible ink. For the final touch Walker applies
a stamp--FBI OPERATION FOULBALL, FORGERY--that identifies each
item as seized contraband.
The FBI is completing the initial phase of Operation Foulball,
the first federal crackdown on counterfeit sports memorabilia.
This summer, in U.S. district court in Chicago, six men who
operated a forgery ring were given sentences of 18 1/2 months in
prison to four years of probation for bilking collectors out of
as much as $5 million.
Over the past decade sales of sports memorabilia have risen to
an estimated $3 billion a year, and fraud has grown
exponentially. Agents across the country are engaged in
investigations of forgery rings, but so far the case in Chicago
has been the most significant. "I do not think any of us
expected this was going to be as large as it is," says Mike
Bassett, the FBI agent who broke the case.
Bassett's interest was first piqued by a 1994 phone call from a
collector who had acquired a game-used, autographed Frank Thomas
glove and had been nagged by doubts about its authenticity.
Pursuing the tip, Bassett and his partner, Walker, eventually
nabbed a Chicago sports-collectibles dealer named Anthony
Alyinovich. From 1994 through '96, Alyinovich led a conspiracy
to make and sell bogus sports memorabilia: jerseys, bats, balls
and photographs bearing the forged autographs of professional
athletes. Alyinovich, 31, has admitted that during one five-week
period last year he distributed more than 1,700 items of forged
Half the fake memorabilia the FBI has confiscated is allegedly
"signed" by Michael Jordan, who rarely gives autographs. When
the federal investigation began, agents and prosecutors
interviewed a number of stars--including Jordan, Dennis Rodman
and Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls; Shawn Kemp, then with
the Seattle SuperSonics and now with the Cleveland Cavaliers;
and Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox--about their signing
practices. Each athlete said he hadn't signed the pieces in
question and expressed outrage about the forgeries.
Those conversations confirmed the suspicions of assistant U.S.
attorneys Joel Bertocchi and David Rosenbloom, who then obtained
search warrants and wiretaps that would help them arrest the
producers of the fraudulent memorabilia. Bassett and Walker
staked out sporting-goods stores around Chicago. They
discovered, among other things, a run on size-13 Air Jordan
basketball shoes, the ones Jordan himself presumably would use
and then autograph. With the help of store owners the agents
marked merchandise to enable them to trace the flow of raw
material among the counterfeiters. Armed with a search warrant,
they then visited Federal Express offices to open packages
shipped by the forgery suspects and inspect marked goods that
now bore bogus signatures. They resealed the containers and
allowed them to be delivered.
Wiretaps and concealed cameras in a Chicago warehouse recorded
the forgers' conversations and actions. On the wall of the
rented warehouse the counterfeiters posted a chart designating
who was responsible for each Bull's signature. Kevin Walsh of
Chicago forged the names of six players, and Jon Schwartz of Des
Plaines, Ill., signed for the remaining six. Schwartz and Walsh
charged Alyinovich fees ranging from $5 per signature on a
photograph to $50 for the autograph on a Jordan jersey. The
jersey might fetch as much as $1,000 from an unsuspecting fan.
On request, Alyinovich donated forged sports memorabilia to
charities that he knew would unwittingly market the material as
genuine. (Buyers at charity events are often willing to pay top
dollar.) The conspirators even attempted to con one another.
To create a patina of legitimacy, the forgers issued bogus
certificates of authenticity. Stories were concocted to explain
the merchandise's origins. Conspirators talked of having paid
"hawkers" to obtain signatures outside arenas, hotels and other
public places. More often they boasted of contacts who knew
someone close to the athletes.
Those convicted--Alyinovich; Barry Carlstrom of Hanover Park,
Ill.; Richard Hall of Chicago; Timothy Lee of Sunnyvale, Calif.;
Schwartz; James Studley of Rockland, Mass.; and Walsh--were
sports groupies and collectors ruled not only by greed but also
by passion for the memorabilia they were hawking. The sentencing
of Alyinovich has been put off because of his cooperation with
the investigation. Studley pleaded guilty in U.S. district court
in Chicago in March and told the judge he understood that he
faced a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment and possible
payments of between $250,000 and $600,000, representing
restitution to victims. Yet he was preoccupied with retrieving
his modestly valued personal collection of pieces signed by Joe
DiMaggio, Emmitt Smith and others, seized in the raid. "Can I
get those seven items back?" Studley twice begged Rosenbloom
outside the courtroom. "Those were real." Eventually Rosenbloom
Obsessive collectors are easy marks. "When it comes to sports
memorabilia, people suspend the skepticism they bring to
ordinary affairs of life," Rosenbloom says. "If somebody gave
you a $50 check signed by Michael Jordan, you would call the
bank. But [if someone charged you] $900 for a jersey, [you'd
say] thank you!"
The Feds continue to urge the many honest sports memorabilia
dealers to take steps to police their industry. "If one guy
[Alyinovich] is responsible for $2.5 million, I wouldn't be
surprised if the total fraud is $100 million," speculates Joshua
Leland Evans, the Manhattan-based chairman of Leland's Auction
House, which specializes in sports memorabilia. Barring the
opportunity to see autographs signed in person, collectors ought
to buy from reputable dealers. If Dennis Rodman charges $75 for
his autograph, buyers should beware of one selling for $14. "If
people stopped pumping money into these low-end products, it
would help clean up the industry," Walker says.
The first signs of the FBI operation's impact are encouraging.
Checking out Chicago-area stores, Rosenbloom and Bertocchi agree
that Jordan products are less prevalent than a year earlier.
In the FBI storage facility in Chicago, the mountain of bogus
memorabilia will keep Bob Walker busy erasing and obliterating
signatures for many Mondays to come. The government is donating
thousands of basketballs, baseballs, jerseys and caps--all
stamped OPERATION FOULBALL--to Chicago's Boys & Girls Clubs and
the Cabrini Green Little League, organizations selected by the
stars whose signatures were forged. "Through this quality
equipment we're giving children an opportunity to chase their
dreams," Walker says. It will be poetic justice if one of these
children discovers an exceptional talent while wearing a
confiscated jersey that was supposed to sell for $600 and
dunking an "autographed" $400 basketball.
David Seideman is associate editor of Audubon magazine. This is
his first story for SI.