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Sports Collectibles Case Illustrates Dangers of Autograph Sales

A sports fan is short for sports fanatic, a truism for the more ardent supporters of the myriad pro and other organized teams in the sporting world. Many fans want a part of their sports heroes for their own, with autographs being a longtime desirable collectible. Unfortunately, unscrupulous types recognize that desire and try to fill that need with bogus merchandise.

An ongoing sports memorabilia criminal casein Ohio alleges Cliff Panezich and others sold fake autographs as part of a multimillion dollar scheme. TV station WKBN reported Panezich rejected a plea deal and now faces a possible prison sentence of at least 11 years if convicted.

Rich Mueller, editor of the Sports Collectors Daily, has been following the case. In this recent article, he reported:

“Investigators say from 2010-2014, the group forged autographs of well-known athletes on a variety of items and sold them on eBay. About 25,000 people were identified as possible victims in the case with proceeds of about $2 million. There were phony certificates of authenticity included with the bogus items.”

Mueller told EcommerceBytes, “He seems to believe the prosecution is exaggerating its case in terms of the total value of the items sold, and I can only surmise he’s hoping to lay that out in a trial setting. It’s a big risk if he and his attorney aren’t able to refute some of the claims. He could be looking at the longest sentence ever handed out in a sports memorabilia fraud case.”

With the alleged scheme reportedly pulling in some $2 million in gains, we asked what made this particular plan so effective. “That’s probably a better question for the DA’s office and he hasn’t been convicted yet, but they believe he was able to find a lot of uneducated buyers in a short period of time; people who couldn’t resist what appeared to be a bargain. Until multiple complaints began to surface and knowledgeable collectors alerted authorities and eBay, they were able to continue selling,” said Mueller.

He continued, “Sometimes the wheels of online justice turn slowly. There are probably still a lot of people out there who bought items from him and still believe they’re legitimate because they came with a COA (certificate of authenticity). The lack of understanding with regard to legitimacy is still a huge problem.”

Mueller is hopeful the impact of this case on the autograph market will be a positive one. “Hopefully, it’s made people more aware that there are a lot of fake autographs in the online marketplace. We saw dozens of very suspect pieces supposedly signed by Muhammad Ali sold in the wake of his death, all of them with COAs that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, but people were buying them,” he said, and he also noted, “The lack of real policing means it’s still a minefield.”

However, with some prudent caution, one can be more confident that their potential online autograph purchases will yield a true collectible. Mueller provided several helpful tips:

  • Know the provenance of the item;
  • Research selling prices to see what you will likely pay for a real one;
  • Know which authentication holograms and letters are respected by collectors and other dealers;
  • Ask questions in online forums;
  • Purchase or borrow books on collecting that can help you understand the market;
  • And never buy impulsively.

“There’s no substitute for doing your homework,” he said. “Finding trustworthy dealers with a long track record and working with them consistently can take some of the headaches away.”

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David A Utter
David A Utter
David A. Utter is a freelance writer based in Lexington, KY. He has covered technology topics from search to security to online business and has been quoted in places like ZDNet and BusinessWeek. He considers his appearance on NPR's "All Things Considered" with long-time host Robert Siegel a delightful highlight. You can find him on Twitter @davidautter and on LinkedIn.