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Lee Schechter/MEDILL

The Toronto Raptors jersey (left) is a fake, purchased from a questionable website. The Michigan jersey (right) came from an authorized retailer.

Sports memorabilia fraud schemes make searching for the genuine item tougher

by Lee Schechter
Oct 30, 2013

Jason Harmon and his 7-year-old son, Colin, were in Rosemont this summer, searching for game-used memorabilia from all-time baseball greats like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.

They were attending the National Sports Collectors Convention, the nation’s largest gathering of gear and sports-related collectibles. They paid to get in, and thousands of people pay big money for these prized treasures of heroes past.

That’s why the news about recent cases involving sports memorabilia fraud schemes hits some especially hard.

How does Jason tell Colin that that Ruth jersey or Cobb bat are fakes?

Observers say the fraud schemes give sports collectors an added sense of fear about the authenticity of memorabilia.

The U.S. Attorney’s office, in announcing the sentencing, said, “even though jerseys were not game used, the three men sold the jerseys to other persons they knew intended to re-sell, consign and auction the jerseys or to sports trading card companies and others by falsely representing the jerseys were game used.”

While the federal sentences involved game-used collectibles, the issue of fraudulent memorabilia exists throughout the industry. Buyers and traders beware.

Alan Perry, an avid Olympic pin collector who began his collection at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, said questions of authenticity are always on the collector’s mind.

“Our hobby, like most, has those kinds of things,” Perry said about the prevalence of fraudulent collectibles. “The counterfeiting probably started around 1984 in L.A. because there were so many hot pins.”

Since pins have a low production value, the ability to mass-produce unauthentic replicas is simple for counterfeiters. With people willing to pay premium prices, fake collectibles flood the market, leaving collectors scrambling to find ways to determine an item’s authenticity.

For pin collectors such as Perry, there is a group called Olympin, the world’s largest Olympic collectors club, which has organized a fraudulent pin inspection group. In Olympic pin collecting, National Olympic Committee pins are more valued, since they are official or from Olympians, and can be targets of counterfeits.

Perry says the club is doing a nice job of researching pins to find fakes, though to try and look at every fake pin would be crazy. And everyone does not have easy access to authenticity examiners.

Even after examination, counterfeits are high quality and difficult to distinguish from the authentic.

“The counterfeiters can be very good,” he said. “Once they have a pin they can reverse engineer it.”

The market, however, is still heavily dominated by baseball and game-used items, making counterfeits as prevalent there.

“It maybe damages those people more than our pin-collecting hobby,” Perry said. “What I feel bad about is it probably puts a chill on people who come in and look at pins: How do they know those are real?”