Operation Bullpen Keeps Making News

BY KEVIN NELSON August 23, 2010

I continue to be amazed—and flattered—by the attention that my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, continues to receive nearly four years after publication. In an interview this month in Collectors Weekly, Sotheby”s consultant and Antiques Roadshow appraiser Leila Dunbar says:

There”s a book about the FBI”s Operation Bullpen, which, in 1999-2000, broke up a ring of forgers across the United States. They estimate that $100 million worth of fake autographs got into the market, and were distributed by all the big sellers. Forged signatures included Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, DiMaggio, and Mantle.

That book was Operation Bullpen, and as I keep writing articles and blogs about forgery for Autograph and other sites and publications—in fact I”ve got a long piece coming out soon about literary forger Forest R. Smith, III—some in the collecting business have come to associate me with the FBI. Why, I”m not entirely sure. I got firsthand accounts and interviews from both the crooks and the FBI in Operation Bullpen; that”s what makes the book so unusual—the story is told from both sides (and fairly too. Both the forgers and law enforcement have praised it as a balanced, accurate account of the crimes.)

Nevertheless, the other day I was doing a story about a collector and I wanted to talk to the dealer who was planning to represent him when he put his collectibles up for auction. The dealer, at first, was a little wary about talking to me because he wondered, mistakenly, if I was involved with the FBI.

Believe me, folks, I”m a writer. And a journalist. If I were in the FBI I”d be getting paid a lot more. And I”d have to wear a suit and tie every day to go to work. But I”m not. I”m just a guy who wrote a book about forgery—here, check out my author”s website if you want to learn more.

Honestly, I figured I”d write Operation Bullpen and then move onto other books and topics, which I have. But I keep writing about forgery and other types of collector crime because it remains an endlessly fascinating subject, with breaking new developments all the time. The dealer eventually relaxed, we had our interview, and I filed the article with the magazine that assigned me to do it.

That”s the way it works in the writing biz—nothing more to it than that. But a writer lives and dies by his sources, and if you”ve got a question or tip about forgery or collecting crimes, drop me a line. I”m interested.

‘Champions Forever’ Sigs: Real or Fake?

Boxing fans have read and enjoyed Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Ring in American History, and I know this because I get emails from them. Here’s the latest one, which popped into my email box at KevinNelsonWriter.com just the other day:

“Hi, I have been fascinated by your book. I am inquiring about the poster, “Champions Forever,” signed by five boxing greats. I was offered this signed print and wondered about the likelihood of it being genuine or fake? Kind regards [Name withheld by request].”

The boxing greats (seen above in the signed poster) are, clockwise from bottom right:  Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, and Larry Holmes. All of them were, at one time or another, heavyweight boxing champions of the world. Lots of these posters are available online, and when I clicked over to eBay as research for this post, at least one copy signed by all five men was up for auction.

The last chapters of Operation Bullpen focus on the John Olson-Chuck Wepner counterfeit scheme in which Olson forged Muhammad Ali autographs on a variety of Ali merchandise, including photographs of Ali and Wepner, the now-retired, working class New Jersey pug who battled Ali in a memorable 1975 brawl that may or may not have been the inspiration for the first “Rocky” movie. (Wepner claims it was; Sly Stallone says he created the character from lots of sources.) In any case, Wepner sold forgeries in partnership with Olson, and in 2002 the FBI busted them both. Each received probation for their crimes.

One of the most popular items they scammed people with was the “Champions Forever” poster, which was based on a 1989 video of the same name. Olson, who became a master Ali forger and whose phony Ali sigs are still being sold today as authentic (one of his fakes is below), forged all five of the boxers onto stacks of posters that he printed (he was also a printer, by trade). Then, with Wepner serving as front man and capitalizing on his own real-life boxing cred, they sold hundreds and hundreds of them and made wads of money. When he saw the posters Larry Holmes’s manager said his client’s signature was a clear fake, and Ali’s people were so certain that Wepner was peddling fakes they contacted the FBI to see if they could help bring him down.

So, are the autographs on this “Champions Forever” poster fake or genuine? Well, I’m not an autograph expert and cannot say for certain. But I think you can guess from my response what my opinion is.

Kevin Nelson’s latest writing on forgery, Husband, Father, Forger: The True Story of a Bookselling Scam and How It Saved—and Nearly Ruined—One Man’s Life, will be released this fall.

Forging Author Signatures: A Nice Racket, Too

April 28, 2010. BY KEVIN NELSON Is the forging of author autographs as widespread as the forging of celebrities and sports stars? I ask this because of new revelations about Forest Smith, the Pennsylvania forger who was sentenced to prison in February for ripping off book collectors and others to the tune of $300,000.

According to sentencing documents in the case that I have obtained, when Smith was busted in December 2008, he had in his house some 2,400 books that he ostensibly planned to use for his criminal activities. As I wrote in the December 2009 Autograph, Smith bought unsigned first editions of prominent authors on one eBay account, stamped the books with their fake signatures, then sold them through a different eBay account to unsuspecting buyers who thought the autographs were real.

When they busted him, authorities confiscated 800 of the books in his house as evidence. Smith later confessed that he had planned to continue his forging scheme for at least several more years, and that he had gotten the original idea for it from seeing other dubious book sellers peddling phony stuff on eBay.  “Then once he realized that there were others or what he believes to be others on eBay sort of engaging in fraudulent activity,” as his defense attorney put it, “Mr. Smith realized that he could make more money by doing the same.”

There are of course many more celebrity and sports autographs on the market than author signatures. But based on the Smith case, people who buy author-signed books online need to be as careful, and practice just as much due diligence, as collectors in those other fields.

Kevin Nelson’s book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, is under development to be a movie and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is planning a museum exhibit on it. Contact him here.

Politics and Book Signings

A little less than a thousand folks showed up at a book signing in La Jolla for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. In two hours, he was able to sign all of their copies of “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”

A handful of volunteers were wearing patriot red, white, and blue shirts with “No Apology” written on them.

Because of all the protests at recent book signings involving anyone political, security was stepped up, and only 10 people at a time were brought into the store.

There were only a handful of people protesting, and it didn”t get out of line.

This all made me think, though…that the number one problem for autograph collectors at book signings, is the staff is always strict about not letting other items get in for signatures. And with the heat being turned up with protestors and safety concerns, I think now more than ever, politicians won”t be signing anything other than the most recent book they”re there to promote.

Kings and Diamonds, Jack and Dogg

No, it’s not some weird poker game. I just wasn’t feeling clever at trying to come up with a title. It’s late and I’m late for my racquetball game.

On TV this week, I saw Neil Diamond signing autographs on TMZ. I had heard he was a tough signer.

He was even game answering some weird TMZ questions. I believe one was asking if he was a fan of Justin Beaver, that 16-year-old singer that all the girlies are going crazy over. He said he was, before stepping into the black town car.

On Larry King Live, a show I rarely watch because I think he does the worst interviews on the planet…Snoop Dogg talking about, well, everything. Legalizing pot, the football league he started (which gave King the opportunity to show some racism).

Snoop took King out for a ride in a yellow lowrider. Nothing funnier than watching a startled King trying to figure out what the hydraulics were doing.

The yellow car had various Lakers players painted on the hood. That’s cool enough if you’re a Laker fan, but he also mentioned that he had various players sign the hood. Now talk about a signed item I’d like to see pop up on eBay.

And lastly…I’ve had a few letters and emails from people asking me if the famous folks sign autographs when they’re given a star in Hollywood on the Walk of Fame. I always tell them that the people I know in LA have always had mixed results.

So, when Ringo was getting his “Starr” recently, I suggested to a Beatles fanatic, it wasn’t worth the two hour drive. Especially since he has a reputation as someone that doesn’t sign. He was hoping Sir Paul would drop by. Yeah, right!

But imagine my surprise when Dennis Hopper, who the reports say is dying of cancer, showed up very frail at the ceremony. And a few of his Hollywood pals showed up.

Jack Nicholson had a red, white, and blue jacket (nope, he didn’t whip out the helmet from Easy Rider that looked similar).

But what he did whip out, was a Sharpie. And he was laughing and smiling as he signed for the big crowd.

Congrats to any of the autograph collectors that made it up there.