Forgery and Counterfeiting
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Forgery and Counterfeiting

Babe Ruth Baseballs


Updated July 2024
Posted October 2023

FBI Art and Cultural Property
Art and Cultural Property
Theft and Forgery

The FBI investigates genuine artwork and historical documents that have been stolen and has a dedicated Art Crime Team of 20 special agents, which was formed in 2004. They advertise missing pieces listed in the National Stolen Art File. To date, they have recovered more than 15,000 items valued at over $800 million, involving everything from modern art to looted archaeological material. They assist in art related investigations in cooperation with foreign law enforcement officials and FBI legal attache offices worldwide. Many looted or stolen pieces have been repatriated to their country of origin. The FBI also investigates counterfeit artwork and other cultural property crimes.

FBI Forged Paintings
Forged Paintings with FBI evidence Tag

These may appear to be pieces made or autographed by Picasso, Dali, and Chagall, but look again. Fine Art Treasures Gallery sold fake art through an art auction television show, and forged signatures on some of the works. In 2010, the owners and the auctioneer were arrested on conspiracy, wire fraud, interstate transportation of stolen property, and tax evasion charges.

FBI Operation Foul Ball
Operation Bullpen and Operation Foul Ball
It ain't over 'til it's over

In the mid-1990s, FBI Chicago opened a case, Operation Foul Ball, involving forged autographs of Chicago athletes. It turned out to be much bigger than Chicago, and arrests were made in five states. The FBI then opened Operation Bullpen. The first part was an undercover operation that led to 26 convictions and recovery of $500,000 in cash and $10 million worth of faked memorabilia. Part two, which ran through 2003, expanded beyond sports stars to other celebrity autographs and involved ten different FBI field offices. Seized sports equipment was donated to local communities once the autographs were removed. Sports memorabilia is an estimated $1 billion a year business. Counterfeit material is still out in the market, and the FBI is still investigating.

FBI New York Yankees Jersey
New York Yankees Jersey
This jersey appears to have a Mickey Mantle #7 autograph, but it is a fake signature.

FBI New York Yankees Jersey

FBI Operation Bullpen

FBI Spalding Football
Spalding Football
Autographed by U.S. Presidents $1500.

This football has forged autographs of President Gerald Ford and President Ronald Reagan.

FBI Baseballs with Forged Autographs
Baseballs with Forged Autographs
Baseball with fake Babe Ruth autograph and fake New York Yankees 1998 World Championship team autographs. In an effort to seem more authentic, the signatures may be applied to old baseballs.

Operation Bullpen

WIKIPEDIA Operation Bullpen
FBI investigation into forged celebrity autographs and sports memorabilia that ran from 1999 until 2006. The investigation uncovered $100 million worth of fraud that occurred in the United States.

In the 1990s, Operation Foulball in San Diego began uncovering widespread forgeries of baseball memorabilia.

After the FBI became aware that a large forgery ring was operating, they launched a joint investigation with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Wayne Bray, a memorabilia shop owner, met master forger Gregory Marino in 1994. The two became friends, and went into business selling forged Mickey Mantle autographs among other items. A large number of the forgeries were made by Marino, who could perfectly copy signatures on sight and worked 15 hours a day to produce forgeries. Marino estimated that he made over a million forgeries during their operation. They went into business with former deputy sheriff, Stan Fitzgerald, a well known distributor of memorabilia on the East Coast. Over time, their forgery ring grew to include 20 individuals including several members of Marino's family. Marino's father produced lithograph paintings of athletes, which sold for much higher sums once Gregory Marino had added forged signatures to them. Another notable figure was John Olson, who forged around 10,000 autographs, the majority of which were Muhammad Ali.

The forgers used a variety of methods to make their memorabilia appear authentic, including buying old books to use the aged paper inside for autographs, aging baseballs in shellac, storing memorabilia in bags of dog food to make them smell old, and using antique ink and pens to sign them. They made their businesses appear more legitimate by taking out ads on home shopping networks and in official trade publications.

After the results of the investigation came to light, Major League Baseball launched the MLB Authentication Program to ensure the integrity of official memorabilia and to preserve historical records. Other leagues such as the National Football League, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association launched smaller scale efforts at identifying fakes.

Other Wikipedia Citings