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Diamond Dreams

In the World of Baseball Memorabilia, it is Best to Keep Your Eyes on the Ball
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 1)

"There are two schools of forgery. Movie stars have people answer their mail, and the signatures are not authentic. As a young collector I tried to figure it out. I knew who answered [the players'] mail and who didn't. For example, [in the early 1960s] Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris may not have signed for the Yankees," Jordan says. "In a major league clubhouse there are boxes of balls to be signed; marginal players sign all the time. They then give them out to advertisers or whoever they want to give them out to. But guys like Mantle and Reggie Jackson would only sign them some of the time. Lou Gehrig, even while he was sick, was still appearing on all Yankee team balls. Knowledgeable collectors conclude that his wife, Eleanor, signed many of his letters and photos in 1938 and in 1939. He still signed certain things, until he got incapable of doing so.

"Then there are a few people who forge for a living; even the people who do it for a ball club. If all you do for a ball club is sign three or four names missing from a team ball, you get pretty good at it."

But Jordan got wise to the fakes. "I developed my research and took courses on paper and ink and other things, because I also collected in other fields. I have no degree." Still, he has become expert at discerning fakes by looking at the ink, the size of the signature, even the spot where the signature is signed. "Inside knowledge comes after 25 years of doing this. Some guys just don't sign the same place on the ball." These days the location of choice for a signature is called "the sweet spot," that spot on the ball where the distance between the stitches is narrowest. But this spot is only a recent preoccupation. "Nobody gave any care to the sweet spot until the early to mid-'70s shows," Jordan says, "but Ruth usually signed on the sweet spot." If balls at a card show are from players who signed in the 1960s or before and they are always signed on the sweet spot, there may be reason for suspicion. "Forgers have to do things right to fool a knowledgeable collector," Jordan continues. "Unfortunately, they don't have to do many things right to fool an average collector."

Jordan doesn't like to point out what customers should look for in forgeries, for that information benefits the forger in his deception, who'll just clean it up. But he does offer some advice. "If a Gehrig ball is signed on the sweet spot, that's a red flag." Another warning signal for Gehrig signatures is single signed balls, which were rare in his day. More balls were signed by teams then, so an overabundance of single signed balls by Gehrig is suspect. "Some guys are mediocre to good at forgery and others are really good. Some can do the whole damned 1912 Giants team. The average knowledgeable collector can't see this. There are only two or three who are knowledgeable about autographs and I happen to be one of them."

Jordan has taken it upon himself to validate genuine articles and expose forgeries. "I have my own authentication company and I will give out a certificate of authenticity," he says. He charges $100 to $150 for an average autograph and up to $250 to validate team balls, which generally contain 10 to 25 signatures. He spends most of his time authenticating higher-priced items. "A Cal Ripken autograph is not worth sending to me," he says. "It's only worth $100." But for more expensive items, such as cards, photos or balls signed by Mantle or Ruth or Hank Aaron or DiMaggio, his service is worth it.

While a Jordan certificate of authenticity carries some clout, many do not. "From an honest person certificates of authenticity are fine; from a dishonest person it's part of the lie," says Jordan. "Just because a person has an ad in a publication or a table at a card show, that doesn't mean their material is real. It has been very difficult in this industry to police the offenders; law enforcement agencies are not that cooperative. Some promoters throw dealers out but have gotten sued for doing so." And Jordan leaves would-be collectors with a valuable rule: "Serious collectors must do their research."

Barry Halper has. As collectors go, he is an exception. Most of his collection does not require verification. So extensive is Halper's collection of cards, uniforms and other artifacts--which covers every last inch of available floor and wall space in the lower level of his home--that he needed to put more than half of it in storage. Other uniforms, paintings and photos are on loan to Mickey Mantle's Restaurant in Manhattan, a joint so full of his memorabilia that it could be renamed Halper's North.

Halper has given more than 100 tours of his treasures. He tries his best to be patient with reporters who ask for the spelling of Gehrig and others who inquire, "What is a Triple Crown?" Sports Illustrated photographers once roamed his rooms for two weeks. "I just can't keep having people come over to the house," he says with a sigh. Then there are the determined waifs who call at all hours to have their 1948 Bowman Yogi Berra card appraised. When Halper's assistant, Tom D'Alonzo, tells them such a card is worth about $500, the caller fumes, "That can't be true; it's worth much more than that." It isn't. And if they wanted to argue with the answer, why did they call the Expert of Exchange in the first place?

No wonder Halper is looking to have well-heeled investors purchase his collection and give it ample room to breathe in a museum. He has retained the New York investment bank of Lazard Freres & Co. to find a suitable home for his wares. "I still want to be part of it," he says. "I want it in the [New York] metropolitan area for the public to see." One possible location is nearby Hoboken, where legend has it the first "modern" baseball game was played on June 19, 1846.

Anyone looking to buy will have to ante up some serious cash. The New York auction house Christie's finished its appraisal of his collection in November 1995. After armies of appraisers examined Halper's diamond treasures for more than six months--"Men and women came every other day; I couldn't take it everyday," Halper says wearily--they had put a price on every last bit of merchandise. (The priciest bit of attire was Gehrig's autographed uniform from 1936, the first year the "NY" appeared on the pinstripes. The appraised value? $400,000. He also owns one of the rare Honus Wagner cards. "The Wagner card would probably get $1 million at auction," Halper says of his mint condition T-206 card.)

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