The sports memorabilia biz is most definitely not for the faint of heart. Collectors have long complained about deceptive advertising by auction houses; even more infuriating are the authenticators who claim to be independent but actually consigned the very items they claim they objectively appraised.
Those complaints, usually posted anonymously on Internet sites, are about to get a very public hearing in open court. A lawsuit filed in Boone County (Ind.) Superior Court by sports memorabilia dealer Bill Daniels accuses industry giants Mastro Auctions and PSA/DNA Authentication Services of fraud and questions the business practices and integrity of sports memorabilia's most important companies.
"I'm trying to fight this battle for every collector who has said, 'I got screwed but I have to take it,'" Daniels tells The Score.
The suit, scheduled for trial in June, says Daniels spent almost $20,000 to buy more than 2,000 autographed 8x10 photographs - including pictures of Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Muhammad Ali - during Mastro's December 2004 auction.
The signatures, according to Mastro's catalogue, were authenticated by PSA/DNA. "The mother lode of autographed 8x10 color photos," the catalogue said. "The photos average NM/MT (near mint to mint) condition with '9-10' (on a scale of 1-10) signatures."
But Daniels says he got "sick to my stomach" when he received the photos. Sixty-five percent were damaged, with bent corners, creases and smeared signatures. Another 48 were in poor condition because the signatures were illegible. He also suspects some of the autographs may have been signed by players' secretaries - or may be forgeries.
Daniels contacted Mastro to get a refund, but when the company refused to exchange the lot or compensate him, he filed suit.
Mastro president Doug Allen says that's not accurate. "We offered Mr. Daniels the opportunity to return any photos he claims are undersized or have smeared autographs for a full refund on that portion of his purchase," he said in an E-mail. "Mr. Daniels refused the offer.
"I do not believe Mr. Daniels has ever identified an autograph he purchased that is not authentic," he adds.
Officials at Collectors Universe, PSA/DNA's parent company, did not return requests for comment.
Daniels and his attorney S. Andrew Burns later learned that PSA/DNA authenticator Zach Rullo, whose signature was on the letter of authenticity that accompanied the photos, was one of the consigners.
"That's a conflict of interest, absolutely," Burns says. "The biggest problem is that although they tell you how PSA is the leader in authentication and that they authenticated the lot, they never tell you that Zach owned it."
The quality of that authentication is also an issue; Burns says records indicate a three-man team that included Rullo spent 16 hours over two days poring through the 56,000 items offered in the 2004 auction. That's just a few seconds per item, the attorney says.
"That's not enough time to move the photos from one stack to another, never mind compare the signatures to exemplars or review the quality of the photos," he says.
Daniels, who says he spent $100,000 on Mastro auctions the year before he purchased the photo collection, says sports memorabilia's biggest auction house has lost a valuable customer. "They hold themselves out as the industry leader, but I'd like some checks and balances" Burns says about PSA/DNA. "If an auction house says something comes with a PSA/DNA letter of authenticity, I don't want to hear that PSA/DNA merely rubber stamped it."