ST. PETERSBURG, Florida - When Dennis Schrader wanted to establish his collection of autographed baseballs - nicknamed "Little Cooperstown" - as the biggest in the world, he sought approval from the Guinness Book of World Records.
But when he needed a pair of "experts" to authenticate the autographs, he didn't choose from any of the top sports memorabilia experts, authenticators, or auction houses in the world ... or even Tampa Bay. Instead, he reached out to a collector who said he hadn't spoken to Schrader in a decade.
"Little Cooperstown," now more than 4,600 baseballs in size, is on loan to the St. Pete Museum of History for the next 20 years. But some of the most impressive autographs in the collection face scrutiny because of what experts call "signs of forgery."
Norman Chester, the owner of All-American Sports Collectibles in Ephrata, Penn., was one of two experts Schrader used to authenticate his collection for the world record. But Chester tells 10 News that he's never met Schrader and has never seen the collection in-person.
Chester said he sold Schrader several autographs in the past, but hadn't actually spoken to him in "about a decade." But he said Schrader e-mailed him around 2010 about his Guinness quest, sending a few pictures of "Little Cooperstown" along. Chester said Schrader asked him to write a few sentences attesting to his "familiarity" with the collection.
Chester said he obliged, verifying the collection's size, but not its authenticity.
Schrader also needed to provide a second authentication "from a reputable auction house or relevant in institution/society which specializes in collections of the type submitted," according to the Guinness.
Guinness tells 10 News that the Board of Directors for the St. Pete Museum of History - none of whom appear to be authenticators or autograph baseball experts - wrote the second letter on behalf of Schrader, attesting to the autographs' authenticity.
The museum, which recently opened a $300,000 exhibit featuring the "Little Cooperstown" collection, has maintained it is confident the signatures are real, despite the questions raised by the 10 News investigators.
A museum spokesperson pointed to the Guinness record as evidence, but Guinness said it merely relied on the witness statements from the museum and Chester because it's not in the business of authenticating autographs.
Chester also told 10 News that he remembers selling Schrader perhaps his most rare collectable, a ball signed by both Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Schrader said he paid approximately $25,000 for the ball and Chester said it came with a certificate of authenticity (COA).
However, Chester said the COA had the signature of forensic experts who were known as the "go-to" authenticators for the biggest autograph fraud ring ever busted, made famous during the FBI's "Operation Bullpen" sting.
Neither of the forensics experts were ever implicated in any intentional wrongdoing, but their COAs were so closely tied to Operation Bullpen that major memorabilia dealers, including eBay, have stopped accepting their COAs.
Autograph authentication is not a perfect science. Experts merely provide their opinions of authenticity, but the country's best experts will typically agree on an autograph. When 10 News showed some of Schrader's most impressive autographed baseballs to a panel of six experts, all of them agreed many showed signs of forgery.
10 News contacted the museum and Schrader again for comment on the latest developments, but messages were not returned.
Tips for Collecting Autographs
There's no substitute for collecting autographs in-person from athletes and celebrities yourself. Schrader and his wife collected the majority of their 4,600-plus baseballs this way.
But before you spend significant money on autographs, experts suggest following these tips to avoid getting ripped off by potential forgeries:
- Try to buy from reputable dealers who provide a certificate of authenticity from a reputable agency, such as JSA or PSA/DNA.
- If you purchase an expensive autographed item from an auction, read the certificate carefully. If it doesn't have an image of the autographed item, the autograph may not have actually been inspected. Some collectors will donate worthless items to charity auctions to claim tax deductions.
- Items that come with MLB authentication holograms and items that were donated directly by teams are also typically safe.
- Be especially careful around these top 10 most-forged celebrity autographs.
- Also be careful of music and celebrity memorabilia, which have become increasingly diluted with forgeries too.
- Use a credit card when you buy, so if you discover the item fails authentication later, you can dispute the charge.
- If a deal is too good to be true, it probably is.
And if you have a collection with items you purchased in the past, you can submit them for an opinion from authenticators JSA or PSA/DNA.
Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Read his Sports Business Blog at Shadow of the Stadium.