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Thursday, February 23, 2006
Card owner now doubts Ruth, Johnson autographs

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Kevin Demitros thought he had purchased the grand slam of baseball cards.

It was one of a kind, containing the signatures of four of the first five members inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. The 50-year-old airport planner for Milwaukee paid a whopping $85,000 in an online auction for the prize, figuring it was a "retirement investment."

He had little time to savor his new addition.

Weeks after buying the card, Demitros watched an HBO special on fraud in the sports memorabilia industry and saw a scan of his card being scrutinized by someone convicted in connection with a federal forgery investigation. The man claimed two of the card's autographs were fakes.

"I was sick to my stomach," Demitros said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "I took a gamble and thought this card had potential."

Demitros is now involved in a dispute with the card's manufacturer, Carlsbad-based Upper Deck Co., which stands behind its products but said it is willing to have an independent third party look at the card to determine its authenticity.

"We have reached out to Kevin and are talking with him to resolve this," said Upper Deck spokesman Don Williams. "We're undergoing an investigation on our end. We want the actual card because it would be negligent to use just a digital image."

The card was pulled from a pack of Upper Deck SP Legendary Cuts by Barry Scott of Guntown, Miss.

"Cut signatures" -- autographs cut out and embedded into a card -- have been the rave in the sports trading card industry for the past several years. The autographs of deceased ball players and such historical icons as Pope John Paul II, Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Edison are taken from canceled checks, postcards and other items.

So when the card featuring the signatures of four baseball legends went up for auction on eBay in November, collectors were watching.

After a 10-day auction, Demitros was the winning bidder and the price set an industry record for 2005.

But the HBO special cast doubt on the card. Three authentication companies that studied a scan of it said they believed the Ruth and Johnson autographs might not be genuine.

Shelly Jaffe, who appeared on the show, also was skeptical. Jaffe, who was convicted several years ago as the result of an FBI investigation into fake sports and celebrity memorabilia, said he believed the two autographs were the work of one of his former cohorts.

FBI agent Timothy Fitzsimmons, who aided the federal forgery investigation, said it's possible that fake signatures from players like Ruth are floating about, but whether they managed to slip by card manufacturers is unknown.

He recommend that people purchasing autographs try to document the signatures' history.

As for the grand slam of cards? Fitzsimmons just hopes Demitros doesn't strike out.

"How do you authenticate vintage signatures?" asked the FBI agent. "You can't go out and buy a Babe Ruth autograph authenticated by Major League Baseball.

"It's a huge question. It's an opinion," Fitzsimmons said of trying to verify autographs that old.