"Schrader's Little Cooperstown," named after its owner, Dennis Schrader of Oldsmar, is on loan to the museum for the next 20 years. The exhibit took about a year and $300,000 to build.
"I think I have more balls than (the Hall of Fame)," Schrader told 10 News. "It's the big one, Guinness Book of Records, certified by them: biggest in the world."
Schrader's collection is 57 years in the making: from the majority of baseball's Hall of Famers to survivors of the Holocaust and Titanic; from Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe to Elvis and Priscilla Presley. More than 4,600 autographed baseballs now cross multiple celebrity genres. Many of the balls were collected over the last 15 years from his regular seats at Tropicana Field.
However, many of the collection's most impressive autographs were not obtained in-person, but purchased online or at auctions. And Schrader admits memorabilia fraud has been a problem for the industry over the last few decades.
Schrader also admits his collection may very well have some fake autographs. Yet he adamantly rebuffed 10 News questions about specific items' authenticity.
"It's gotten really bad," Schrader said of memorabilia fraud. "I'm glad I built this collection before it got really bad. But there's a lot of fraud out there."
Schrader says his collection is valued somewhere in the $2.5 million range, with the most expensive ball bearing the autographs of both Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. He says he got "a steal" about 25 years ago when he bought the ball for $25,000.
But in 2006, the St. Petersburg Times reported "Schrader would love to find a baseball autographed by the pair of (Monroe and DiMaggio)." Only one was known to exist at the time, and it sold at auction for $191,200.
Autograph fraud began to saturate the memorabilia market in the early 1990s. The most high-profile memorabilia forgery bust came when former Yankees minority owner Barry Halper sold his remarkable collection to Sotheby's for $30 million (plus another $7.5 million in items to Major League Baseball). A huge number of the items were later revealed to be fake and Halper has since been coined "baseball's Bernie Madoff."
But the FBI spent three years investigating - and busting - huge numbers of forgery rings too. According to the agency's website, the market was "literally flooded with tens of thousands of vintage items (including bats, balls, jerseys, helmets, pictures, magazines, pieces of papers, posters, lithographs, record albums, and other items) that are simply counterfeit."
The undercover sting, known as "Operation Bullpen," led to the dismantling of 18 forgery rings and the seizure of millions of dollars worth of counterfeit items. But it also led to the disturbing discovery of how prevalent autograph forgeries were and how many collectors had already been burned.
"The FBI confiscated tens of thousands of items. They walked into a warehouse and found buckets of Babe Ruth baseballs," said James Spence III, an authenticator with nationally-recognized James Spence Authentication (JSA).
Spence says the forgery rings weren't just forging autographs, but also certificates of authenticity, which remain in many large collections across the U.S. today.
Authenticators' Opinions on Little Cooperstown
Autograph authentication is an art, not a science. There's no way to tell if an autograph is real with 100% certainty unless a collector saw the item signed in-person. But there are tell-tale ways to identify autographs that are not authentic, and two firms - JSA and PSA/DNA - have emerged as the country's leaders in authentication.
Schrader says his collection, now on display at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, has more than 4,000 certificates of authenticity from JSA, PSA/DNA, and other authenticators. But when asked who else authenticated some of his items, Schrader wouldn't say.
"I go to certain people that I'm very comfortable with," Schrader said. "If someone wants to e-mail me and ask me who those are, I might give them that information."
When invsetigators e-mailed Schrader to ask who authenticated some of the rare autographs, he responded, "I really don't think my certificates need to be exposed to public scrutiny."
"Someone will come in here with 4,600 baseballs and say, 'How do you know that signature is real?' Schrader said. "I say, 'How do you know they're not real?' The only person I know who could tell if a ball is real, true or false, would be (an) FBI forensic examiner."
But when investigators arranged for a "Little Cooperstown" visit from one of the world's leading authentication agencies, JSA, which has done forensic work for the FBI, Schrader repeatedly refused.
Later, after an interview with Schrader, investigators consulted more than a half-dozen leaders from the autograph authentication and autograph auction industries. The experts agreed across the board that many of the seemingly most impressive autographs appeared to be forgeries.
University Archives' John Reznikoff, an autograph authenticator and dealer who has provided expert witness testimony for numerous federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, looked at 16 high-resolution images of rare autographs in "Little Cooperstown."
"A great number of them that I looked at, in my opinion, are forgeries," said Reznikoff, specifically citing autographs such as Elvis Presley's, Marilyn Monroe's, and Satchel Paige's.
"Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart on the same baseball? I've never seen either of those people sign a baseball, much less together and in the same ink. I did a little research and found they were only together one time."
"Based on what I'm told is in the collection, I'm surprised he doesn't have a ball signed by Jesus," Reznikoff said jokingly.
While one of the nation's leading autograph dealers, Kevin Keating of Quality Autographs, said he wouldn't pay a cent for some of the supposed high-value baseballs in "Little Cooperstown," based on what he saw in the high-resolution photos.
Investigators also sought the expertise of Roger Epperson, the top dealer and authenticator on modern music memorabilia. An Elvis Presley expert, he said Schrader's Elvis autograph looked "too practiced to be real," since baseballs are tough items to sign for someone not experienced in it.
And Tampa autograph dealer John Osterweil, who has been familiar with the baseballs in "Little Cooperstown" for years, says he has shown the collection to auctioneers and authenticators, both of whom expressed concern about authenticity.
"Guinness doesn't authenticate autographs," Osterweil said, adding that a world record for "most autographed baseballs" doesn't mean the autographs, or Schrader's certificates of authenticity, are real. He says if Schrader doesn't get the balls he purchased in the 1990s authenticated by one of the country's top experts, there's no telling if they're legitimate.
When Schrader refused to let James Spence Authentication look at his collection, he pointed out authentication experts can make mistakes.
"Who authenticates the authenticators?" he asked, calling the entire industry's credibility into question.
"Mr. Spence's background happens to be a little shady," he added in an e-mail, before admitting Spence and JSA are among the best authenticators in the world.
The Museum's Response
While the St. Petersburg Museum of History says it typically verifies artifacts before they're put on display, executive director Rui Farias says the board of directors has been satisfied with using the Guinness Book of World Record's certification. He also said the exhibit isn't only about the world's largest autograph collection.
"It's much more than just the autographs," said Farias, who only recently joined the museum. "We're using the baseballs - and baseball - to tell American and St. Pete history."
The St. Pete Museum of History, located at the foot of the St. Pete Pier, has survived for years on a tight budget. But the hopes are new exhibits, like "Little Cooperstown," will help increase attendance. The museum also receives $12,000 each year from the City of St. Petersburg.
On Thursday night, the museum will host a black tie gala to honor Schrader.
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:
1.Try to buy from reputable dealers who provide a certificate of authenticity from a reputable agency. James Spence Authentication (JSA) and Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA/DNA) are the nation's top authenticators.
2.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.
3.Items that come with MLB authentication holograms and items that were donated directly by teams are also typically safe.
4.Be especially careful around these top 10 most-forged celebrity autographs.
5.Also be careful of music and celebrity memorabilia, which have become increasingly diluted with forgeries too.
6.Use a credit card when you buy, so if you discover the item fails authentication later, you can dispute the charge.
7.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 authentication to JSA or PSA/DNA.
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