Two businessmen "systematically" forged autographs of famous England rugby and football players and sold them to sports fans, a court heard today. As well as fake signatures of Rugby World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson and footballers David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen, the pair also conned fans with "poorly made" replicas of England international caps which were sold as genuine.
Graeme Walker, 45, is accused of more than 50 counts of cheating the customers of his shop, Sporting Icons Limited, which has a store in Chester and also operates on eBay.
Faisal Madani, 43, described in court as the "middle man", faces 20 counts of supplying the forgeries. The forged autographs even included one from Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Andrew Thomas QC, prosecuting, said at Chester crown court: "Those charges are only a sample of the many hundreds of forged and counterfeit goods either sold or offered for sale by Sporting Icons.
"It would have been impossible to track down all the international stars and the representative bodies responsible for authenticating them."
Instead, he said, prosecutors have relied on evidence from a handwriting expert and some stars themselves, including Wilkinson, Gerrard, Owen and Jamie Carragher, who have denied signing the items.
Some of them are expected to give evidence, or have statements read to the jury, next week.
Walker and Madani deny the charges and responsibility for producing the fakes. They claim the goods were bought in good faith and from reputable sources.
Thomas told the jury that the bulk of the fraud took place in 2005, when Liverpool FC recorded their historic fifth Champions League victory.
He said: "The defendants were involved in selling effectively worthless items to the public.
"Customers paid premium prices - hundreds or even thousands of pounds - in the belief that they were buying genuine goods, such as items autographed by their heroes.
"The defendants, we say, betrayed the trust of the public. In short, they were ripping fans off." Beckham fans had reported Sporting Icons to trading standards after spotting adverts for a fake autographed picture of the star
Thomas said in 2002 Madani had paid George Best compensation of £10,000 after he was caught selling fake autographs of the Northern Ireland legend.