The FBI estimates that forged-autograph memorabilia accounts for at least half and possibly as much as 90% of the $1 billion sports collectibles industry. The Bureau's San Diego field office was set to announce this week the results of an undercover sting targeting fake-autograph dealers. The feds set up a front called the Nihon Trading Company in Oceanside, Calif., and although it was no more authentic than the Mother Teresa-autographed baseball the operation uncovered, it fooled members of a nationwide ring whose allegedly incriminating statements now fill more than 1,000 FBI audio tapes. According to the FBI, one dealer discussed selling memorabilia "just signed" by the late Wilt Chamberlain.
Last October the feds obtained some 60 search warrants in five states and used them to seize enough signed balls, photos and other items to fill a small warehouse. Government prosecutors were still negotiating with lawyers for the accused forgers, but the charges that could result from the sting include conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, money laundering, racketeering and trafficking in counterfeit goods. "Some of these people justify their actions by saying, 'If the buyer still gets joy out of the item, what does it matter if it's fake?' " says FBI special agent Jan Caldwell. "It's heartless."
The FBI says Tony Gwynn and Mark McGwire were among the athletes who assisted the government by identifying poor imitations of their signatures. A word to collectors: Before you plunk down a bundle for that authentic Shaquille O'Neal-signed lobster bib, better have Shaq eyeball it.
An Uproar Down Under
What host country wouldn't feel uneasy? They're arriving soon, those crotchety aunts who look under beds, sniff inside cupboards and just can't bear to keep a couple of cockroaches or hair balls to themselves. They're nearly here, the world media coming to cover the Summer Olympics—15,000 crotchety aunts always on the lookout for dirt.
Five months before the start of the Summer Games, that uneasiness turned to pit-of-the-gut dread in Australia last week. Just when the country's house seemed nearly in order—Olympic venues virtually completed, streets and sidewalks renovated, economy booming and dust finally settling over Games tickets covertly snatched from the public allotment so they could be quietly sold at fat prices to the rich—damned if somebody didn't open the one closet jammed with Australia's most embarrassing skeletons.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron made the blunder when he submitted to a Senate committee a report that debunked as myth the stolen generation, the term used for the legions of Aboriginal children taken from their parents and placed in white foster care and institutions from 1910 to '70. The report, which was supported by Prime Minister John Howard and reflected government wariness over potential compensation claims, stated that the numbers of those affected had been greatly exaggerated and had never exceeded 10% of the Aboriginal population, which currently stands at 300,000 in a nation of 19 million. "There was never a 'generation' of stolen children," the submission stated. "[T]he treatment of separated Aboriginal children was essentially lawful and benign in intent."
Outrage was immediate and widespread, especially among a minority for whom the stolen generation stands as a symbol of so many thefts and so much pain since the arrival of whites in the late 1700s. Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, who was taken from his family as a child, threatened violence during the Olympics: "Burning cars and burning buildings. Reconciliation is finished now. We are not going to lie down like a mongrel dog so people can come along and kick us. We are going to start biting."
"All bets are off," declared Lyall Munro of the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council. "Aboriginal people will rise up and show the world how racist Australia is."
The ill-timed Senate submission re-ignited smoldering Aboriginal fury over the recent suicide of a 15-year-old boy serving a 28-day sentence for stealing oil and paint worth $30, under mandatory sentencing laws that exist in the Northern Territories.