Twin Cities man who sold jerseys allegedly worn in games by top athletes faces federal charges that they were fakes.
In the big business of sports memorabilia, an authentic player's jersey can fetch thousands of dollars. But a fake one could land a Twin Cities man in jail.
Steven Jensen, the owner of a Plymouth-based sports memorabilia company, was charged Thursday with selling phony jerseys that he claimed were worn during games by prominent athletes including baseball stars Alex Rodriguez and Mark McGwire.
Jensen, 40, of Osseo, was arrested Thursday during a sports collectors' convention in Rosemont, Ill. The Plymouth warehouse of his firm, Vintage Sports Authentics, was searched at the same time.
Charges of mail fraud and wire fraud were filed Thursday in federal court in New York City, according to the Associated Press. Jensen and his company are accused of knowingly auctioning off jerseys between July 2007 and last month that were purportedly "game used" -- worn by prominent baseball players -- but were not authentic.
If customers independently learned that the jerseys were fake and returned them, Jensen allegedly reauctioned them, authorities said. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service did not immediately put a dollar figure on the alleged scheme. Jensen couldn't be reached for comment.
Ryan Guldberg, a computer technician who said he used to manage the online auction software for Vintage, said Jensen got his start in the business when they worked together at Asset Marketing Services, a major dealer of collectible coins in Burnsville that also used to sell collectible sports items.
Jensen was a senior buyer for the firm's sports memorabilia division from January 1999 to May 2003, said David Davenport, a Minneapolis attorney who represents the firm. He said Jensen left the company when it shut down the memorabilia division. Davenport said there were widespread concerns in the industry about bogus merchandise at the time.
Guldberg said there's been talk for years about a federal investigation into the memorabilia industry. He said federal agents interviewed the so-called experts who authenticated sports collectibles at last year's national convention. Guldberg said that he and a former coin salesman for Asset Marketing who did marketing work for Vintage Sports Authentics, quit the firm about eight months ago.
"There were things Steve was doing to us that just didn't seem quite right," Guldberg said. He declined to explain his comment. "Steve wanted to go in a different direction," Guldberg said.
The sports memorabilia field is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year business, and according to Blake Baratz, an agent who represents 35 NFL players, "there's likely tons of phony stuff out there."
He said that when the players he represents autograph a game-worn jersey, the buyer is given a letter of authentication that verifies the exact date and game when it was worn. "You can tell, if a guy played in a jersey, it's not going to be a brand new jersey with no nicks on it," Baratz said.
But Baratz said after his clients are paid for the memorabilia, they don't track or check to see whether similar memorabilia is being sold fraudulently. "We have no idea how much phony stuff is out there," he said. "I care, but I don't care because there's nothing I can do about it."
Matt George mostly shows off sports memorabilia in his Peoria, Ill., bar but dabbles in buying and selling some of it. "People like myself can go on eBay and spot the real jerseys from the fake," he said. But for the average collector or fan, George suggests they know who they're buying from and ask tough questions. "Ask where did they get it," he said. "It's easy to say you have a letter of authenticity, but that letter of authenticity can be fake."
"The scumbags" who are selling phony memorabilia really hurt the business, George said.
According to the Associated Press, the criminal complaint alleges that in July 2007 a customer in the Bronx paid Vintage more than $3,000 for a home Seattle Mariners jersey the company said was worn by Alex Rodriguez during the 1995 major league season. The customer brought the jersey to a sports memorabilia show in New Rochelle, N.Y., in January 2010 for Rodriguez to sign.
An authenticator at the show determined that the jersey was fake because the name-plate fabric was different from the rest of the jersey, the complaint said.
The complaint said Jensen stood by the jersey's authenticity when approached by the customer, who eventually returned the jersey after a former Mariners equipment manager examined it and also concluded that it wasn't genuine.
Vintage Sports Authentics reauctioned the jersey online last February, falsely stating it was the real thing, the complaint said.
In another online auction, an undercover postal inspector paid $477 to buy an away Oakland Athletics jersey advertised as being worn by McGwire in 1997. The agent spoke with several people to determine that the jersey was fake, including McGwire, according to the complaint.
The postal inspector showed McGwire a list of other memorabilia offered by Vintage Sports Authentics, including a Home Run Derby jersey purportedly worn by McGwire during the 1999 All-Star Game. McGwire told the agent he still has his Home Run Derby jersey, the complaint said.
The agent told Jensen the jersey was fake and returned it, and his company offered it online again as genuine, the complaint said.
Vintage Sports Authentics also offered an away St. Louis Cardinals jersey in February said to be worn by Albert Pujols in 2002. But Pujols told officials he still possesses the only two away Cardinals jerseys issued to him for the 2002 season.