Trick Play: Memorabilia company peddled Patriots, Seahawks gear with forged player autographs

 

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Just days after the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots claimed their spots in Super Bowl XLIX, a memorabilia company called The Highland Mint contacted customers with a tantalizing list of autographed collectibles.

Highland — best known in sports circles as the maker of the commemorative coin used for the game’s opening toss — said it was selling a limited number of Patriots and Seahawks items, including official Super Bowl XLIX footballs and mini-helmets signed by star quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.

The pieces on the company’s list ranged in price from $399 to $2,500 and had a combined retail value of more than $300,000. Highland said each would be shipped with a certificate affirming their authenticity.

But a Sharesleuth investigation found that all, or nearly all, of the items were fakes. What’s more, we found that the Melbourne, Fla.-based company has marketed virtually identical merchandise before previous Super Bowls, dating back to at least 2011.

After becoming suspicious about this year’s items, Sharesleuth contacted representatives for Wilson and Brady, who confirmed that the players had no part in their creation. We also sent the evidence to the NFL’s headquarters, but got no response.

The special collectibles were not advertised on Highland’s web site, which features a wide range of legitimate, NFL-authorized merchandise. Instead, a list with descriptions and pictures was offered to customers who previously had expressed interest in such items.

Although forgeries are a perpetual problem in the memorabilia business, experts said it was highly unusual for an established, league-approved vendor to be dealing in them.

It is unclear how many of the questionable Super Bowl-related items Highland actually sold. But if it managed to move most of the inventory it advertised for the past five games, the proceeds could be in the neighborhood of $1 million.

“ZERO CHANCE” OF AUTHENTICITY

Scott Mahlum, a Seattle-area memorabilia dealer who has an exclusive signing agreement with Wilson, said there was “zero chance” that the Seahawks quarterback autographed the footballs, jerseys, helmets and photos on Highland’s list.

“There’s no way that Russell Wilson sat down and signed 16 team helmets for anybody else,’’ Mahlum said, referring to one set of items on Highland’s list, priced at $1,995 each.

Mahlum’s company, Mill Creek Sports, also represents Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who purportedly signed dozens of the pieces that Highland was selling.

Jeff Rosenberg’s company, TRISTAR Productions Inc., has handled all of Brady’s  authorized memorabilia signings since 2001. Rosenberg said TRISTAR was not the source of the items that Highland was selling.  They included nearly 100 autographed 8×10 photos of the Patriots quarterback, offered in frames with souvenir coins. The sets were priced at $399 each, meaning they had a total retail value of nearly $40,000.

A SINGLE SUPPLIER

Mahlum confronted Highland about the items last week and was told that it had procured them from another Florida company called Who’s Who Productions Inc.

Who’s Who says on its web site that it obtains autographs through private signings, and through the use of crews that stake out sporting events hoping to get athletes to add their names to balls, jerseys and other gear. Who’s Who noted on its site that it usually sells its memorabilia at fan events during Super Bowl week, in the cities hosting the game.

This year’s game was in Glendale, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. The Patriots defeated the Seahawks, 28-24, in what ranks as one of the best games in Super Bowl history.

Michael A. Goldfarb, president of Who’s Who in Tamarac, Fla.,, did not respond to our questions.

Mahlum said he found it hard to believe that Highland did not question the legitimacy of the Super Bowl-related memorabilia, given that the supplier had no direct ties to the players who were said to have signed the items.

Highland once had an outside party confirm the authenticity of its autographed merchandise. But in recent years, customers have received certificates signed by the company’s president and owner, Michael E. Kott.

He did not respond to our questions.

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