A boy looks at a display of baseball cards last year in Philadelphia. The card collecting hobby is being rocked by a scandal concerning allegedly altered cards. (Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

The green stadium seats shown on the baseball card are empty as Stan Musial, wearing a crisp white uniform, grips a bat and digs in. His eyes gaze toward the pitcher over his right shoulder, his white teeth peeking out in a grin. It’s almost as if, on this vividly colored card issued in 1952 by the Bowman Gum Company, “Stan the Man” has spotted a fat fastball.

The card’s lone obvious blemish is a stray black print mark on its white frame. Even with the defect, it sold in an online auction in late 2017 for $2,800.

Seven months later, a 1952 Bowman Stan Musial card without that print mark sold for $28,100. Collectors have since claimed the two cards are in fact the same item, improperly altered to inflate its value and then auctioned off a second time. Now, the FBI is asking questions about that card and hundreds of others like it as a scandal over trading cards that have allegedly been fraudulently altered rocks the billion-dollar memorabilia hobby.

Federal law enforcement officials have launched a criminal investigation encompassing one of baseball card collecting’s largest authentication firms, a well-known sports memorabilia dealer and one of the hobby’s largest auction houses, among others, according to four collectors who have been interviewed by investigators.

The scandal started after a pair of online collectors began identifying and documenting cards that were allegedly improperly modified. They have identified 316 such cards, retouched by nearly a dozen “card doctors,” that sold for a combined $1.4 million. The four collectors who spoke with investigators say the FBI suspects thousands of additional cards with similar issues are still circulating through the hobby. (All four collectors spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, concerned about the repercussions of discussing an ongoing investigation.)

At the heart of the scandal is the memorabilia market’s system for assessing baseball cards, a term widely used to describe any athletic trading card. Collectors rely on grading companies — California-based Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), part of publicly traded Collectors Universe, dominates the market — to help determine the condition and market price of cards. An improved grade can increase a card’s value several times over — hence the existence of so-called doctors, who take worn cards, alter them to make them appear in better condition and resubmit them to grading companies in search of a better mark.

Investigators are asking questions about one such alleged doctor, Gary Moser, who is implicated by the online research, according to the four collectors who have talked to the FBI. Investigators are also asking about other smaller-scale doctors, along with PSA’s grading practices and an Oregon-based auction house, PWCC, according to those four collectors.

PWCC acknowledged in a statement that it is cooperating with law enforcement officials over cards graded by PSA and submitted by Moser. A PSA spokesman declined an interview request but said the company was conducting its own investigation and cooperating with law enforcement. It also decertified the Musial card, which indicates the company no longer stands by the grade it once assigned. Moser denied altering cards. An FBI spokesperson would not confirm the existence of a current probe into PWCC, PSA or Moser, citing Bureau policy.

The scandal has thrust the hobby into chaos as casual and serious collectors alike review their stockpiles of cards to search for potentially damaged goods that may be worth significantly less than the price for which they were purchased.

“It’s a nightmare what’s going on right now, but it’s been a problem in the industry forever, and it’s time that it was brought to light,” said Al Crisafulli, who runs Love of the Game Auctions in Great Meadows, N.J. “I think we’ve all been burned at some point or another.”

An exploitable system

Modern baseball card collecting erupted in the 1990s when companies began grading cards’ condition and assigning them a mark from 1 to 10 that helped set a collectible’s market price. Grading agencies keep track of cards they assess by placing each one in a serial-numbered plastic holder meant to preserve the item’s condition. Cards that have been altered receive a lesser grade, “AA” for “authentic altered,” rather than a numerical grade.

The introduction of the grading system offered collectors an objective measurement of cards’ condition and relative value for the first time, said Rich Mueller, editor of Sports Collectors Daily. Grading made it easier to purchase insurance policies for memorabilia and provided a method for hobbyists to upgrade their collections: They could simply purchase a card with a higher grade.

That encouraged friendly competition among collectors and created enough concrete data about specific cards to entice new collectors to enter the hobby, which inflated prices, Mueller said. Some card connoisseurs began treating their collections as financial assets, similar to stocks, bonds or works of fine art.

But unlike old hot rods, baseball cards of value must remain untouched over time to maintain their worth, longtime dealers and collectors said. Cards with bent corners or faded images are not to be restored to remain collectible.

There are even specific ways that cards are supposed to be cleaned if they are expected to earn a grade. Soaking a card in distilled water and allowing it to air-dry to remove stains is generally permitted, collectors and graders said, but using any sort of cleaning agent, such as bleach, is a violation, even if it does not appear to materially damage the card.

“If you have something that’s 100 years old and it looks like it’s 100 years old, that’s one thing. But if it looks like it’s brand new, that’s something else,” said Anthony Nex, a vintage collector in Southern California. “That’s impressive. When you alter a card, you’re deceiving someone to make it look like it was cared for better than it was.”

The rabid memorabilia market created a strong incentive for card doctors, who could see large profit margins by illicitly altering a card to boost its grade and then reselling it.

It’s also hard to get caught. Securities trading produces public records, and fine art doesn’t grapple with duplicates, but hundreds of copies of the same baseball card might exist.

The current scandal mushroomed from the work of a pair of Internet-savvy collectors, who unearthed information over the past three months implicating figures considered fixtures in the hobby. The collectors traced the origin of certain valuable cards — from rookie cards of NBA stars Stephen Curry and James Harden to historic vintage cards of Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson — using sales data from online sources and posted their findings on the hobby chat forum Blowout Cards.

And they found dozens of cards — the list continues to grow — that online sales records indicate were graded by PSA, obtained by Moser, allegedly altered, resubmitted to PSA for grading and then auctioned by PWCC.

For the 316 cards at the heart of the scandal, the alterations resulted in an average bump of nearly two grades, inflating the average card’s value by nearly $3,000, according to the collectors.

The manufacturing process, especially for vintage cards, leaves each card with unique characteristics: how the image on the card is centered in the frame, stray print marks, the pattern of the fibers on the cardboard and dirt or debris caused by aging, allowing close observers to differentiate between like copies. The collectors, who posted their methods and published lists of dozens of cards they thought had been altered, also assembled a database of before and after photos of cards suspected to be altered and resubmitted, providing grading companies and law enforcement officials evidence of potential wrongdoing. The hobby erupted in panic.

Collectors sift through baseball cards at the 2010 National Sports Collectors Convention in Baltimore. (Rob Carr/Associated Press)

“The previous state of the art was that it was generally known among advanced dealers and collectors and auction houses that doctoring was happening. There wasn’t any resource that kept track of doctored cards,” said Peter Spaeth, who collects pre-World War II baseball cards in Boston.

The Blowout Cards forum thread helped change that.

“The typical reaction was, ‘This is disgusting. It’s disgraceful,’ ” Spaeth said. “There were a lot of people who knew this was going on, but there were some who were naive and trusted the grading services. Now there’s a lot of shock and consternation.”

It’s all about trust

Moser said in a phone interview that he does not alter cards. He said he seeks out cards that he thinks have been “undergraded” by authenticators, breaks them out of their holders and resubmits them to grading companies without alteration, hoping for a better value.

“I look for cards that PSA rated 5s and 6s, crack them out and hopefully get a better answer,” he said. “I’ve been buying and selling cards for 20 years. If I’ve been [altering cards] for that long, I’d be retired. If I was this master alterer, I’d be pretty bad at it. I’d be pretty stupid.”

PWCC said in a statement that it was aware that it had sold altered cards and has “been proactive in contacting all collectors who purchased those cards. We have already begun paying out refunds and are working with the dealers who consigned the altered cards to get them to make refunds as well.”

“We are obviously very aware of the issues surrounding the cards submitted to us by Gary Moser,” PWCC chief executive Brent Huigens wrote in another statement provided to The Post and posted on hobby chat forum Net54. He said the company would no longer sell Moser-submitted cards. “ . . . We are presently working with both PSA and law enforcement to ensure that all affected cards are brought to light and this information makes its way to our customers. We understand that we are responsible for our part in this mess and will do all that we can to make it right in connection with Moser-submitted cards as well as other submitters who may have altered cards of which we auctioned.”

Although PSA and other grading companies offer refunds if evidence arises that a graded card has been altered, those firms first recommend buyers contact sellers or auction houses for remuneration.

“As with any financial transaction, if you are unsatisfied with your purchase, contact the seller to initiate a refund request,” PSA President Steve Sloan wrote on the company’s blog in response to complaints.

But many dealers remain anonymous by selling items on eBay or by consigning them to an auction house, leaving burned collectors with few places to turn for restitution. Hobbyists have hailed the collectors’ online card tracing efforts on the Blowout Cards forum as groundbreaking because connoisseurs with newly discovered altered cards can now trace their lineage directly to accused alterers.

“I tell anybody I deal with within the hobby that it’s built on trust: trust with the buyers, dealers, sellers, graders, auction houses. In order to gain trust, you have to deal above board. If you’re not, other people may make it known you shouldn’t be dealt with,” said FBI Special Agent Brian Brusokas, who has conducted previous investigations into the sports memorabilia industry. “Just like any collectibles market, there’s always names out there about people who shouldn’t be dealt with, and it should always be buyer beware.”

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