LEFT: An Eli Manning helmet from the 2004 season, owned by Eric Inselberg. RIGHT: An Eli Manning helmet that Inselberg alleges isn’t from the 2004 season, as it has been advertised. (Courtesy of Clinton Brook & Peed law firm)

The helmet is the trademark metallic blue of the New York Giants, and Eli Manning’s autograph stretches across the top in silver. Next to the “ny” logo are two words, also in silver, that increase the helmet’s value exponentially: “Game Used.”

The helmet dates from 2004 — Manning’s rookie season — according to the auction house that listed it for sale years later with a description that dangled the possibility this could be the first helmet Manning wore during an NFL game.

The helmet bore the scars of game action — nicks on the dome, scuffing on the pads — and came with a letter of authenticity from the respected memorabilia company that has a contract to sell Manning’s game-worn items. A collector says he bought it in 2015 for $5,000 cash and two Michael Jordan rookie cards.

There’s just one problem: the helmet, as billed, is a fake, according to a prolific collector the Giants once called the team’s “memorabilia curator.” While the autograph might be real, Manning couldn’t have worn the helmet in 2004, according to the collector, who points to a telltale sign: It’s missing a black “RB” sticker that all Giants helmets had that season in memory of Roosevelt Brown, a 1950s-era offensive lineman who died that year.

The helmet is a piece of evidence in an acrimonious legal battle between Eric Inselberg, a 46-year-old sports memorabilia dealer from New Jersey, and the football team he once loved. The case has created three years of headaches and tabloid headlines for Manning and the Giants while drawing attention to the unregulated, billion-dollar industry of game-worn collectibles, a marketplace rife with fraud in which aspects buyers generally don’t look for in expensive clothing purchases — mud smears, bloodstains, the stench of sweat — can drive prices into the tens of thousands.

“Some people can look at a Rembrandt and say, ‘Eh,’ and walk on by,” said FBI special agent Brian Brusokas, who specializes in sports memorabilia crime. “And some people look at a jersey, and it brings them back to a time in their life, certain emotions and feelings. . . . It comes down to what brings people joy.”

Before 2011, Inselberg was a fixture around the Giants, an obsessive collector who befriended equipment managers and donated more than $1 million in items from his extensive collection to the team museum.

Then U.S. attorneys indicted Inselberg on charges of fraud, accusing him of trafficking in fake game-worn jerseys. A year and a half later — after Inselberg produced evidence suggesting Giants equipment managers lied about him — prosecutors dropped the charges.

In 2014, Inselberg sued the Giants, the equipment staff and Manning, alleging a wide-ranging conspiracy that defrauded fans, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and star players such as Michael Strahan. In his complaint, Inselberg alleged that Giants staff — on occasions at the behest of Manning and a club executive — scuffed helmets and stained jerseys to make them appear game-used.

The Giants have dismissed the lawsuit as fiction, and the club’s law firm has called Inselberg “an unscrupulous memorabilia dealer.” The case is snarled in pretrial proceedings, with no end in sight. While Inselberg has not produced evidence in public court filings supporting all of his allegations, there are items, emails and documents amid the thousands of pages that the Giants and Manning have had difficulty explaining away.

This story is based on a review of the extensive court file of Eric Inselberg et al. v. New York Football Giants et al. and interviews with eight people with direct knowledge of the case, all of whom spoke on the condition that their names not be revealed because the judge — a Giants season-ticket holder who has rejected a request to recuse himself — has issued stern admonitions against speaking to the media.

Inselberg and his lawyers declined to comment. Manning, the Giants and club employees named in the case, through their lawyers, deferred comment to Karen Kessler, a spokeswoman for the Giants’ law firm. “We dispute all the accusations related to the team and its employees,” Kessler said.

The helmet on the right is owned by Eric Inselberg, who says it is the authentic helmet Eli Manning wore during the “Helmet Catch” Super Bowl in 2008. The photo on the left was taken during the game. (Courtesy of Clinton Brook & Peed law firm)
‘The dirtier it is . . .’

Inselberg’s love for the stuff worn by star athletes dates from the early 1980s, when he was a ballboy for a charity basketball game featuring retired NBA legends. After the game, Wilt Chamberlain gave Inselberg the sneakers he wore that day.

As a teenager, Inselberg, an avid Giants fan, attended training camp and often stayed after practice, washing players’ cars in exchange for jerseys. In the 1990s, as he worked for his father’s car leasing business, Inselberg started trying to make extra money selling game-worn memorabilia.

The game-worn industry erupted in the 1990s, according to industry experts, who attribute the phenomenon to aging baby boomers and a growing economy. Fans eagerly started forking over thousands of dollars — sometimes tens of thousands — for game-used helmets, baseball bats and jerseys, with the most discerning buyers looking for signs of wear.

“The dirtier it is and the smellier it is, the better it is. The industry often uses the term, ‘The jersey still possesses the scent of the game,’ ” said Chris Cavalier, chief executive of Game Used Universe, a website devoted to the market. When he brokers deals, Cavalier said, he makes sure equipment staff know the proper way to bag jerseys: individually, with the bag sapped of air to preserve the odor.

With game-worn items relatively easy to counterfeit, the industry has been plagued by fraud. The two pro leagues that produce the items collectors most covet — Major League Baseball and the NFL — have taken markedly different approaches to fraud prevention.

Since 2001, Major League Baseball has operated a rigorous authentication program. Every year, each of the more than 2,430 regular season and postseason games is staffed with an official MLB “authenticator,” an off-duty or retired law enforcement officer who tags all items that could be sold with holographic stickers. A central online database tracks all authentic game-used MLB items and allows for easy online verification.

The NFL has no authentication program. America’s most popular sports league leaves authenticating game-used items up to its teams.

As Inselberg sought to turn his hobby into a business in the early 1990s, he gravitated to people the Giants entrusted with managing their game-worn items: equipment managers.

With salaries that hover between $50,000 and $80,000, according to two former NFL equipment staffers, an equipment manager easily could double his salary by selling a few game-worn items. Mike Royster, executive director of the Athletic Equipment Managers Association, said he had never heard of one succumbing to the temptation, however.

“I’m not stupid enough to sit here and tell you that kind of stuff doesn’t go on, but it’s considered unethical,” Royster said. “If that’s going on, it’s not going on openly.”

Inselberg, right, posed with Giants equipment staffer Joe Skiba at a team party after Super Bowl XLII, the ”Helmet Catch” game. (Courtesy of Eric Inselberg/Courtesy of Eric Inselberg)
‘Doing massive volume’

Sports memorabilia cover the crowded walls in Park Cleaners, a laundromat in downtown Rutherford, N.J. A signed photo of former Giants coach Jim Fassel hangs near Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets helmets and a New Jersey Devils hockey stick. Near the entrance there is a blown-up front page of a local newspaper, with an article featuring owner Barry Barone titled: “Designer to the Gridiron Stars.”

Barone, who declined to comment for this story, is New Jersey’s preeminent launderer of professional sports team uniforms. Since the 1980s, his roster of clients has included the Giants, the Jets, the Eagles, the Devils and the New Jersey Nets. “He can get out stains you wouldn’t believe would ever come out,” one Giants equipment manager told the New York Times in 1992.

In the backroom of this otherwise nondescript laundromat, Inselberg has said, he struck the handshake deals that launched his career as a sports memorabilia dealer.

Inselberg first met Barone in the early 1990s, according to the complaint, and the laundromat owner connected him with two Giants equipment staffers, brothers Joe and Ed Skiba. The men agreed on an arrangement, according to Inselberg: When the Skibas delivered Giants laundry, Inselberg could root through and take what he wanted. Inselberg paid the Skibas, and Barone earned a commission.

(In court filings, Ed Skiba has claimed Inselberg paid him $2,000 per month. Two people close to Inselberg said it was significantly higher. “They were doing massive volume,” one friend said.)

Barone sometimes sold items from other teams to Inselberg, the complaint alleged, and the Skibas connected him with equipment managers from other teams, helping expand the supply of items Inselberg could resell to collectors for a profit.

As Inselberg grew close to the Skibas, he alleges in his complaint, they let him in on a secret: They occasionally doctored helmets and jerseys to appear game-worn. Manning, like some star athletes, had a contract to provide game-worn items to New York memorabilia company Steiner Sports, famous for the motto: “The Steiner Seal Means It’s Real.” Manning sometimes forgot to save items during the season, the Skibas told Inselberg, or simply didn’t want to part with them, the complaint alleges, so the star quarterback asked the Skibas to “make up” some game-worn helmets or jerseys for him.

This ad purports to be selling a 2004 Eli Manning helmet that Inselberg alleges is one of several fakes Giants equipment staffers produced. (Courtesy of Clinton Brook & Peed law firm)

Other times, Inselberg said, the Skibas made up items under orders from Giants vice president of communications Pat Hanlon.

After the 2008 Super Bowl — famed for the “Helmet Catch” toss from Manning to wide receiver David Tyree — Inselberg bought Manning’s helmet from the Skibas, according to Inselberg.

Later that year, a new museum in New York — the Sports Museum of America — proudly announced it would display both Manning’s and Tyree’s helmets from the game for a few months, before the helmets moved on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

“David Tyree’s catch and the Cinderella story of the New York Giants have already become the stuff of Super Bowl legend,” Giants co-owner Jonathan Tisch said in a news release. “We are thrilled to be able to share with our fans an intimate look at the fabled helmets right here in New York City.”

These are the helmets the Giants sent to a museum in New York City in 2008, billing them as the ones worn by Eli Manning and David Tyree during the ”Helmet Catch” play. (Courtesy of Clinton Brook & Peed law firm)

Inselberg angrily called Joe Skiba, asking how that could be possible, according to the complaint. Skiba told him that Hanlon had promised the helmet to the museum before checking to see whether the Giants still had it. When told Manning’s helmet was unavailable, according to the lawsuit, Hanlon ordered Skiba to create a “show helmet.”

In the late 2000s, as the Giants prepared to move into a new stadium, club executives decided to create a team museum. When the New York Giants Legacy Club opened in 2010, Giants management credited an anonymous fan with supplying more than 90 percent of the items on display. One executive marveled to a reporter that all the items in the museum constituted only about a third of this anonymous fan’s collection.

The fan was Inselberg. Giants executives gave him an all-access pass to the stadium on game days. One executive told him he was “a member of the Giants family.” A lifetime of obsessing over the discarded laundry of his beloved team had paid off in ways Inselberg had never imagined possible.

A few months after the museum opened, Giants equipment staffers started getting phone calls from an FBI agent. He had some questions about their friend.

Giants equipment manager Joe Skiba went over a practice schedule with coach Tom Coughlin in 2009. (Evan Pinkus/Associated Press)
Lawyers, jerseys and money

In February 2011, an FBI agent in Chicago called Joe Skiba on his cellphone, FBI records show. The agent was investigating memorabilia dealers suspected of selling counterfeit game-worn items, he explained, and Inselberg’s name had come up.

Inselberg said he was able to get authentic game-worn Giants items straight from the equipment staff, the agent told Skiba. Was this true?

“Skiba has never provided a piece of game used equipment to Inselberg,” the FBI agent wrote in his summary of the interview, made public as evidence in this case. “Skiba does not know why Inselberg would say such a thing because it is not true.”

A few days later — in a phone interview from the Giants’ stadium — Ed Skiba also denied selling items to Inselberg, FBI records show. For his FBI interview, Ed Skiba was joined by Giants general counsel Bill Heller.

The FBI agent then asked Ed Skiba about some evidence he had come across: signed checks — from Inselberg, cashed by Skiba — with the words “Footballs, Giants jerseys and Tiki” in the memo line.

At that point, Heller interrupted and asked Skiba to leave the room, according to the FBI agent’s notes. Heller was suddenly in an ethical dilemma, he said, because he represented the team, not Skiba, who might need his own lawyer. They would need to reschedule.

A few months later, according to recent court filings by the Giants, club owner John K. Mara learned for the first time how his team’s “memorabilia curator” had amassed his collection.

In the summer of 2011, Mara told the Skibas “any distribution of game worn items to third parties in which they had been involved was unacceptable, should cease immediately and would not be tolerated going forward,” according to documents filed by the Giants in February.

After learning his equipment staff had been selling team property for side income for years and then lied to an FBI agent about it, Mara didn’t fire the men. Instead, the Giants put Joe and Ed Skiba on probation and froze their pay for three years.

“The Giants organization chose to internally handle this personnel matter,” said Kessler, the team law firm spokeswoman.

After an FBI agent asked Ed Skiba about some evidence, Giants general counsel Bill Heller interrupted the interview. (Bergen County Superior Court records)

In October 2011, the Skibas testified before a grand jury in Illinois, accompanied by Heller. This time, according to testimony excerpts published in the lawsuit, the Skibas admitted having sold jerseys and helmets to Inselberg for years. They said they sold 50 to 75 jerseys per season but denied connecting Inselberg with equipment managers from other NFL teams.

Hours after the Skibas testified, U.S. attorneys indicted Inselberg on two counts of mail fraud, along with five other memorabilia dealers. The other five pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from probation to a few months in prison. Inselberg refused a plea deal.

Over the next year and a half, Inselberg spent more than $700,000 in legal fees. His reputation was ruined, and his businesses closed. He developed depression, started having panic attacks and considered suicide. Then, in May 2013, Inselberg won an extremely rare result in federal criminal courts: U.S. attorneys dropped the charges.

Inselberg’s lawyers had highlighted inconsistencies in the testimony against him. Barone, the laundromat owner, told the FBI he had never given Inselberg game-used jerseys, records show. Former Giants center Bart Oates, in a signed affidavit, said he accompanied his friend Inselberg to Park Cleaners once and witnessed Barone hand six game-used Jets jerseys to Inselberg. Oates then helped Inselberg haul a few 45-gallon garbage bags full of Giants training clothing out of the laundromat, he said.

Former Giants center Bart Oates, a friend of Inselberg, signed a sworn affidavit contradicting what laundromat owner Barry Barone had told the FBI. (Bergen County Superior Court records)

To rebut the Skibas’ testimony, Inselberg’s lawyers provided photographs of thousands of jerseys Inselberg bought from the Skibas, including more than 150 during the 2007 season alone. They also provided a text message exchange in which Joe Skiba mentioned introducing Inselberg to “guys from other teams.”

In January 2014 — less than a year after prosecutors dropped the charges — Inselberg sued the Giants, the Skibas and Manning for fraud and conspiracy. The lawsuit accused the Giants and Manning of defrauding fans by selling fake game-worn items and accused Heller of orchestrating a conspiracy to keep the FBI focused on Inselberg and not investigating any potential fraud committed by Giants employees.

Heller coerced the Skibas to lowball the amount of jerseys they sold to Inselberg, the lawsuit alleged, which made it appear to the FBI that Inselberg must have been selling some counterfeit items. (In September, the judge dismissed this part of the case, with a ruling that even if the Skibas lied to a grand jury at Heller’s behest, grand jury witnesses can’t be held civilly liable for false testimony.)

Inselberg was later joined in the case by two co-plaintiffs — a construction worker with a Giants tattoo on his arm and a Navy officer — who allege they each bought a purportedly game-used Manning helmet they now believe is fake.

Manning angrily denied the claims. His father, Archie, was asked about the case on a local television show.

“Memorabilia has always been a little bit out of control, a lot of fraud there,” Manning said. “We’ll see what this is about, but I don’t think Eli or any of the Giants . . . purposely did anything wrong.”

Memorabilia photo-matching experts support Inselberg’s allegation that he has the jersey Michael Strahan wore during the 2008 Super Bowl. Strahan has a jersey hanging in his home that he says is from that game. (Courtesy of Clinton Brook & Peed law firm)
‘BS ones, you are correct’

Inselberg is seeking monetary damages, as well as a Super Bowl ring from the 2007 season, which he alleges a Giants executive promised him.

If the case goes to trial, jurors likely will get a crash course in photo-matching, the practice in memorabilia circles of authenticating game-worn items through analysis of magnified high-definition photos taken during games.

Inselberg says photo-matching proves that he has the helmet Manning wore during the “Helmet Catch” Super Bowl and that the helmet the Giants sent the Hall of Fame is a fake. While the Giants have denied this, Hall of Fame officials have not acted certain that they have the real helmet.

After Inselberg’s lawsuit was filed in 2014, the Hall changed the online description of the helmet — which originally advertised it as Manning’s from the game — to say it is merely a helmet from Manning.

“So it doesn’t call into question anything that’s under debate,” Hall of Fame executive director Joe Horrigan explained in a phone interview.

Inselberg also says he has Michael Strahan’s jersey from that same Super Bowl. He submitted the jersey to the MeiGray Group, a memorabilia company that specializes in photo-matching.

MeiGray experts certified Inselberg’s jersey matches photos taken of Strahan throughout that Super Bowl: in pregame warmups, during the game and in the postgame celebration. The jersey Strahan has had hanging in his home for years is a fake, Inselberg alleges.

In 2012, Strahan showed off his jersey while giving a tour of his home to “Showbiz Tonight.” Dirt stains were visible on one shoulder, and there was a red stain on the front that Strahan said was Gatorade he spilled on himself.

“That was straight off the field, no cleaning. . . . If you busted the glass, this would probably smell like a, you know what,” Strahan told a host.

Strahan’s publicist did not reply to requests to comment.

Inselberg’s lawyers have said they know of other Giants players who have discovered they were the victims of fraud. They don’t identify them, but retired running back Brandon Jacobs went public this year alleging his Super Bowl XLII jersey also was stolen.

In April, Jacobs, who did not reply to requests for comment, wrote a post on Instagram that seemed to point a finger at Giants equipment staff.

“All these memories wiped away when that a**hole decided to sell my super bowl stuff and give me a fake one . . . This has changed a lot for me and for the higher ups to defend this sh** is even more absurd,” Jacobs wrote.

A trial also likely would hinge on how the Giants and Manning explain a few emails and text messages.

An email exchange between Eric Inselberg and Giants equipment director Joe Skiba. (Bergen County Superior Court records)

In August 2008, Inselberg asked Joe Skiba about the authenticity of some Manning items on the market.

“Hey Joe, my buddy was offered an eli game used helmet and jersey. Are these the bs ones eli asked you to make up because he didnt want to give up the real stuff?” Inselberg wrote.

A day later, Skiba replied.

“BS ones, you are correct”

There’s also a 2010 email exchange, which generated headlines when made public in April, in which Manning asked Joe Skiba for “2 helmets that can pass as game used.”

Eli Manning emailed Joe Skiba in 2010, looking for helmets that ”can pass as game used.” (Bergen County Superior Court records )

Manning’s lawyers have argued these emails were taken out of context. In response, they have released other emails that show Manning trying to track down game-worn items in 2011, 2012 and 2013. None are from 2010, though, or offer any explanation why Manning would ask for helmets that could “pass as game used.”

One of the most recent court filings discloses an interesting exchange of texts between the Skiba brothers in May 2016, after they learned of apparently stingy raises.

“I hate it here,” Joe texted. “Guys who mow the lawn make more.”

“Are (sic) raises are because they are paying our legal fees,” Ed texted. “Funny 3 years probation and now it’s more.”

Joe Skiba replied that he was considering approaching Giants management to demand overtime, “Cause my insights on the case cost money now.”

Later in the exchange, Ed Skiba told his brother, “Not even worth it.”

“For me it is,” Joe Skiba replied. “I’ll tell the whole f------ world the truth.”