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Suburban auction house linked to sports memorabilia fraud case

Federal charges have been filed against William Mastro others sports memorabilicase involving now-defunct suburban Chicago auctihouse. | Bridget Montgomery~For Sun-Times

Federal charges have been filed against William Mastro and others in a sports memorabilia case involving a now-defunct suburban Chicago auction house. | Bridget Montgomery~For the Sun-Times

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Updated: August 27, 2012 11:10AM

When restaurateur Grant DePorter signed up to bid on the infamous “Bartman Ball” in 2003, Mastro Auctions staff offered him a special service, he said.

“They said … tell us in advance how high you’re willing to go and we’ll do the bidding for you. You don’t have to be there,” DePorter said. “I didn’t trust it.”

On Wednesday, three executives at the now-defunct Mastro Auctions — which billed itself as “world’s leading sports and Americana auction house” — were indicted on fraud charges for allegedly rigging auctions through several schemes including so-called “shill-bidding” to artificially increase prices.

William Mastro, 59 of Palos Park, the former owner of the auction house, and former executives Doug Allen, 49, of Crete and Mark Theotikos, 51, of Addison also allegedly doctored the most valuable baseball card of all-time, a rare 1909 Honus Wagner T-206 card once owned by hockey great Wayne Gretzky. The card last sold for $2.8 million in 2007.

The indictment doesn’t include any charges of criminal wrongdoing involving the famed Wagner card, though it says Mastro Auctions didn’t divulge that the card was altered, which significantly affected its value. Sources said there is expected to be evidence that Mastro trimmed the edges of the Wagner card, presumably to improve its appearance, but did not disclose that.

Acknowledging that the card had been cut would have “significantly reduced” its value, the feds said.

The men also allegedly auctioned off the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings trophy baseball and a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair that they knew were not authentic, according to allegations in federal charges unsealed Wednesday.

DePorter — who kept his spending ceiling to himself and eventually won the Bartman Ball on a $106,600 bid — wasn’t one of the anonymous victims referred to in the federal charges. DePorter, in a publicity stunt, blew up the ball that Cubs fan Steve Bartman lunged for during the 2003 National League Championship Series, drawing the wrath of fans who blame Bartman for making Cubs outfielder Moises Alou miss the catch. The Cubs went on to lose the series.

Mastro’s attorney, Michael Monico, declined to comment about the offer DePorter says he received. But prosecutors outlined a similar scenario they say was used to defraud other legitimate bidders on other items.

Prosecutors alleged that Mastro and Allen used information about customer “ceiling bids” to drive up prices by using fake bidders to push the selling price up to the legitimate customer’s set limit, according to the 16-count indictment. Prosecutors allege the defendants had engaged in fraud since 2001, according to court documents.

Each count of mail and wire fraud against Mastro, Allen and Theotikos carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine plus mandatory restitution.

A fourth man, William Boehm 63, of Ballwin, Mo., was charged with lying to federal agents about fraudulent bidding accounts. Boehm, the auction house’s information technology director, faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He could not be reached for comment.

Mastro Auctions folded in 2009 as the FBI probed its activities. It was based in Burr Ridge and also had offices in Oak Brook and Willowbrook. Allen and Theotikos are currently executives at Legendary Auctions in suburban Lansing.

Theotikos’ attorney, Allan Ackerman, said, “Mark will be pleading not guilty and looks forward to be vindicated in the eventual trial proceedings.”

Allen’s attorney, Michael J. Petro said his client is “absolutely” planning to fight the charges — and pointed the finger at Mastro.

“Bill Mastro is the Mastromind,” Petro said. “The best I can tell, Mastro Auctions has provided a lot of value over the years to people who want to sell and buy sports memorabilia.”

Petro noted the indictment came a week prior to a planned national auction by Legendary Auctions.

Monico, who represents Mastro, said his client was a pioneer in the memorabilia industry who for years has devoted his live to “charitable and religious good works.”

“He accepts responsibility for past actions that led to this case. And he intends to continue his life of charitable and religious good works.”

Asked if Mastro is cooperating with the feds, Monico would not going beyond his statement, other than to say.

“This case does not really involve inauthentic items,” he said. “It’s really more about bidding and how the auction was conducted.”

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