ST. PETERSBURG, Florida - Following 10 News' investigation into possible forgeries plaguing a new baseball autograph exhibit at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, local and national experts are calling on the museum to verify the centerpieces of the collection.
"Schrader's Little Cooperstown," named after its owner, Dennis Schrader of Oldsmar, is on loan to the museum for the next 20 years. The exhibit took about a year and $300,000 to build.
The collection is more than 4,600 autographed balls strong, but many of the most impressive autographs -- Elvis Presley, Satchel Paige, Marilyn Monroe, Amelia Earhardt and Charles Lindberg, just to name a few -- were purchased by Schrader during a time when autograph forgeries began to saturate the memorabilia market.
But Schrader dodged a number of 10 News' questions about authentication, even refusing offers to bring the nations' top authenticators by.
And museum officials have insisted because the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the collection as the world's largest, it must be authentic. But experts tell 10 News that Guinness is in the business of counting, not autograph authentication.
Tampa autograph collector and dealer, John Osterweil, brought his concerns to the museum last year, but says they seem to have no interest in finding out the truth.
"If somebody questioned whether all the items I was given were, indeed, authentic," Osterweil says, "I, as the museum director, would want to make sure that I only displayed to the public what I knew was authentic."
Osterweil tells 10 News he believes Schrader was taken advantage of by criminals many years ago, but has been avoiding authenticators -- and the truth -- since.
The Hauls of Shame blog also warned the museum in 2012, identifying a number of Schrader's 19th-century rarities as likely forgeries.
WATCH: 10 News' investigation into "Little Cooperstown"
Joe Orlando, president of PSA/DNA Authentication Services, told 10 News that "Little Cooperstown" exemplifies many problems in the memorabilia business and the museum should take a closer look at the "historical artifacts" its displaying.
"Some people can be persuaded by stories instead of focusing on the merit of the item itself," Orlando said in an email to 10 News. "This may occur when items were once displayed at venues such as a museum, a restaurant or even part of a charity auction. Sometimes, items that are questionable or flat out forged are unfortunately given instant credibility by their link to venues such as the ones listed above.
"It is important that a collectible, any collectible, come with third party authentication and/or grading from a credible company before a person decides to spend their hard-earned money."
Even viewer Bob Bates wrote on 10 News' Facebook page, "It is not acceptable to display fakes as real in a museum of history. If the museum chooses to shuffle this off, well. Interesting. Are the other exhibits fakes? How are faked signatures part of our history exactly? Bizarre response from the museum."
READ: PSA/DNA's 10 Tips for Building a Collection
Schrader says his collection is valued somewhere in the $2.5 million range, with the most expensive ball bearing the autographs of both Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. He says he got "a steal" about 25 years ago when he bought the ball for $25,000.
But in 2006, the St. Petersburg Times reported, "Schrader would love to find a baseball autographed by the pair [Monroe and DiMaggio]."
Only one was known to exist at the time, and it sold at auction for $191,200.
The new St. Pete Museum of History exhibit remains impressive nonetheless, and new Executive Director Rui Farias says its more than just autographs.
"We're using the baseballs -- and baseball -- to tell American and St. Pete history," Farias said.
On Thursday night, the museum will host a black tie gala to honor Schrader.
Other Tips for Collecting Autographs
There's no substitute for collecting autographs in-person from athletes and celebrities yourself. Schrader and his wife collected the majority of their 4,600-plus baseballs this way.
But before you spend significant money on autographs, experts suggest following these tips to avoid getting ripped off by potential forgeries:
- Try to buy from reputable dealers who provide a certificate of authenticity from a reputable agency. JSA and PSA/DNA are the nation's top authenticators.
- If you purchase an expensive autographed item from an auction, read the certificate carefully. If it doesn't have an image of the autographed item, the autograph may not have actually been inspected. Some collectors will donate worthless items to charity auctions to claim tax deductions.
- Items that come with MLB authentication holograms and items that were donated directly by teams are also typically safe.
- Be especially careful around these top 10 most-forged celebrity autographs.
- Also be careful of music and celebrity memorabilia, which have become increasingly diluted with forgeries too.
- Use a credit card when you buy, so if you discover the item fails authentication later, you can dispute the charge.
- If a deal is too good to be true, it probably is.
And if you have a collection with items you purchased in the past, you can submit them for authentication to JSA or PSA/DNA.
Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Read his Sports Business Blog at Shadow of the Stadium.