The Rick Probstein-Bill Mastro interview seemed to confirm the general sense that the sports card collecting hobby has a serious ethics problem.
If you are an old-timer in the sports memorabilia world, you remember Mastro Auctions. They dominated the world of collectibles before Goldin Auctions and Heritage Auctions.
Unfortunately, they were also involved in shill bidding and trimming cards long before PWCC made it cool. They were also collaborating with PSA, and they graded some of the most notorious cards that went through Mastro Auctions.
Bill Mastro is one of the few people in the hobby to do time for his misdeeds. He spent 20 months in federal prison on well-proven charges we will detail below.
However, Mastro is no mere footnote in the history of the hobby. On September 15, 2021, Rick Probstein interviewed him on Instagram. The interview revealed that Mastro is still heavily involved in the hobby and continues to sell cards through the auspices of Probstein123 consignment services on eBay.
This is troubling information and shines a stark light on the acceptance of shady practices and individuals in the hobby.
Mastro is the product of a powerful New Jersey family. His brother is former New York City deputy mayor Randy Mastro, who served under Rudolph Giuliani.
Mastro played an essential role in consolidating baseball card collecting into the organized hobby it is today. He started collecting as an eight-year-old in 1960, already in his teenage years. Bill interacted with hobby pioneers such as Larry Fritsch to build his collection and make the contacts that would provide the basis for his future business.
Starting with Bowman and Topps, Bill soon moved on to older sets of cards dating back to the 19th Century. His interests included collecting T206 cards. In the interview, he recalled being excited at getting a Ty Cobb from that series for a mere 25 cents. But, as he retells it, at the time, there was no differentiation of price based on condition or even the player on the card. Unfortunately, Mastro’s passion for T206 cards would play an important role in his downfall.
Perhaps his main claim to fame is for having altered the most expensive baseball card in the world (at the time). The vaunted T206 Honus Wagner card, which sold for $2.8 million in 2007. That particular card was also noted for having been owned by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and partner Bruce McNall. The duo bought it for $451,000 in 1991. Mastro was also involved in a further auction of the card in 2001.
The Wagner card is amongst the most sought-after in the world. This status is a result of Wagner’s stature as one of the greatest players of his generation. But also because the shortstop had asked that the card be removed from circulation.
Why? Either because he did not want to promote tobacco (Wagner was a non-smoker) or a copyright issue. No one knows for sure. Either way, it appears that only 60 copies of the card were ever printed.
Asked about the card in the interview, Mastro says, “in my opinion, it’s the greatest card in the entire hobby.”
That card played a crucial role in the federal case against Bill Mastro. The card was cut before Mastro sold it. But, by all accounts, he did not inform the buyer of the problem.
Mastro expressed regret for his actions as part of a federal plea-bargain. He admitted full culpability. However, in the interview with Rick Probstein, he gave a different account of what happened.
When he purchased them, Bill says, “all the cards were obviously cut out of uncut sheets…The sides were bowed out like a football, almost cutting the other cards. I said I’m not paying $25,000 for this card.”
As noted above, Mastro was found guilty of cutting the card himself. Therefore, the current claim that he received the card already cut raises a lot of questions.
The Honus Wagner card had been trimmed, but at least it was real. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. For example, Mastro Auctions sold a trophy ball supposedly given to the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. However, it was made with materials dating almost a century later. Mastro was aware of this information and failed to disclose it to a buyer.
Mastro’s fraud went beyond sports collectibles as well. Amongst the most notorious items he sold was a strand of the king’s hair. No, not Lebron, but rather a piece purportedly coming from Elvis Presley’s crown (crown of the head, of course), the king of rock’n’roll. However, a DNA test concluded conclusively that the hair had never adorned the top of the singer’s cranium.
Mastro pleaded guilty to mail fraud in October 2013. He seemed pretty apologetic at the time and said, “I’m very sorry for my actions, especially to the court and the people in my industry that I’ve harmed.”
There is no doubt that Bill had done a lot of good work in his community. Naturally, therefore, he had many supporters in the courtroom on the day of the sentencing. In particular, he supported the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Brothers and Sisters of Love generously and earned their support even after the sentencing. In addition, as a former alcoholic, Mastro was known for reaching out to those in his community struggling with addiction.
Despite this, Judge Ronald A. Guzman noted that Mastro’s actions could not be considered a one-off. The judge said, “Unfortunately, we’re not talking about a mistake. We’re talking about persistent, intentional, sophisticated fraud. Even in the face of warnings of others and the knowledge he was being investigated, he persisted.” Therefore, Mastro was convicted due to fraudulent acts spanning seven years.
In the end, Mastro’s good deeds did count for something. The court in Cook County sentenced him to 20 months in jail and a $250,000 fine. The maximum sentence was five years, so the judge went relatively easy on the fraudster.
Why is this news? After all, Bill Mastro is a convicted felon who paid his debt to society and is no longer a part of this hobby, right?
Not exactly. Rick Probstein recently invited Mastro to a revealing Instagram interview. If you buy sports cards on eBay, you know the name. With PWCC out of the eBay picture, Probstein123 is the platform’s biggest and most prominent seller of cards. They have been working with eBay since 2005 and with immense success. At the moment of writing, the company has 58154 followers and 18,231 items for sale.
Like PWCC, Probstein runs a consignment business and actively sells cards for collectors. The company operates out of Clifton, New Jersey.
The consignment business is rife with potential problems. Anonymity protects the sellers and allows consigners plausible deniability if the cards they sell are fake trimmed or otherwise altered.
In addition, consignment services face a temptation to engage in shill bidding. After all, you can significantly increase profits by doing so. The sellers are also motivated to engage in shill bidding and may do so without the consigners’ knowledge. This dynamic once again allows the consigner to claim plausible deniability. Thus, the entire model is problematic.
The temptation to use this platform unethically must be significant. If you watch the interview, you will see that Probstein shows a lot of sympathy for the temptation Mastro faced. I find this concerning.
The eBay seller ratings for Probstein123 are impressive. He has a 99.6% positive feedback rating out of a fantastic 1,606,751 feedback received.
But did they arrive at these numbers honestly? In 2014, collectors on net54baseball noticed that negative feedback on Probstein123’s eBay account was disappearing. If these allegations are true, they indicate cooperation between eBay and Rick Probstein.
Probstein brings a lot of money in for eBay. The concern is that the e-commerce platform; provides his listings with preferential treatment in exchange. And of course, if eBay does bend the rules for negative feedback, they may be amenable to overlook or even abet in other misdeeds.
Perhaps the most common and persistent complaint is that cards sent for consignment are lost, and the owners are not refunded. One user alleges that Probstein ‘lost’ his Jordan 1986 Fleer sticker and none of the others in a complete set. Compounding this issue is a lack of accountability and decent customer service. The company is notoriously difficult to reach.
A lot of this is simply lousy organization. People who have been to Probstein’s office in New Jersey report that it is a mess. Several threads allege that his standard operation is to immediately list the cards he finds interesting and leave the others to languish.
There are also strong allegations the Probstein123 has sold fake cards. Of course, with so many cards going through their consignment process, they are bound to sell problematic cards. In addition, Probstein has sold allegedly trimmed cards and refused to remove listings after being made aware of the problem.
Finally, there are the predictable accusations of shill bidding. Many users have reported suspicious activity. For example, several bids were made and then retracted and so forth.
Honestly, I could go on and on with the reports on Probstein. However, let’s get to the bottom line. There is no concrete proof of intentional fraud by the company or by Rick Probstein. Instead, the picture emerges as a company receiving a ton of consignments and not processing them properly. As a result, they do not provide collectors with the service they deserve. It is also clear that the company is blasé about shady practices by their sellers and does not commit due diligence to prevent altered cards and shill bidding on their platform.
The interview that Probstein conducted does not help matters. One of the main problems with consignment is transparency. You don’t know who is selling the cards and whether or not they have a history of misdeeds. So when Probstein says that he is willing to sell cards by a convicted felon and scammer, it does not reflect good ethics or judgment.
The continued association of Probstein and Bill Mastro does nothing to reassure collectors that Probstein123 is running its business ethically.
Probstein’s decision to interview Mastro was always going to raise some eyebrows. However, the interview took a surprising turn when the two discussed their continued business transactions.
Mastro said the following: “I deal with the people that I trust. I deal with the people that treated me well. I’m not really a dealer anymore. I do a little collecting. As you well know, I send all my extra stuff to you. You’ve always treated me well.”
Probstein embraced his affiliation with Matsro and acknowledged his continuing business relationship with him. As he explained, “we’re friends. I judge people based on how they interact with me. In the 10 plus years that I have known you, we have had nothing but positive interactions. I’ve probably sold hundreds and hundreds of cards for you. You never once bid on anything. You never did anything inappropriate.”
It is fairly clear what Probstein is saying. As long as you don’t cheat me personally, I really don’t care what you do.
That was not the most disturbing part of the interview, however. Mastro went on to say, “one of the problems with running an auction house, and I’ve had these discussions with all the major auction houses. It would have been better not to see ceiling bids. Because it’s a horrible temptation.” Mastro went on to say that all major auction houses in the New York area engage in shady practices based on insider knowledge.
Instead of dissociating himself from this behavior, Probstein agreed: “It’s too much of a temptation. It’s like a professional athlete in a hotel, and there are supermodels there. They can’t help themselves.” Mastro just nods and says, “exactly.”
Mastro’s plea-bargain involved taking full responsibility for his actions. However, in the interview, the convicted felon did not seem so sure.
He engaged in behavior some might, in another context, label as ‘victim-blaming.’ Here is a sample. Talking about collectors, Mastro says: “you guys do it to yourselves. It’s such a humongous hobby that the aggressive nature of sports collectors took care of itself. We didn’t need hidden reserves. We didn’t need shill bidding.
“I don’t make excuses for myself. I’m not a boy scout. What I did was probably wrong.” Probstein said that Bill had “paid his debt to society. People deserve a second chance.”
Who can argue with the statement that people deserve a second chance? However, we have to wonder what Probstein meant by this. When asked what role he wants in the hobby, Mastro said, “I don’t want any role in the hobby. I don’t think the hobby wants me in it.”
Indeed, a letter written by Mastro’s lawyer to the court guarantees that “Bill has been out of the sports memorabilia industry since February 2009. He cannot and would not go back.”
If you attended this year’s National Sports Collectors Convention, you might have been surprised to see Mastro there. Rick said the collectors there were thrilled to see his return after years of absence. As Probstein noted, “there were dozens and dozens of people, all wanted to talk to you and spend time with you.”
Mastro replied with a big enthusiastic smile: “It was crazy, wasn’t it crazy? I was shocked. My wife goes to me: why are you going there? They are going to eat you alive.”
Between selling cards through Probstein and attending the National Sports Collectors Convention to meet with adoring fans, it does not look like Mastro is out of the hobby.
In retrospect, the Bill Mastro affair marks the end of innocence in the world of sports memorabilia. In Mastro’s trial, US Assistant Attorney Steven J. Dollear made a strong case. He explained that “The long-running and systematic nature of the scheme undermines confidence in the auction house and sports-memorabilia industries, and calls into question the true value of the merchandise.”
This statement rings true. If you follow the collecting forums today, they are rife with accusations of shill bidding and trimming. Many collectors do not believe in the integrity of the leading auction houses and grading companies.
And really, why should they? Mastro was the biggest auction house in the hobby at the time, and PSA knowingly graded its most notorious trimmed card. But, unfortunately, the actions of the auction houses and consignment services that have taken their place are not much better. In particular, PWCC seems to have inherited the place of Mastro Auctions as the main bad guys in the hobby.
The paradox in the hobby right now is staggering. On the one hand, there is immense suspicion amongst collectors towards the major institutions. But on the other, collectors inundate these institutions with business. So PSA, Probstein, eBay, and PWCC are not exactly starving for hobby business. Ultimately, it is up to collectors like us to show disapproval for shady practices, or they will continue to run rampant.