The former owner of a west suburban sports auction house pleaded guilty today to fraudulently inflating prices and misrepresenting the value of memorabilia, including a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card that he had secretly altered to make it appear in better condition.
“Guilty, your honor,” William Mastro, 60, of Palos Park, said in a low voice as he entered his plea to one count of mail fraud before U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman.
Mastro faces up to 5 years in prison, but federal prosecutors said they will recommend a prison sentence of 2 ½ years for Mastro, citing his cooperation with authorities, including his possible testimony against co-defendants awaiting trial.
The guilty plea comes six months after Guzman rejected a similar deal that capped the sentence he could give at 2 ½ years.
Mastro, who operated an online auction house that billed itself as the world's leading seller of sports and Americana collectibles, was indicted last summer with three former company executives in a fraud scheme that prosecutors said lasted more than eight years. The multimillion-dollar firm operated from offices in suburban Oak Brook, Willowbrook and Burr Ridge at various times but has since closed.
Prosecutors said Mastro and his co-schemers fraudulently jacked up prices on memorabilia by placing shill bids and obtaining access to bids that were supposed to be sealed. Mastro also misrepresented the authenticity of items, including a purported 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings trophy ball that contained paint manufactured after World War II, and a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair that had “questionable authenticity” due to DNA testing that was not disclosed to potential buyers, prosecutors said.
But it was the 1909 card depicting Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner — considered to be the most expensive trading card in the world — that garnered the most attention.
According to the plea agreement, when Mastro bought the Wagner card in 1986, it had bowed boarders, rendering it less valuable. Mastro “personally cut the side borders…using a paper slicing machine,” then sold it without disclosing the alterations, the filing stated. More than a decade later, Mastro’s firm helped run an auction where the card was sold for $1 million. The buyer had not been told of the alterations, authorities said.
Mastro left the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse accompanied by family members and his attorney, Michael Monico, who declined to comment.