Forgery accusations against longtime retro game seller leave collectors shaken

Forgery accusations against longtime retro game seller leave collectors shaken

Vintage game collecting is more than just a simple exercise in nostalgia; it’s a hobby that potentially sees thousands of dollars changing hands. In fact, pristine copies of highly coveted titles have even commanded more than $1 million, such as this copy of Super Mario 64 with a condition grading of 9.8 A++ — one of the highest grades for a game as issued by game certification company Wata Games. With so much at stake, it’s easy to see why the games collecting market is also ripe for forgeries, with one recent large-scale forgery involving an estimated €200,000 ($204,254) worth of transactions in counterfeit games.

That particular scandal was centered around game collector and glamour photographer Enrico Ricciardi, who was accused of defrauding several other collectors. (Ricciardi did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) As reported by Ars Technica, several members from a community of rare PC game collectors, known as Big Box PC Game Collectors (BBPCGC), have said they believe some games they purchased from Ricciardi are inauthentic. For his part, Ricciardi has denied any wrongdoing, stating that he was also a victim of the forgery who merely passed along these games, with a sizable bulk of them reportedly coming from a trader he has only referred to as “Mister X.”

Investigations into Ricciardi began when collector Kevin Ng became suspicious of fakery upon examining his copy of Akalabeth, the first game that Ultima creator Richard Garriott released in 1980, as well as a Japanese copy of Mystery House by Sierra On-Line from 1980. This was followed by several similar revelations on the part of other collectors; Dominik Reichardt was the first collector to share his suspicions publicly via Twitter. Several collectors have since stated that these goods were bought as far back as 2015, according to a FAQ about the situation released by BBPCGC.

Dominik Reichardt took photographs of the copy of Akalabeth that Ricciardi sold to him Photo courtesy of Dominik Reichardt

With retro games and their memorabilia becoming increasingly valuable, how did this apparent forgery go undetected for years? In hindsight, the impacted collectors say there were several telltale signs. Hang-tab holes on the packaging of these disks resembled hand-cut ones, while some of the stickers were not cut perfectly round. Furthermore, printed materials had blemishes that appeared to be printed on, such as dirt and creases, and CMYK dot patterns were found in places where they shouldn’t be, such as the sky in a black-and-white photograph printed on a package of an Ultima counterfeit.

That said, these discrepancies had been left unquestioned, since the games being exchanged were so rare that original copies were not always available to help verify them. “The games he was dealing with [were] super rare, for one thing,” said Joel McCoy, the founder of BBPCGC. “They’re good enough that you wouldn’t question them at a glance. It’s not until you start really examining them that it’s apparent.” At the same time, plenty of vintage games — such as Akalabeth — were also handmade, which means that certain aspects of the game’s packaging would feature some imperfections. McCoy explained that such games “predate the gaming industry,” with Garriott producing the first 20 copies of the game from his own home. “[These games were] literally put together by hand on a kitchen table,” said McCoy.

Successful forgeries, however, involve more than just high-quality fakes. As an apparent distributor of many of these forged copies, Ricciardi had reportedly requested that purchases and trades he was involved in be kept secret so as to minimize jealousy among other collectors. For example, Stephen Emond, an author who has published several guides for the Ultima series, collaborated with Ricciardi to produce a comprehensive guide on the works of Sierra On-Line. In an update to a Kickstarter project for another Ultima guide, Emond wrote about Ricciardi’s requests for secrecy:

He had no problem offering you incredibly rare items for a great deal because you were such good friends. But don’t tell anyone. Keep it confidential. <Insert game dev here> gave me an extra and you are the person I think should have it. <Insert collector here> would be incredibly jealous because they’ve been begging to get it for years.

Ricciardi also had a reputation for being deeply knowledgeable about classic games, boasting about his own extensive collection of vintage games as well as his ties with developers such as John and Brenda Romero. “Enrico [Ricciardi] insinuated himself even deeper into an authority position in the community by the company he kept. He was in regular communication with all the big collectors and numerous original developers. He also made a point of collaborating with archivists, researchers, and authors like myself,” Emond said. And since Ricciardi was an ex-moderator of communities like BBPCGC, no one had reason to suspect that the games he traded were not the real deal.

“[Ricciardi] was the go-to person for rarities, and the games I bought seemed genuine,” said Reichardt. “He was a nice man, very knowledgeable in the rare Ultima release […] often showing screenshots of past eBay auctions of games he won, or of auctions [of] rares like the [Mount] Drash box. He quickly announced us to be friends and of kindred spirits in our collection.”

For many in the vintage games community, the forgery has left a stain that will be difficult to wash away. “I was personally torn. On one hand, this was someone I considered a friend for many years. On the other hand, his guilt was unquestionable,” Emond said. “When he messaged me after his exile, I went with my gut and played ignorant. I gave him every opportunity to come clean. What I got was his ‘old man’ defense. […] That’s a plausible defense. It is something that could explain away a few bad trades. The only thing that pokes a tiny hole in it is evidence. Mountains of evidence. His stories about ‘Mister X’ varied wildly with each telling.

“This wasn’t a nameless or faceless outsider like Mister X trying to swindle his way into people’s wallets,” Emond continued. “This was a respected member of the community — and a friend.”

The impact of these forgeries was not just limited to the BBPCGC community. “It’s not certain at this time how many forgeries are out there,” said McCoy. “Just one or two forgers operating for a long period of time can flood the market with forgeries.”

Stephane Racle’s purchased copy of The Chambers of Xenobia, photographed on a hardwood surface. Racle suspects the game is a counterfeit Photo courtesy of Stephane Racle

One buyer who has purchased games from Ricciardi is Stephane Racle, a collector with a keen interest in game preservation. Racle had purchased a copy of an old Apple II game called The Chambers of Xenobia through a middleman named David Bitton, who in turn had traded with Ricciardi. Unlike most collectors, Racle will usually create a disk image of the games he purchased so that it can be uploaded to the Internet Archive. It was this process that revealed to him that his copy of the game wasn’t authentic.

“There’s somebody in the community. His name is 4AM. He’s an Apple II archivist [and] preservationist. And what we’ve done over the years is whenever I find something that’s interesting, because it hasn’t been archived, it hasn’t been preserved, that sort of thing, I’ll image the disk and then I’ll send him the disk image,” Racle explained. “And then he takes care of converting it, to verifying it, converting it to a file that can be used on emulators, [and] he puts it on the Internet Archive.” However, 4AM soon told Racle that the disk contained a cracked version of the game — one that was already available online.

Racle felt concerned that forgeries like this could deter other collectors from sharing high-resolution scans of their games and other memorabilia. As the owner of an archival site named Computer Gaming World Museum — which houses digital issues of the now-defunct Computer Gaming World magazine — he believes that such information on games should not only serve as a historical record, but should also remain freely accessible to the public.

A box of Apple II discs Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Jason Scott, an archivist at the Internet Archive, believes the rising speculative costs of vintage game collecting in recent years has most impeded preservation efforts. “The rampant uptick in the cost of artifacts over the last 20 years is much more damaging to a preservationist than somebody turning out to be a fraudster,” said Scott. “The narrative that your old material that contains rotting digital artifacts and digital data on it is in some way a flippable asset, that could earn you funds and money, is like 100 times more intense in terms of making preservation hard.” He shared that he often gets requests to appraise the value of games so that the owner can then attempt to sell them to the Internet Archive. As it’s a nonprofit, the Internet Archive doesn’t dabble in what Scott refers to as “speculative purchases,” and that it’s simply “one step above the dumpster.”

“If you are to the point that you realize you are not going to be able to extract value from [a game], then give it to my group and we will do our best to preserve its contents and make sure it’s in good shape. Otherwise no, I’m not gonna sit here in a room, holding my hand up, bidding on something,” he said. Scott also pointed out that this forgery case is more akin to packaging piracy as opposed to software piracy and fake creations — with the latter being an issue that would have a greater impact on preservation.

Frank Cifaldi, a game preservationist and director of the Video Game History Foundation, echoed Scott’s sentiment. “There’s been instances, in the past, of fake prototype games, so games that are not in a box and sold to people… games that never came out, for example,” said Cifaldi. “There’s been some instances where people in the preservation world have pooled money and purchased a prototype of an unreleased game, like from Japan, that ended up being a bootleg, so that’s something we’ve seen that affects the preservation world.” Cifaldi also pointed out that private collectors are an essential part of the preservation ecosystems, and that making high-resolution scans of vintage games wouldn’t be adequate for preservation. He believes a physical copy should also be presented to an archive like the Strong National Museum of Play so that it can be verified.

Brenda Romero recently suggested on her personal Twitter account that developers who were active in the late ’70s and ’80s should consider sharing their materials with reputable museums, rather than individual collectors (like Ricciardi, who had connections to several veteran game developers). “If a game collector approaches you as a fan of your early work, be aware that they may have a specific goal in mind which goes beyond just reaching out to say they’re your fan,” she wrote.