Proof Responds to WATA Co-Founder Mark Haspel

The embattled WATA executive's response to past reporting at Proof leaves more questions than it answers. Below is his statement, an analysis of it, and a series of critical follow-up questions.

Statement from Proof

September 5, 2021

1

In no collectibles industry on Earth is it permissible for a grading-house grader to grade their own games or sell games they graded. It’s a non-starter—inconceivable. So when WATA co-founder Deniz Kahn told the New York Times in 2020 that to protect against conflicts of interest, employees of his company could neither have their games graded by WATA nor sell WATA-graded games, it was not taken to mean simply the same restriction every collectibles-industry entity in the history of collectibles has automatically and implicitly taken on, but a special protection of graded-game market consumers.

Given that WATA has virtually no employees besides graders, and given that no one at the New York Times or reading the New York Times would have assumed that Kahn was merely precluding warehouse staff or others from getting discounts on WATA grading—an assurance that would only benefit WATA, and mean nothing at all to collectors—Kahn’s statement was rightly taken as a broader commitment to transparency and ethics. The reasonable, foreseeable takeaway was that Kahn and his fledging grading house, then in the midst of their big come-up via media coverage from the nation’s foremost newspaper, were sealing their commitment not just to avoiding improprieties but any appearance of impropriety as well.

As a company with few employees, WATA nevertheless has a massive ecosystem of individuals around it who wield considerably more power and influence with WATA than any mere employee ever could. These individuals (by class of individual) include:

  • Investors

  • Founders

  • Executives

  • Advisors

  • Promoters

  • Agents

In a newly published public statement (see below), WATA co-founder Mark Haspel concedes that he was a member of all the above categories within the WATA family when he had scores or hundreds of his sealed video games graded by WATA—and sold those WATA-graded games online for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Haspel was an investor in the company through July 2021; he was announced to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as a co-founder of the company; he was repeatedly identified by WATA on its website as a member of its “executive team”; he advised WATA, as an expert, on some of the most important decisions the company has ever made or will ever make; he was identified to the SEC (and has identified himself) as a “promoter” of the company within the collectibles grading and auction-house ecosystem; he has published expertise-laden articles on WATA’s behalf on the WATA website—as a WATA co-founder, investor, and executive—all of which were intended to promote WATA’s interests and bottom line; and he unambiguously acted as an agent of WATA at conventions and in other venues. That he now seeks to distance himself from a company he co-founded and has remained inextricably entwined with for years is an audacious and conveniently timed but ultimately incomprehensible strategy.

2

To be very clear, everything Mark Haspel has done for and with WATA he has done for money, not out of a sense of charity.

While Haspel did not receive a regular salary from WATA, as one of the core investors behind WATA he of course didn’t need one—as if WATA prospered, so did Haspel, and indeed to a much greater extent than any mere employee would have. In short, Haspel had more authority and influence at WATA than a mere employee would have had, and stood to gain significantly more money from WATA’s success than any mere employee would ever have expected. From the moment of his first involvement with WATA four years ago, he presented to WATA, and the whole collectibles market, an exponentially greater threat of conflict of interest than a minimum-wage warehouse forklift operator could have. There’s simply no comparison on this point.

Given how frequently Haspel has appeared in WATA marketing materials—both print, video, and digital—no one doubts that when the 2020 coverage of WATA in the New York Times came to be seen as a big deal to everyone on WATA’s marketing/promotion team, this included Haspel. He understood, as did Kahn, that Kahn’s statement to the Times on his company’s conflict of interest policy was a commercial representation; it was intended to reassure future WATA customers, in the context of the relatively new phenomenon of video-game grading being an art and not a science (and none of the graders at WATA being officially certified, licensed, or pedigreed to grade anything; indeed, their names might remain unknown to the public-at-large). Kahn’s guarantee was essential to helping establish WATA as a grading company one could trust, and whose grading one could trust.

WATA would have gotten no promotional bump from its conflict-of-interest statement to the Times if Kahn had said, instead, “When we let an investor, founder, executive, adviser, promoter, and agent of WATA get his games graded by WATA and then sell those WATA-graded games online, WATA customers better be ready to prove that the grades we gave our investor, founder, executive, adviser, promoter, and agent were not accurate.” A statement like that would have been preposterous, given that corporate policies prohibiting conflicts of interest are universally drawn to put the onus on the company rather than its customers; to preclude the appearance of impropriety as well as actual impropriety; and to do so because even the appearance of any impropriety can damage a company’s brand or lead to a suit for fraud or other corporate malfeasance.

This is basic business ethics, and it has been for hundreds of years. WATA either knew or should have known this.

Yet there’s another reason that Kahn didn’t dare his customers, in the pages of the New York Times, to prove improper grading: because it’d be impossible. As already noted, and as accepted by WATA, there is as much art in grading as science; it’s not just that journalist Karl Jobst highlighted an example of an inexplicable grade in his 52-minute report on WATA and Heritage Auctions, it’s that every collector has in their collection of sealed-and-graded games—this author included—multiple examples of inexplicable grading. I have a “7.0” Laser Blast in a flawless box, and I have an “A+” attached to an Atari 2600-game seal with a large, naked-eye-visible hole on the front of it. Anyone who collects graded games can say the same if they look closely at their collection, or in some cases even not so closely. Yet, as Jobst pointed out, minute grading differences between games often amount to tens of thousands of dollars of difference in market value.

Mark Haspel would know this better than most—and not just because he’s a grader.

Haspel has posted boastfully (with pictures) about his collection of WATA-graded games, and these games include the two franchises WATA (including Haspel) has worked for years to ensure are deemed the most valuable by sealed-game collectors: the Super Mario Bros. franchise and the Legend of Zelda franchise. Haspel knows that minute differences in the grading of these games he owns may be the deciding factor between a $10,000 price-tag or a $100,000 one. And as Jobst reported, Haspel was witnessed by Pat Contri and others spending the months before the public announcement of WATA buying up as many sealed video games as he possibly could—including, presumably, many popular titles that would gain or lose significant value based on minuscule grading differences at WATA. Haspel knew he was going to have those games graded by the company he’d invested in, and that owed him a great deal for his time and money and expertise and advocacy, and he may well have known, too, that his name would not be kept from the men or women who were grading his games.

3

At all times, Mark Haspel knew how easy it would be to avoid even the appearance of impropriety in his dealings in the sealed-game collecting market.

Having been the president of CGC and thereafter an adviser for CGC, Haspel was well aware that a grading house existed that could grade all his games competently and without any conflict of interest: VGA. He also would have had good reason to know whether CGC would ultimately be getting into the grading game—no pun intended—which of course we now know it will be, and very soon. But he chose, despite knowing WATA’s conflict-of-interest policy and the public relations hay it was making off that policy, to get his games graded by men and/or women he could well have met in person (even if accidentally) during his two (at least) now-acknowledged visits to WATA in Colorado, and his several (at least) now-acknowledged stints doing work for WATA at games conventions. He chose to have his games graded by people who knew him as not just a co-founder of WATA alongside their bosses—Deniz Kahn and Kenneth Thrower—but who also may have known that it was his money that helped keep WATA going and was responsible for them having jobs at all. And they knew, too, he was an experienced grader who was in regular contact with their superiors, so if they gave him any grade he subjectively considered unfair, there was a chance that their bosses would hear about it. The result? As Proof detailed in a lengthy report, Haspel’s public stock of for-sale WATA games is about the best-graded such stock this journalist and collector has ever seen.

4

It’s with all this in mind that WATA co-founder Haspel, a regular seller of WATA-graded games, has now issued his first public statement since Proof reported exclusively on his activities. That statement is at the bottom of this article. Several components of it are particularly worthy of note and, candidly, critique:

  • Haspel excuses his own behavior on the grounds that he has never been a salaried WATA “employee.” As noted, Haspel had more authority and influence and expected remuneration from WATA in the many roles he did hold, including “investor” and “founder” and “executive”, than any employee would have had. And WATA, for profit—as Haspel concedes—held him out as an “executive.” Any WATA customer would have believed that Haspel had a status equivalent to a WATA employee. But even more troubling than this is that Haspel leaves it unclear whether he gave any thought to WATA policy in having his games graded by WATA instead of the older and (then) more-respected VGA; was his present “employee” defense one he contemplated in advance, as a loophole he might squeeze through if ever called out on his grading/selling activities by the media? His public statement gives no indication of how much premeditation lay behind his actions and omissions.

  • Haspel says he was never a “board member” or “official” of WATA. It is unclear what this is supposed to mean, given that, again, WATA represented to media and to its customers—and Haspel (again) admits it did so for commercial reasons, i.e. with the intention of profit—that he was on the “executive team” of WATA. Moreover, as an investor and perhaps the company’s top adviser, he clearly had influence on the direction of the company. And as one of its top promoters and agents, he also had significant influence on its marketing and promotion activities. It’s unclear how much, if anything, the additional influence of being a “board member” would have meant to the current concerns about Haspel’s conflicts of interest.

  • Haspel says he was only a “passive investor.” The rest of Haspel’s statement confirms that this is untrue, and that in fact he was active in WATA as an adviser, as an agent, as a promoter, and even as a sometime website contributor. He made multiple site visits and met (and worked with) WATA staff at conventions, even if this did not include graders. In no way could Haspel be called a passive investor. Haspel appears to use this term as merely another way of saying that he wasn’t a WATA executive-level employee—even as he acknowledges that the company, for profit, effectively identified him in that way in all its public marketing materials.

  • Haspel says he was only listed in WATA’s SEC filings because it was “required.” This is also untrue. Many WATA “investors” did not appear in its SEC filings—Richard Lecce being one example—because, as shown by Proof via its review of SEC regulations, there are very specific conditions under which a person must be declared to the SEC, and in this case Haspel was declared precisely because of his high level of involvement with WATA as something much more than a “passive investor.” An example of a passive investor (according to Kenneth Thrower) would be Lecce, and indeed WATA would use the lack of Lecce’s name on its SEC filings, and his lack of public association with WATA in any public-facing materials, to its great benefit on the History Channel program Pawn Stars. It was on an episode of this show, in the biggest marketing coup in WATA’s history, that Deniz Kahn set the value of a game owned by Lecce, which specific game WATA had been using for promotion for a year, while pretending not to know Lecce or have any association with the game whose value he was estimating. Who else was never listed on SEC filings? Jim Halperin, another investor. Is it merely a coincidence that it was the non-SEC-declared Halperin who bought the game Kahn used for promotion (and promoted on Pawn Stars) alongside the non-SEC-declared investor Lecce? What a happy coincidence that would be for WATA.

  • Haspel notes that he no longer has any equity with the company. This is also meaningless, as Haspel remains an executive of the company (per its website and promotional materials), an advisor to the company, a co-founder of the company with Kahn and Thrower, and almost certainly a contributor to its efforts in all the other ways identified above. He hasn’t been removed from any role he previously had except inasmuch as he likely just made a lot of money in the sale of WATA. Whether he now has stock in WATA’s parent company, Collectors Holdings, is unclear, as Haspel doesn’t address that issue. We do know that Ken Goldin, whose Goldin Auctions was (like WATA) just bought by Collectors Holdings, has publicly said he was offered (and accepted) stock in that company.

  • Haspel says he has never “asked for or received” any preferential grading. While noting, again, that this is not the standard for a conflict of interest, Proof would add that no WATA customer can be satisfied taking Haspel’s word for it on this. He has every reason not to be honest on this score. But more importantly, even if he never “asked” for such special treatment, it does not change the fact that if the people grading Haspel’s games knew Haspel was the customer, he may have received such treatment anyway, for the reasons listed above. As for whether he ever “received” preferential grading, that—quite simply—is not for him to say. It would require an independent review of his for-sale WATA games on eBay to determine if this statement is accurate. Tellingly, Haspel hasn’t offered that.

  • Haspel says he never had access to population reports. Taking this statement at face value, it would indeed be reassuring—even if Haspel’s involvement with WATA at conventions, and his prior trips to WATA facilities, might have given him some insight that the typical WATA customer does not have. His role as a co-founder with Kahn and Thrower, and their dependence (in part) on his money, certainly raises the question of whether he has had certain types of conversations with them about their business operations that they had not had with others, including discussion of which console’s games are hot or not right now. But even so, it would be a consolation to know that he had never had any privileged access to WATA’s internally generated population reports. To be clear, Proof at no point suggested that he did; in fact, Proof just reported the facts of Haspel’s many ties to WATA, none of which he has refuted, only sought to shade in ways that do not comport with the reality of SEC regulations or his activities with the company.

5

Below, then, is WATA co-founder Mark Haspel’s statement to the public. It is unclear when or if he’ll answer follow-up questions about it, which would likely include these:

  • Why didn’t you just have your games graded with VGA, instead?

  • Do you now own stock in Collectors Holdings or Collectors Universe?

  • Was your identity as a customer hidden from WATA graders when you submitted games?

  • Have you ever lodged a complaint about a grade you’ve received from WATA?

  • Have you ever had conversations with either Deniz Kahn or Kenneth Thrower about any grades you received from WATA, or informed them in advance when you were submitting games?

  • At any point after your initial investment in WATA, did you add or subtract any funds from that investment, which potentially might have put WATA on notice that your continued financial involvement in the company was contingent?

  • Did you ever discuss submission trends with either Kahn or Thrower, such that you may have had information on WATA’s business operations others did not?

  • Were any of your games graded by either Deniz Kahn or Kenneth Thrower? Do you have any basis to know if this was or was not the case?

  • Did you in fact purchase large quantities of sealed video games at a time you had non-public information, as an investor in WATA, that a new grading house was about to be formed—a grading house that planned to use a different grading scale than VGA, and therefore a grading house that might privilege certain types of sealed games over others (in terms of title or box/seal-condition combination)?

  • Were you part of the group, with Richard Lecce and James Halperin, that bought a Super Mario Bros.—one that later sold for $100,000—from Dan Maresca, a self-described “friend” of WATA? If Maresca a friend of yours as well?

  • Will you commit to not grading with WATA, or selling WATA games, if you hold stock in Collectors Holdings or Collectors Universe, or still hold any advisory, executive, or agency role with either WATA or either of those two companies?

  • Will you commit to not grading games with CGC, or selling CGC-graded games, if CGC continues to utilize you in any advisory, executive, or agency role after it starts up its Video Games Division?

  • Do you hold any stock in CGC?

  • Was Richard Lecce indeed an investor in WATA? Was he a co-founder, as he now claims? While you were intimately involved in WATA’s marketing and saw Deniz Kahn pretending not to know Lecce—or the game Lecce was trying to sell on the History Channel—did you realize it was a commercial misrepresentation intended to profit WATA and therefore goose your past investment in it?

  • As an SEC-identified “promoter” of WATA’s grading capabilities—which grading capabilities you would’ve naturally been less enthusiastic about had they ever operated to your detriment, and which prospective displeasure Kahn and Thrower would have apprehended as a potential threat to your continued investor and promoter status—how frequently, while you were having your own games graded by WATA, did you make public or private representations to media, WATA customers, potential WATA investors, or collectibles-industry figures about the quality of the very WATA grading practices you were then financially benefiting from?

  • Given your claim to be only a “passive investor” in WATA, and therefore someone who would not have any special access to or communication with WATA or any of its affiliated entities, was the public statement you just issued reviewed by anyone at WATA, Collectors Holdings, Collectors Universe, or Goldin Solutions—the high-powered public relations firm retained by WATA, Collectors Holdings, and Collectors Universe—in advance? If so, why are you privately acting in concert with entities you are now publicly saying you have nothing to do with whatsoever?

These are just a few of the questions that remain unanswered by Mark Haspel. Given that Haspel says he considers “transparent dialogue” to be “healthy and necessary for all participants in the video game collecting space,” perhaps he’ll be willing to answer these and other questions.


Mark Haspel’s Unedited Facebook Statement (September 5, 2021)