Video Game Grading House WATA Told the New York Times That Its Employees Can't Sell WATA-Graded Games Due to Conflicts of Interest. So Why Did One of Its SEC-Listed Co-Founders Just Sell Me Three?

Proof makes a startling discovery that could blow the lid off an alternative asset class market bubble.

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Reading Time: 12 minutes
📕 Section: Proof Games


Introduction

As this author has written many times before, during the pandemic he became a casual collector of sealed and graded retro video games—though not (to be very clear, not ever) a seller of these collectibles. This fact has been declared by Proof, indeed in some cases declared more than once, in recent articles here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

As Proof has done major reporting on the activities of the video game auction house Heritage Auctions and the video game grading house WATA, I’ve often had reason to be glad that I’m a collector of video games as well as a former professional reviewer of video games, a college professor who teaches video games, and now a sometime video game journalist. The reason that I’m glad I also collect games is that the staunchest defenders of Heritage Auctions and WATA often accuse their critics—like podcaster Pat Contri and indie journalist Karl Jobst—of being incapable of covering the sealed-game market because neither of these men is a sealed-game collector. I’ve now learned that sellers within this new market bubble are exercised and even gleeful over their critics not being collectors for a very different reason than they’ve said or I supposed: they know that those who don’t collect sealed video games are significantly less likely to realize elements of the market universally known to be corrupt (or at least unethical) in the still relatively small sealed-game collecting community.

Unfortunately for them, as a fellow collector I was bound to eventually stumble across one of the aspects of the community that they’d apparently been trying to hide: WATA and its president and CEO, Deniz Kahn, lied to the New York Times—in the very article by America’s newspaper-of-record that arguably put WATA atop the game-collecting industry in January 2020, just twenty months after it began grading operations—when he insisted loftily to the Times that “WATA employees [are] not allowed to have games graded by the company or sell those that were [graded by the company].”

It now appears that both these things have been happening.

WATA’s lie is made more egregious by the fact that Kahn’s insistence on this point meant that he understood how significant a conflict of interest it would be if someone at WATA were to be found to have sold even a single WATA-graded video game—let alone if this person had orchestrated its grading by WATA. So imagine how significant a conflict of interest it would be for a WATA executive to be caught selling hundreds of thousands of dollars (and potentially even millions of dollars) in WATA-graded games.

Yet it seems that this is what’s happened. But the way Proof discovered it was never something I would’ve anticipated. While Proof draws no conclusion, in the reporting hereafter, on whether what follows runs afoul of state or federal criminal statutes, what is now clear is that WATA’s operations are tainted—perhaps even fatally tainted—by conflicts of interest that go well beyond what Proof already reported in its recent articles here and here.

{Note: These prior reports are a primer for what follows, and are recommended for this reason.}

The Yellow Sticky Note

On Monday, August 30, my wife and I were cleaning out some cardboard boxes that had been lying about our house for far too long—we use Bagster to on occasion clean up in this way—when a small yellow sticky note fell out of a box in which I’d recently received a sealed-and-grade retro video game. Below is a picture of that note, with details blacked out so as not to encourage harassment of the individual in question (Proof urges against any such harassment in the strongest possible terms; harassment is not a solution to any problem).

I did a double-take when I saw this. Honestly, I think I did a triple-take. I called out to my wife, who was upstairs, to tell her that without realizing it I’d bought a sealed video game from Mark Haspel, one of the founders of WATA. As you can imagine, my wife is—by necessity—a very, very patient woman. She went back to work gathering boxes with only minimal reaction.

At first, my own reaction was merely shock that I had had prior contact, without ever realizing it, with someone I’d been reporting on at Proof. I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me several hours to appreciate the fact that I’d just stumbled across what was actually a major news story. Not only do journalists never expect to be or want to be the subject of their reporting, but they certainly never expect to find evidence that leads them to new reporting on a yellow sticky note on the floor of their dining room.

Yet that’s just what happened here.

It wasn’t only that one of the founders of WATA had sold me a video game—in fact, I quickly realized after some additional research, he’d sold me three games this summer, all before I started reporting on his company or even knew his name—or that in selling me even one WATA-graded game Haspel was violating a longstanding WATA corporate policy intended to prevent any self-dealing, market manipulation, or fraud.

It was that—as I learned within minutes of researching Haspel’s operation—a WATA co-founder was running a significant side business selling games his company graded.

Mark Haspel’s Operation

Below are the three photographs I took of the box Mark Haspel sent me in August of 2021 (again, just one of three boxes; the other two I would’ve thrown out back in July).

I’ve elided any information that could be used to harass Haspel, though rest assured I know, and he knows I know, the information that lies beneath the blacked-out areas in these photographs. Following the images I give just enough information to confirm in general terms what these photographs contain and establish.

The first two of these addresses are identical: the address of a UPS Store in Bradenton, Florida. The third of the addresses is different, however: it is (as a Google Maps search and street-view screenshot confirm) a residential address approximately 2.6 miles from the aforementioned UPS Store. While the second photograph includes one of the four words in the name of the LLC Haspel does business under—which a Manta search reveals has an estimated “one” employee and an annual revenue of around $25,000, and whose name suggests Haspel is in the “vintage comics” industry—just one of those things appears to be true. Haspel does seem to be the only employee of the company, given that he runs it from a residence; but there’s no evidence at eBay that the business has anything to do with comics, and its annual earnings appear to far exceed $25,000.

Haspel trades on eBay under the pseudonym m*s*h (Haspel’s full name is Mark Steven Haspel), and at the time of this publication he was selling 74 WATA-graded games with a total value—per the prices that Haspel himself has set for them—of $46,405.

Proof underscores here that this is only the total cost of the games Haspel is selling at the moment. Over the course of a calendar year, it’s clear that the total volume of his sales would be in the six figures, with the possibility of a seven-figure inventory well within reach. Indeed, a review of the “Completed Listings” tab at Haspel’s eBay store reveals that the roster of seventy-four games now available for “buy-it-now” purchase (none of the games currently on sale are being sold via auction) was actually seventy-five as of the morning of August 30. That day, Haspel sold a “9.6/NS” WATA-graded copy of the Atari 2600 video game Raiders of the Lost Ark for $875. And—for that matter—the three games that Haspel sold to this author during the summer of 2021 cost around $1,000, meaning that over the only four additional sales by Haspel Proof has visibility into, his $46,405 inventory would rise to just under $50,000 (at ~$48,300).

Not only is Haspel selling no vintage comics—only video games—via his supposedly vintage comics-oriented eBay account (his full store name, Vintage Comics on Parade, promises vintage comics but makes no mention of video games), but he’s not selling any games graded by any grading house other than his: WATA. And in an odd maneuver, his LLC (MSH Enterprises) uses as both its “head office address” and its “mailing address” the aforementioned UPS Store. It was incorporated in October 2018, just six months after WATA started grading games. Interestingly, Haspel had run a non-LLC company mirroring the name of his eBay account since 1997; it was only in the weeks or months immediately after WATA’s founding that Haspel apparently decided he had a need to establish a limited-liability company with a UPS-Store address—as his prior company, now inactive, used a real address Proof has seen, rather than a UPS Store, as its head office address and mailing address.

Lest there be any question about whether the Mark Haspel who runs Vintage Comics on Parade is the same Mark Haspel who co-founded WATA, Haspel erases all doubt on Instagram:

Here’s a screenshot of just a small portion of the WATA co-founder’s enormous stock of WATA-graded merchandise on eBay:

What’s so amazing about this—besides, well, everything—is how “open and notorious” it is, to use a legal turn of phrase. Anyone who has encountered Mark Haspel through his work with WATA, or at conventions, or online, or anywhere else would surely have come across the name of his “business” in Bradenton, and the subject of its operations, if this Proof journalist did so as effortlessly as he did. Is there a universe in which this journalist knows such stunning facts about Mark Haspel and WATA co-founder Deniz Kahn, who’s been Haspel’s business associate for many years, does not?

Does Haspel Have a Defense?

The first thing I did after realizing what Haspel was doing—as well as the extraordinary amount of money he’s making annually doing it—was check WATA’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings to confirm that, indeed, its most recent Form D filing lists Haspel as a “promoter” of WATA (defined by the SEC as “Any person who, acting alone or in conjunction with one or more other persons, directly or indirectly takes initiative in founding and organizing the business or enterprise of an issuer” or “Any person who, in connection with the founding and organizing of the business or enterprise of an issuer, directly or indirectly receives in consideration of services or property, or both services and property, ten percent or more of any class of securities of the issuer or ten percent or more of the proceeds from the sale of any class of such securities”).

Given that WATA has not issued any new Form D SEC filings since the one that lists Haspel as a founder and organizer of WATA in July 2018, there seems to be no way Haspel selling graded WATA games doesn’t run afoul of the corporate policy WATA president and CEO Deniz Kahn insisted was active and stringent in speaking with the New York Times in 2020.

Second, I checked, at the time more out of curiosity than journalistic necessity, to see how Haspel had fared in getting his games graded by a company that WATA has told the SEC he’s still a part of. Here’s what I found, in order of descending box/seal grade on the WATA scale (with the number of video games in each condition in parentheses).


The WATA-Grade Profile of the 74 Items Now for Sale by WATA Co-Founder Mark Haspel
  • 9.8/A++ (5)

  • 9.8/NS (1)*

  • 9.6/A++ (21)

  • 9.6/NS (5)*

  • 9.4/A++ (12)

  • 9.4/A+ (3)

  • 9.4/NS (5)*

  • 9.2/A++ (2)

  • 9.2/A+ (1)

  • 9.2/NS (4)

  • 9.0/A++ (3)

  • 9.0/A+ (1)

  • 9.0/NS (2)

  • 8.5/A++ (1)

*This grade is attached to an Atari 2600 game which was not commonly shipped by Atari with a plastic seal, thereby making the “NS” designation Haspel’s game has—meaning, in this case, a box with a factory-set glue seal only—a “non-negative” grade.


In case you’re wondering, you’re reading the above right: of the 74 games WATA co-founder Mark Haspel is now selling on eBay (products with a total declared value of nearly $50,000), only one (1.4% of the total) received lower than a “9.0” box-condition assessment, and none received a seal rating below “A+.” This would be astounding even if Haspel’s games weren’t all second-generation games from the 1980s—games so old that experts like Mark Wade from Certified Collectibles say they must be considered “investment-grade” (the best condition one could hope to find a video game in, and a prerequisite for serious investors) if they’re graded at a “9.0” or above. According to Wade in this “unboxing” video (emphasis supplied),

Like I always say, people don’t understand that [for] these old Atari boxes, a “9.0” is super tough to get. If you get 9.0 or above, that is “investment grade” for these old, early, 1980s Atari [games]….[for a game from] 1982, 1983, 1984, “9.0” is still “investment grade.” Once you start getting into the mid-80s—1985, 1986, 1987 [the period during which Atari was focused on the Atari 5200 and the Atari 7800, rather than the Atari 2600]—you want to stay above a 9.4 [or] 9.6 on those if you’re investing in the [second and subsequent runs of] Atari 2600 [games]. But these early—1982, 1983—boxes? People busted those things open and played them. They don’t remain sealed very long. So if you’re able to find a sealed one [in] 9.0 or above [box condition], pick that one up [and] add it to your [game] collection.

It’s in this context that Mark Haspel of WATA saw 98.6% of the Atari games he now has up for sale graded at a “9.0” box condition or above by WATA. Indeed, it’s fair to say that almost every video game WATA’s Mark Haspel had graded by WATA—at least on the evidence of the games he’s now selling—was put in an “investment-grade” tier.

It’s worth noting, too—and I say this as someone who’s primarily an Atari collector, so someone with some expertise on the subject—that the Atari 2600 market, in which I’m a buyer rather than an investor or seller, is more or less moribund at the moment. It has virtually none of the attention on it that games from “third-generation” consoles or subsequent generations have. Indeed, it’s so ignored that the primary live-streamer of game collecting’s weekly Heritage Auctions auctions, YouTuber Dylan Maertens of GettheGregGames, talks over what is known as the “Atari block” in such auctions. In other words, the market for these games matters so little to those paying attention to where the money is that they’re basically off everyone’s radar besides Atari collectors like me.

Why do I mention this? Because by selling only Atari games—if in fact what Haspel is selling now, which comprises exclusively second-generation Atari games, is indicative of what he typically sells—he ensures that most or perhaps even all of his business on eBay escapes the notice of U.S. journalists, who thus far (as Proof has documented) have written almost exclusively about Nintendo Entertainment System games. Of course, Haspel’s predilections also could take on a more sinister cast: because it is possible (but not yet confirmed) that Haspel has access to internal WATA “population” data—data that reveals how many copies of each video game WATA has ever received and graded—there is a chance that Haspel is selling only Atari games because he knows that this market is waning due to few people sending in these games to be graded. If Haspel is using any such data to determine which games to buy, get graded, and sell, there’s at least the danger that he’s participating in what investigators might consider insider trading.

{Note: Proof intends to offer no legal analysis as to whether Haspel has engaged in any illicit conduct or not. It must simply be noted that in almost every collectibles market in the U.S., grading companies make “population reports” public so that no one in the market has special access to corporate data they could use to make investments relating to their own company.}

The third piece of investigation I did here at Proof on this breaking news story was to look for other indicia—besides SEC filings—of Mark Haspel’s involvement in WATA.

The industry digital broadsheet Old School Gamer Magazine reported in May 2019 that Haspel was so instrumental to WATA’s operations that he’s the primary reason WATA entered into its most lucrative partnership: with WATA investor and advisory board member James Halperin’s Heritage Auctions (as Proof has reported, Halperin, who was previously fined $1.2 million by the Federal Trade Commission for fraud, divested himself of his WATA shares and was removed from WATA’s website as soon as WATA was bought by Collectors Universe in July 2021).

According to Heritage Vice President Barry Sandoval, “We [Heritage Auctions] toyed a little bit with the idea of selling video games, but what sold us [on the idea] is that one of WATA’s principals, Mark Haspel, used to be with CGC [Certified Guaranty Company, LLC]. That he was involved [with WATA] made us take it seriously. CGC has graded somewhere between three and five million comic books. That’s a good model to follow.” Before its deletion, James Halperin’s page at WATA underscored how long he and his company had known Haspel, noting, “Jim first met Mark when Mark came to visit the Heritage offices soon after Heritage entered the comic book market.”

Sandoval’s comment underscores just how long Haspel has been in the collectibles market—indeed, as the co-founder of a massive, industry-defining concern like CGC, he’s actually at the vanguard of the collectibles market, meaning he understands better than almost anyone what is or isn’t permissible in it—but it also locates Haspel at the heart of one of the biggest business decisions that WATA has ever made: developing an exclusive partnership with an auction house. {Note: CGC now notes on its website that Haspel is the lead, indeed the only, consultant advising CGC’s comics-grading team. So besides knowing the industry well, Haspel is well acquainted with the ethics of grading collectibles.}

According to Pitchbook, Haspel is one of only four members of WATA’s “executive team.” But one needn’t take Pitchbook’s word for it. Here’s what WATA says about Mark Haspel on its website right now (August 31, 2021):

Or we could look at a screenshot from WATA’s website that I took today (August 31):

Haspel has also written columns for WATA (back when its website still published original content, which it hasn’t for some time) like this one and this one.

Curiously, all of the acknowledged founders of WATA have LinkedIn pages linking them to WATA—except Haspel, who despite being the former president of a major company appears to presently have no LinkedIn profile at all. {Note: As you can see below, the other members of the executive team are not only on LinkedIn but all use their WATA photos—look above for a comparison—as their official LinkedIn profile photos.}

Does this suggest that WATA’s three other executives were or are aware that Haspel is a potential liability to the company, and that he’s now been advised by WATA’s new PR company, Goldin Solutions—one of the top PR firms in the country, and an entity that’s represented a major figure in the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, a major figure in the Trump-Russia scandal (the Kremlin-owned Russian Direct Investment Fund), and a major figure in the 2016 Access Hollywood scandal that almost cost Donald Trump the White House (Billy Bush)—to eliminate as much of his public-facing linkages to WATA as possible? Who can say. But as a former federal criminal investigator, I will note that all the foregoing would certainly raise a suspicion that something is amiss.

Fourth, in researching Haspel I considered whether all of this might be some sort of misunderstanding. But then I recalled a clip from the extremely startling 52-minute documentary known as the Jobst Report, a clip that has stuck with me since I first saw it. In it, Karl Jobst notes, while offering screenshots of private messages and emails corroborating his statement, “Right around the time that WATA was formed, [Mark Haspel] started showing up at video game conventions, buying as many sealed games as he could.” Jobst’s assertion is immediately followed by a narrative from one of the top NES experts in the United States, Pat Contri, who recalls an encounter he had, at a major gaming conference in 2019, with a man that he later realized was Mark Haspel:

In June 2019, I was a guest at a gaming convention. The weekend of the event, I noticed a small group of individuals who were hurriedly acquiring sealed and complete-in-box games from vendors. At one point, I witnessed an individual who I later learned to be Mark Haspel returning to the WATA expo booth while holding a stack of NES games. I did find it a little strange, but was unaware of any affiliation that that person may have had with WATA, so I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Another testimonial provided to Jobst for his documentary sees a video game collector recalling that Haspel was buying sealed games in large quantities as far back as 2017, after WATA had filed its initial paperwork with the SEC but—perhaps critically—before the company had gone public with its intention to start grading video games.

Had Haspel merely been collecting ungraded video games after he became a co-founder of WATA, it might be unremarkable. But now that we know that he has a lucrative side business grading sealed video games with WATA and then selling them—all of which games are in suspiciously amazing WATA-certified condition, and all of which are being sold amongst significant indicia of a present intent to keep the business selling them from being detected by journalists—it seems like a different affair altogether.

In the past several weeks, both Jobst and I have contacted individuals associated with WATA to get their response to our respective reports. With the exception of a recent statement from former WATA director Jeff Meyer—who, in replying to Jobst, quite curiously said that he would “hold off on any new grading [of games in his collection] until CGC releases their grading process details…and if VGA alters their approach to grading during that time, I would strongly consider their service as time goes on”—these approaches have either been ignored or met with blanket denials. That is, while WATA (and Heritage Auctions) have said across several curt press releases that they are champing at the bit to tell their side of the story, despite hiring one of the top PR firms in the Unites States to aid them they have presented no evidence refuting any real or perceived claims made against them. So while there may be some explanation for the foregoing, if anyone associated with WATA provides such an explanation it’ll be the first time it has endeavored to respond substantively to any of the criticism it’s recently faced.

Conclusion

The discoveries by Proof detailed above lead to far more questions than answers.

For instance, given that WATA takes a cut of the value of every game it grades, did it do this with the games its own executive had it grade? Given how small a company WATA is, would it even be possible for Haspel’s games to be graded without the grader knowing they were grading the possessions of not just a work colleague but a superior (and therefore would they not conduct their grading under a fear of retaliation for subpar grades, especially as their superior is a grader himself)? How did Mark Haspel’s games get so universally graded as “investment grade”? Who at WATA is aware that Haspel is (apparently) violating company policy with respect to selling WATA graded games? Why on Earth would Haspel use WATA for his grading, when he could easily avoid any potential ethical or legal difficulties by having his game collection graded by VGA? Did Haspel expect some benefit in grading his games through WATA? How much is Haspel making each year selling games graded by his own company? Why is Haspel secretly hoarding NES games but—at least right now—only selling Atari games? Does he have access to internal corporate intelligence relating to what types of video games sealed-and-graded game collectors should be selling now, as opposed to which types of games they should be seeking out? Did Deniz Kahn know that he was misleading the New York Times about his company’s business ethics, and were his statements intended to goose his company’s reputation and market prospects despite WATA not adhering to any of the self-restrictions it lauded itself for adopting? Do the men behind the new parent company of WATA, Collectors Universe—including the billionaire Nat Turner, the GOP mega-donor Steven A. Cohen, and a hedge fund (D1) run by the very man who wrote Donald Trump’s tax policy (which gives breaks to luxury-item collectors)—know of any self-dealing or conflicts of interest at WATA? If they do, why have they jettisoned James Halperin post-purchase but kept Mark Haspel on board?

These are just a few of the urgent questions that must now be asked of WATA and its affiliated entities by journalists, game investors, game collectors, and perhaps federal investigators. What is certainly clear, for now, is that a WATA executive is running a lucrative side business selling games his company graded, contrary to the very policy WATA announced to the media as the basis for it being a legitimate grading concern.

Whether there is even more dubious activity afoot—be it self-dealing, criminal fraud, insider trading, or worse—still remains to be seen. Proof isn’t able to adjudicate this, and doesn’t wish to do so. But what surely all can agree upon is that what’s going on at WATA doesn’t look good. Not for the company itself, not for its executives, not for its new parent company, and not for those holding WATA-graded games (which includes this journalist). Nor does it do any great credit to those in the media and in the hobby of retro video game collecting who’ve been pumping up video games as a reliable new alternative asset class.


Coda

My wonderful father, Robert Abramson, unexpectedly passed away in late April 2020. In the early 80s, he bought the Intellivision game BurgerTime for my sisters and me. We played the hell out of that game, and it ended up being a big part of my childhood. Had I not decided, in August 2021, to purchase a sealed and graded copy of that game in memory of my dad, I would’ve never found the yellow sticky that led to this report.

While I’m not yet sure what to take from all that, I suspect I’ll be thinking about it for some time.