Collecting autographs and sports cards is more than just a hobby—it has become big business.
Collecting cards and autographs has been a hobby of mine for 30 years now. When most kids were throwing their cards around or putting them in their bike spokes, mine were stacked all nice and neat in a shoebox.
When I was 10 years old, my dad took me to Yankees games, and we stood in the lobby asking for autographs. Like many boys, I loved baseball cards—not that I could have imagined what they would be worth today!
Collecting has been transformed from a casual hobby to a billion-dollar business. Some purists say the fun and enjoyment of collecting has been lost. Others argue that the hobby is very much alive—and possibly would have died without money and profits becoming a factor.
The Ups and Downs of Investing
One baseball player changed the hobby forever. His name was Mickey Mantle, and he was an all-time favorite for many reasons. He was a Yankee, for starters, but he was also the most popular player to have cards or autographs of when the collecting hobby turned into big business. Mantle, like many other players—Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Duke Snider and Stan Musial among them—have made far more money signing autographs in retirement than all the years they played combined.
The Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps Card is one of the most sought-after and popular cards of all time. It has been—and still is—a great investment. A mint-condition 1952 Mantle card recently sold for a whopping $282,587. Not bad, from a five-cent pack of cards.
While Mantle has always been a sure bet, I can give you hundreds of examples of autographs and cards that have become nearly worthless. It all started with baseball’s steroid era. When Bonds, Clemens, Palmeiro, Sosa, A-Rod and McGwire were smashing homers or mowing people down from the mound, people like me invested heavily in these athletes. I personally own over 100 Bonds rookie cards. It was not long ago I thought these cards would help pay for my kids’ college tuition. Just a few years ago, some Bonds cards were valued at $125 each. Now, they have lost 90 to 95 percent of their value. A Mark McGwire autographed ball that once fetched $500 is now worth $50. Sammy Sosa was once so hot, and now you couldn’t give his stuff away!
For me and many others, investing in those guys was the equivalent of owning Enron stock before that company’s fall. For many fans or collectors, they purchase what they like. A Cubs fan loves Ryne Sandberg and Ernie Banks, a Cardinals fan loves Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith. There are many collectors of teams or players that one may like or root for. There are even more collectors today who want something that will increase in value—something they can pass along to their son or daughter.
My advice to collectors is always buy players that are already in the Hall of Fame. Take Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, for example. He is smoking hot in the industry right now. I have seen his jerseys go for as high as $500, autographed. To me, that is a risky gamble. There is no doubt that he is good, but can he do it for the long haul? Can he win like Michael Jordan? Can he stay healthy? All of these factors, to me, are not worth the gamble. You can buy a Larry Bird or Magic Johnson jersey for less than a Derrick Rose jersey today.
Authenticity is Paramount
The most important factors in the sports memorabilia world are quality and authenticity. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t email or show me an item that is a fake. It also breaks their heart to know they got swindled into buying something fake. A customer recently came to me wanting to sell me an autographed Michael Jordan jersey. I said I was interested, and that he should bring in the jersey, which he bought online for $600. In the two seconds I looked at the item, it was apparent that it was a fake. His jersey was worth about $75.
This happens all the time. As I was writing this story, I went online to look at items said to be signed by my cousin, NFL quarterback Jeff George. Out of the first 10 items up for auction, half are fake.
The best way to purchase an item is to know the person you are buying it from. Ask where they got the item. Ask why they are selling it at that price or if there is a legitimate letter of authenticity. Ask what you need to ask to walk out and know that you feel good about your purchase. Be careful buying items online—you may never be able to get your money back when you find out you have a fraudulent item.
Collecting is just like any other type of investment. If you know what you are doing, it can be more lucrative than investing in more conventional ways, like stocks, bonds, etc. But just like any investment, you have to do your homework. These past few years, hobby investors have gotten some great deals. Timing is everything. A few years ago, somebody asked me to purchase an autographed Babe Ruth ball for them. After searching for the right ball that the client wanted, he pulled the trigger and paid $6,000. The signature was clean, and it was one of the nicer ones I’ve seen. “I’m putting this away,” the customer told me, “and someday it will be a nice down payment for my daughter’s wedding.” That was seven years ago. Today that ball is valued at $20,000. That is an example of someone doing his homework and hitting a home run with an investment.
My advice to you is to buy the Hall of Fame players—Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, Mickey Mantle, Larry Bird. They are equivalent to blue chip stocks. Their value will fluctuate here and there, but will steadily climb in the long run. For now, stay away from some of the players who are hot but have not yet proven themselves. It was just a year ago that Deron Williams, the former Illini great, was as hot as can be and one of the best in the game. He is now injured and on a pitiful New Jersey Nets team. He could come back again and make a splash in the collecting market, but I doubt it, if he stays on the Nets. iBi