There's nothing new about auctions. Around 500 BC, they used to auction women into marriage, starting with the one the auctioneer considered the hottest of the lot and ending with the poor soul who didn't quite measure up. It's a little less demeaning when the goods are inanimate objects made of cardboard or other material. The concept lives on, though, with sports memorabilia auctions, where the prettiest Mickey Mantle card always sells for more than the one labeled 'fair'.
Auctions are more popular than ever.
Today, there are at more than two dozen companies that are recognizable names to active collectors for having the bulk of their business centered around regularly scheduled auctions. In all, it's no stretch to say twice that number are actively involved in running regular bid fests without the help of eBay.
In the 1980s, you had to look hard to find a serious auction. It was almost a mysterious thing seen on interior pages of collector publications, with quirky "rules" that some didn't understand.
Now, it's strange when a week goes by where a big auction isn't starting or ending.
"The auction business started in the mid-1990s, really before the internet was mainstream," recalled Ryan Friedman of Auction Report, who has been monitoring that side of the hobby since he was a pre-teen collector hanging out at Chicago area card shops. "It wasn't thought of as a way to sell, it was just an event. Now, it's a method of selling. It's a way that products are bought and sold on a regular basis and most people feel very comfortable about it."
The major auction houses pour massive efforts into seeking out and gathering consignments, writing up descriptions, preparing material for photographing or scanning, shipping catalogs and holding the event itself. Some do it on a quarterly basis. Others hold them monthly and only online.
Some do both.
Robert Edward Auctions saves its material for one, giant blockbuster auction every spring when its mammoth catalog is digested for weeks before bidding commences on hundreds of rare and historic pieces, many entering the hobby for the first time.
Auctions have even made their way to some of the nation's biggest sporting events. Hunt Auctions conducts a sale during Super Bowl week and an MLB All-Star Auction the day of the Mid-Summer Classic. The company also holds its annual Louisville Slugger Auction at the factory. It's appraisal fairs before hand have brought fresh pieces into the hobby from fans who aren't collectors but want to find out what their items are worth and maybe liquidate. The publicity has been priceless for anyone in the business of selling sports stuff.
"Our mission goal about 15 years ago was to do things in a different way and at a different level than anybody else did," said president David Hunt. "By associating with MLB, Louisville Slugger and the NFL, you’re reaching millions of eyeballs and that’s what it’s all about. There’s only so many people coming into it from the hobby side of it but if we can be at a Major League Baseball stadium and get somebody interested in a Roy Halladay ball and they in turn wind up buying a Richie Ashburn ball and maybe later a Babe Ruth ball, we’ve done our job. We wish more people did the same thing, to be honest, because you have to have new blood coming into the hobby. Sometimes in our auctions, someone active in the hobby may win an item but typically the underbidder is someone who is either new or from the outside.”
The publicity generated by major auctions, in which high-level game-worn or game-used pieces sell for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, has helped some current and former players or their descendants make the decision to sell. Without that, it's likely some of those pieces never would have come into the market. SCP Auctions recently acquired Julius Erving's personal collection that will come on the market later this year. The company also sold the PSA 8-graded Honus Wagner card for $2.8 million several years ago, another event that generated a long-lasting buzz well beyond the hobby.
Memory Lane Inc. spends thousands marketing its catalogs to thousands of clients, many of whom are willing to spend big money.
Competition is now stiff, but that didn't dissuade the authentication experts at Milwaukee-based MEARS from starting a regular online monthly auction a couple of years ago. The company sells items that are won for $10 and tens of thousands of dollars.
Huggins and Scott, a long-time brick-and-mortar/online dealer entered the fray in the middle of the last decade. The company's booth at the National Sports Collectors Convention was among the largest; quite a change from where it started.
"Even other auction companies have come up and said 'we've enjoyed watching you grow', said coordinator Josh Wulkan. They say 'I remember when you just started out and you only had a couple of showcases with a few cards and now you have seven of them filled with multi-thousand dollar pieces for one auction'."
Not every collector likes the auction format and some are scared away by the pricey items that are often featured in the high-end catalogs, but for every collector there's an auction company and format with which they can feel comfortable.
It might be eBay. Listings on the auction giant are down, but millions of items are still launched, bought and sold every year.
Timing can play a role in which auction house lands which item. Sellers in need of cash sometimes consign with the company whose auction is next on the schedule. An historic event that produces a piece of memorabilia can mean a quick sale.
Those set up at the National took consignments from those who prefer face-to-face interaction. Some won't sell any other way but to trust their pieces to companies who try to make it their business to give items the most exposure they can.
“It’s really kind of a safeguard for both the buyer and seller," Friedman said. "It’s in the auction house’s best interest, when you give them something, to sell it for as much as possible so they want to do a good job with the auction description, the photographs and the promotion of the auction. The buyer isn’t worried about getting shortchanged because it’s a fair market. People like that.”