by Steve Manas
To buy or not to buy? That was the question facing preteen Leighton Sheldon one 1985 afternoon as he stood before the baseball card vendor at the old Route 18 Flea Market in East Brunswick, N.J., eyeing a 1984 Topps Don Mattingly rookie card.
Odds are the youngster couldn’t have guessed, when he ponied up the then-princely sum of $30 for the future Yankee great’s image, that he would one day launch his own entrepreneurial career in the potentially lucrative, sometime controversial world of sports memorabilia. Two decades later, Sheldon and his longtime friend and former Rutgers University roommate, Scott Greenwald, combined their considerable interests in business, IT, and sports to start Just Collect Inc., eBay’s largest vintage sports card and memorabilia consignment seller, with headquarters in Somerset, only minutes from their alma mater.
“We were randomly assigned as roommates, and we’ve been friends since our first year,” says Greenwald, Class of 1999, a management science and information systems major at Rutgers Business School-New Brunswick. Adds Sheldon, Class of 2000 and a management major at RBS, “Scott was best man at my wedding.”
As sophomores, the like-minded pair joined the Rutgers Entrepreneurial Society, where Greenwald became president. “Students studied how to run their own businesses,” he said, “and we decided to do something together some day.”
Both worked as undergraduates, Greenwald at various IT-related positions, and Sheldon as a financial analyst at Johnson & Johnson, while continuing to collect and sell baseball cards. “As a kid, I lived around the corner from a candy store, where I was always buying cards,” Sheldon said. “I went to my first card convention in 1987 and couldn’t believe how many people were there. I never stopped collecting and selling.”
About to graduate, Sheldon became friendly with one of his customers, a guy who ran a mail order business from home, selling old baseball cards. They wound up working together for two years before the Rutgers alum joined a New York sports auction house as an acquisition associate, rising to acquisitions director. In late 2005, he and Greenwald, now head of IT for Condor Capital, an investment adviser, developed a business plan with a third investor, for a firm to do high-volume consignment sales of baseball cards and collectibles.
“We saw a need for a consignment business that handled less expensive cards, $50 to $100, up to several thousand dollars,” said Greenwald, who is more involved with the financial end of the business, coordinating and producing multiple weekly auction e-mailings to card and memorabilia-hungry fans. “We’ve become the largest consignment seller for collectors and dealers.”
“Some collectors buy and never sell. Others frequently sell for quick cash,” Sheldon, more the product maven, observed. “But we also have lots of high-end collectors – doctors, lawyers who work within substantial budgets and want to own the nicest things. For lots of guys, collecting is a challenge. Baseball is the biggest sport, but there are collectors for everything. We’ve handled 1952 Mickey Mantle Topps rookie cards, autographs, baseballs signed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, a check signed by Ty Cobb, and game-worn memorabilia. We’ve also sold non-sports cards, like those of celebrities, and TV show memorabilia. But our best clients are dealers and major collectors.”
Just Collect currently has 7200 cards and pieces of memorabilia available on eBay.
The most valuable transaction Sheldon has been involved with was the sale of a T206 Honus Wagner card for $300,000. He’s been in on eBay items that have fetched $20,000 to $30,000. “One 1952 Mickey Mantle Topps rookie card brought $18,000 or $19,000,” he stated, matter-of-factly. “A 1929 Yankees World Series ring with the top removed – it was relocated to a woman’s compact – went for $13,000. Had it been in its original condition, the ring would have been worth $75,000 to $100,000.”
According to Sheldon, the latter figure is almost assuredly less than half the worth of Derek Jeter’s recent 3000th career hit – an unexpected home run surprisingly pulled into Yankee Stadium’s left field seats caught by longtime fan Christian Lopez. “I know a bunch of people would do what he did, give Jeter the ball, but I don’t think he served his future or family well,” Sheldon said. “I know the Yankees gave him a bunch of signed Jeter memorabilia and two sponsors gave him $25,000 each, and one added his World Series ring. That’s very nice.
“But the chances of Jeter’s hit being a home run were astronomical. It’s like winning the lottery. I think the Yankees made out far better. I don’t think it was a good deal for Christian.”
But if Lopez made a mistake, it wouldn’t be the first time a fan got taken. The current value of a run of the mill Mattingly rookie card – Sheldon’s first purchase – might bring $10 on a good day.