Not sure where to spend that stimulus check? Sports memorabilia dealers have some advice.
Card show attendance may be down at most venues across the country. Some hobby shops are struggling to stay afloat. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a slowdown in vintage sports cards and memorabilia. You know business is good when four or five major auctions can close within a week of each other and no one worries too much.
“In 2007, we had our best year going back to 1973 and this year is starting out even better,” veteran dealer Bill McAvoy told an audience at the PCCE panel discussion last month. “Good quality items will always sell.”
Doug Allen, president of Mastro Auctions, has a long list of clients with significant disposable income. Many are investors who have seen better returns on purchases of rare sports cards and vintage baseball memorabilia than they have in more traditional markets.
“Our buyers sometimes say ‘my stock portfolio might not be doing well and I’d like to put my money into something I can put my hands on’,” Allen said.
Many sports fans have turned into collectors as the hobby’s landmark sales generate more media attention. Even those who can’t afford a T206 Honus Wagner card or a Babe Ruth rookie card can get hooked by items that they can afford. For the collector spending less than $500 at a time, rising consumer prices can have an impact on spending habits. That likely accounts for the slowdown in show sales.
For those who tally their hobby expenditures in the thousands, however, competition remains heavy. Hall of Famer game worn jerseys or game used bats have seen price increases as have many pre-1950s card sets and singles. Cards rarely seen often set records when they hit the open market.
“There’s an awareness of buyers as to the limited availability of those items,” said John Taube of JT Sports, a bat authenticator and dealer.
Most dealers and auction house reps say collectors looking to find the perfect medium between investment potential and cherished collectible would be better off buying only one or two nice pieces rather than several small, lower grade items.
"My advice is generally to buy the best tier that you can afford," said Hunt Auctions’ president David Hunt.
John Brigandi, who’s family owned Brigandi Coin Company is located in Manhattan, has a clientele that seeks out older items limited in quantity but he sometimes can’t find enough of it to sell. “Every year more and more wealthy buyers come in and chase the limited supply that’s in the marketplace. It’s amazing that more collections aren’t broken up and sold but they’re not. It becomes tougher and tougher to find material because more buyers enter the market.”
“I would say to focus on the mainstream stuff whether it’s Babe Ruth autographs or Ted Williams baseball cards or Mickey Mantle rookie cards," Allen advised. "Those things stand the test of time. If you’re concerned about having to sell something in the next five years, I’d stay away from things where there’s a thinner trading base for it. It’s not quite attainable for all of us, but if you stick with mainstream stuff you’re pretty safe.”
Thanks to eBay and the vast amount of information now available to collectors via a quick internet search, bargains are harder to find. “There’s much more awareness and sophistication today," Taube stated. "I appreciate that because they know what they’re buying.”
Like any investment or collectible, however, there are ebbs and flows at any given time.
“Recently we’ve seen a lot of Babe Ruth game used bats on the market. The prices are a little bit softer right now than they were a couple of years ago," Allen said. "You kind of have to follow the market but generally, high quality material in which the supply is high and demand is low continues to go up in price. It’s a pretty good market.”
Brigandi’s operation began years ago as a brick-and-mortar store selling primarily coins. Now, the company’s sports memorabilia is a hot commodity, with auction and website sales accounting for a large share of the profits. “It has changed 180 degrees. You put things on a website and eventually people buy them. You make large sales that way and I find that amazing."
He’s continually surprised at the growth of the cyber market with items purchased by collectors who are part-time dealers themselves thanks to eBay.
"eBay has made just about everything you own liquid. You can buy a lot of 337 photos, keep the 16 you want and sell the rest on eBay. There’s a basis of value for everything. The internet is the greatest thing that’s happened to this business in a long time.”
Allen believes the accessibility and success of eBay has helped less high profile dealer/collectors while taking away some of the incentive to set up a table for a local card show.
"Dealers are less apt to discount at shows because it’s no longer ‘if I can’t sell it today, I’m not going to do a show for another month’. Now, it’s ‘if I can’t sell it today, I’ll stick it on eBay and have my money through Paypal in ten days’. I think that’s changed the dynamics of how things are retailed.”
The market has even survived the steroid scandals which has made collectibles relating to some of the game’s biggest names of the past 20 years a hard sell. If time heals wounds, one questioner wondered whether there were bargains to be found in historic pieces relating to Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro or Roger Clemens.
Last summer, Mastro Auctions sold Bonds’ 70th home run ball from his record-breaking season for just over $14,000–a relative bargain compared to other historic home run balls. It was re-sold months later for $60,000 to a buyer who apparently believed the ball had been undervalued in spite of the issues surrounding the batter himself.
“The new market is dead right now but if I saw a Bonds bat sitting there, I’d buy it or a Clemens jersey if they were cheap," said Allen. "With Palmeiro, it’s unheard of that a 3,000 hit guy won’t get into the Hall of Fame. And he won’t. But what kind of a world is it when a 3,000 hit guy doesn’t get in and I don’t think steroids did that. Big names like Clemens and Bonds are still going to appreciate from where they are right now even if they don’t regain the luster they may have had in the past.”
“I don’t think they’re a good investment," said Brigandi. "I didn’t think they were a good investment at the time. When a market loses it’s gleam, it’s usually gone forever. When they lose your popularity, you have to be careful. It’s a risky bet to think the popularity will come back. I can’t imagine that in ten years people will say ‘well, what they did wasn’t so bad. It didn’t affect how they accumulated their records’.”
Taube agreed. “Collapse is a mild word for McGwire and Palmeiro. I still see a fair amount of value being retained by Bonds. It’s like the jury is still out and people are appreciative of his skills before taking steroids. But I think these guys are tarnished. I can’t sell a Palmeiro bat for $300. Clemens is doing more harm than good by talking about it. I don’t think fans will treat these people as kindly as someone like Joe Jackson.”
There is plenty of material being consigned every day for auction houses to worry about the latest scandal involving a modern player and a steady stream of newcomers receiving the ever-growing catalogs.
“When we review the invoice list at the end of auction, I see names I hadn’t heard of before spending a significant amount of money," Allen said. "There’s a pretty broad range of baby boomers getting into the market. What we need to do to cultivate that is to grow up. I think we all have to work together because there’s enough for all of us."
Vintage Sports Memorabilia