In Part 1 of a two-part series, long-time autograph dealer and appraiser Les Wolff has some warnings about collections ruined by improper care and discusses his efforts to educate those interested in taking up the hobby.
Les Wolff likes to tell the story about a Fortune 500 executive who was eager to show off the memorabilia hanging in his office. While the items were certainly intriguing, it elicited a different reaction from Wolff, a long-time sports memorabilia appraiser and authenticator.
“I wanted to cry,” Wolff said.
The items on the wall were faded because of the sunlight from the office windows. Without ultraviolet protection, autographs, photos and jerseys were exposed to the sun’s rays streaming through the window. The cigarette smoke in the office did some damage, too.
And to Wolff, that was money flying out of the window.
“I told him, ‘Do you realize how much money you lost because you don’t have UV protection on the wall?’” Wolff said. “He easily lost more than $10,000 in value.
“He had a large, extensive collection and it was faded badly.”
Wolff, 65, handles collections with kid gloves — more precisely, with plastic gloves that prevent the natural oils present in peoples’ fingers from being transferred to memorabilia items. Wolff’s company, Les Wolff’s Sports LLC, specializes in buying, trading and selling memorabilia. The Long Island resident gives lectures about the proper ways to store and exhibit collectibles, and what pitfalls and cons collectors should avoid. A sampling of Wolff in action can be found on his YouTube videos.
Collectors invest a good deal of money in securing rare, cool and fun memorabilia. It could be an autographed baseball, or the jersey of a favorite player, or even a bat or glove. Whatever it is, Wolff urges care — lots of it.
“Location, location, location is important in real estate,” Wolff said. “In collecting, it’s condition, condition, condition.
“You spend a lot of time and effort to buy these items. Why not spend a little bit more money to protect them?”
Wolff has a long history in the collectibles business. He founded his own company, Sports Auctions of N.Y., which he operated from 1987 to 1992. In the pre-internet era, Wolff was busy appraising items, buying and selling collectibles and advising clients. He also was the lead authenticator on ESPN’s “Memorabilia Road” show.
He also supplies cut signatures to card companies for use in their sets.
“To do something I truly love as a job is great,” Wolff said. “When you work hard, it’s worth it.”
Wolff still smacks his forehead in dismay when he recalls some of the mistakes collectors make.
“A major collector on the East Coast had big-name autographed jerseys, worth thousands of dollars, lying on the floor in his apartment,” Wolff said. “I asked him, ‘Why would you have all of these jerseys sitting on the floor? What if a toilet pipe breaks and there’s a flood?”
Another time, Wolff went to buy a collection from a Connecticut resident.
“It was a heated apartment, where the temperatures could rise into the 90s,” Wolff said. “I told him he lost thousands of dollars.”
Heat, sunlight and water can be a collector’s biggest enemies, Wolff stresses.
“It’s just those little things we take for granted,” he said. “Too many collectors don’t take the time to protect their stuff.”
Wolff advises collectors on seemingly minor things that loom large in terms of value. For those who want their baseballs autographed, Wolff advises using a Bic Round Stic Grip blue fine point pen. He tells collectors to get the baseballs signed on the sweet spot, and to make sure the only fingers on the seams of the baseball are the collector’s.
Blue staedeler pens are ideal for photographs (“Be sure to let the ink dry”) and silver or gold ones are best for footballs and helmets.
Wolff began collecting when he was 6, stowing away copies of the New York Daily News. When he collected baseball cards, Wolff, a diehard New York Yankees fan, counted Mickey Mantle as his favorite player. Like all kids in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Wolff collected cards but really did not think to take care of them. He traded many of his Willie Mays cards for those of Mantle.
“If you and I would have said back then, ‘Hey, you should collect Mickey Mantle cards in mint conditions and put them away,’ our friends would have said we were crazy,” Wolff said.
Wolff presents lectures at libraries, synagogues, church rectories and other meeting places, sharing his collecting knowledge and has produced a series of online videos from those talks. He is looking forward to June 5, when he will speak at the iconic 92nd Street Y, a cultural center in the Upper East Side of Manhattan founded as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1874.
“My dad used to play basketball there,” Wolff said, noting his father competed under the watchful eye of basketball legend Nat Holman, who was physical education director at the 92nd Street Y from 1930 to 1939.
“I’m getting pretty booked,” Wolff added. “And I never know what I am going to be asked.”
Last June, Wolff was asked by woman, who had an “extensive card collection,” what she should do with it. The cards belonged to her husband, who had recently died. She attended one of Wolff’s lectures with her grandson, and the advice Wolff gave made sense.
“I told her I wouldn’t sell it, that I would have her grandson do the research, protect (the collection), and keep it in the family,” Wolff said.
Wolff wants young collectors to learn more about the history of sports and is disappointed when he hears about millennials concerned only about the present.
“A lot of the new guard only cares about the new stuff, and that’s sad,” Wolff said. “You don’t hear them learning about history. They care about today.”
In Part 2 of this series, Les Wolff discusses the memorabilia he has bought, sold and seen during his career.