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Sports memorabilia: Does it pay to mix nostalgia and investing?

For sports fans, the past can be tangible. But profitability can be harder to grasp.

A waterfront house on Bellevue's Meydenbauer Bay was listed for $28,000 in 1957. Back then, you could buy a Ford Thunderbird for $2,800. Those would have been good investments.

But for the capital-starved, one of the best investments in 1957 cost a nickel. The red wax package of Topps baseball cards would get a hard rectangle of pink gum and five baseball cards. Forget the gum, the penny allocated to one of the cards has produced returns of up to 100,000 times outlay over the ensuing 66 years.

Sure, your pack might have a Chico Carrasquel or Dee Fondy, but you had a theoretical 5-in-407 chance of getting a Mickey Mantle card. If you did, its value today is more than $1,000 if the card is in near mint condition (i.e., sharp corners, colors and centering) or better.

We all know someone who laments the valuable card collection that their mother gave away or threw away. What is rare is someone who not only kept the cards but kept them away from bicycle spokes, bulletin board pins and flipping contests. The value of a nearly mint card is usually 10 times or more the value of a card with visible defects or wear.

The Seattle area is home to many wealthy people. They have money to spend on fine homes, cars, art and sports memorabilia. No surprise that this community is home to several high-end sports memorabilia shops, private dealers and auctions.  

Caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) is the catch phrase for anyone attempting to purchase a cardboard memory, autographed baseball or authentic game-used souvenirs. Still the Seattle market is hot.

One can purchase sports memorabilia in a variety of ways: Craigslist, eBay, at auctions, on-line retailers or through local retail stores. For those who want to see a purchase before cash is exchanged, this area has several high-end retail stores.

Don Joss at DJ's Sportscards in Renton has been in the business for more than 20 years. He lists a large part of his wares online at djssportscards.com, but has a retail store as well. Although he carries some autographed materials, his main inventory is the plain sports card. His sales range from $2,000 for a Ty Cobb card sold several years ago to cards that he gives away.  Although he does a good business in high-grade cards of star players, he says that there is also a strong market for lower grade cards that are appropriately priced.

Examples of recent sales in DJ's include a professionally graded Roberto Clemente 1955 card that lasted only a couple of days at $550. An ungraded 1967 Mickey Mantle card of lower quality lasted only hours at $140. At the other end of the spectrum are bins with vintage cards at four for a dollar, and more recent cards that are sometimes given away to younger patrons.

Autographed memorabilia is the specialty of Mill Creek Sports. It carries autographed photos, cards, balls and other equipment from stars of all sports and some political figures. Prices range from under $50 to well over $4,000.  

If you are buying sports memorabilia as an investment, you better know what you are doing. Initial purchases can be inflated, the resale market for individuals is soft, and the field is littered with fakes and over-graded materials. The better advice, from savvy retailers, is to purchase what you like, for your enjoyment, and don't worry about investment value.

Mill Creek's Bryan Walters says that most of its customers are not looking for an investment. They are either purchasing to rekindle memories of early sports heroes, or to decorate a man cave or den. Casinos and bars are also frequent purchasers of the signed memorabilia.

The majority of products on display at Mill Creek are baseball and football autographed items. Baseballs, photographs, football jerseys and helmets were the most prominent the other day. The store also had a variety of unusual memorabilia. A pair of boxing trunks signed by Muhammad Ali were listed for $1,195.00. A signed helmet used by Marshawn Lynch in a 2011 game was listed at $7,450.    (The store also lists its goods online at millcreeksports.com.)


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