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

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.)

Although the high-end sales are usually tied to players from the 1970s and earlier, both Mill Creek and DJ's sell packs of cards that have been produced recently. Some of the packs can retail for up to $500 each — containing up to 10 cards, all of which have some special feature. That may be a swatch of a game-used jersey, a portion of a bat or an engraving plate for the original card.

The resale market is robust. Cards and other memorabilia are easy to purchase on Craigslist, eBay and a variety of auction services. Joss says he is always buying cards, regardless of quality. But the price obtained can be a disappointment for those thinking they had a good investment. Cards that haven't been evaluated by professional graders sell at a discount, as do unauthenticated autographed memorabilia. The reason is obvious — many fakes and forgeries fill the market.

Walters says all of the autographed products in Mill Creek Sports are authenticated. Several reputable authenticators, including Professional Sports Authenticator (“PSA”), Upper Deck Authenticated and Steiner Sports, have a substantial business in either grading the quality of vintage cards or the authenticity of autographed items.

The cost of authentication is a major portion of the price. Walters says that PSA prices its authentications roughly on the value of the autograph. A Mickey Mantle authentication costs $100 per item, but a Babe Ruth item will cost $250. Similarly, the grading of the quality of sports cards is based on the anticipated value.

Are the authentications a guarantee of veracity? Not so, say both Joss and Walters. Joss says that a reputable authenticator can still make mistakes. Walters states that PSA only assures that in its best judgment the autograph appears to be genuine. Still, anyone (retailer or individual) who represents a product to contain a Mantle or Ali autograph is offering a representation of its validity.  

Washington's adoption of the Uniform Commercial Code appears to provide protection for a purchaser of an item represented to be, say, a Joe DiMaggio autographed baseball. The code includes among express warranties any “affirmation of fact .. . made by the seller to the buyer which relates to the goods and becomes part of … the bargain.”  An implied warranty is extended to goods so that they “conform to the. . .affirmations of fact made on the container.”  

A DiMaggio baseball is listed by Mill Creek at $849. It contains a representation that it is a Joe DiMaggio autograph.  It is sold with a certification by PSA that PSA offers its “considered opinion that the signature is genuine” based on its examination of the flow, slant, pen pressure and other characteristics of the signature. Would this be a sufficient disclaimer of the warranty made that it is a Joe DiMaggio autograph? Probably not, but more likely one would not pay an attorney to contest an issue whose proof is difficult because Joe D is deceased.

More than a decade ago, the FBI conducted a sting operation, Operation Foul Ball, resulting in the conviction of 14 forgers. An FBI news release stated that dealers in memorabilia estimated that 40 percent to as much as 90 percent of the marketed sports autographs are forged. The sting resulted in confiscation of more than 10,000 autographed baseballs bearing the signatures of Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente and Ty Cobb, plus $500,000 in cash.

One of the convicted felons testified that on the day of Joe DiMaggio's death, he got an order for 1,000 DiMaggio autographed baseballs. One of his co-conspirators filled the order.

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