Sports Memorabilia Collecting Made Easy

Sports memorabilia rotator_0

Signed trading cards. Fly balls. A game-worn helmet. Even the actual seats from a legendary stadium.

In some ways, we’re living in a Golden Age of Sports Memorabilia. With a high enough Visa limit, a dedicated fan can now go online and buy anything from an NBA Championship ring to an autographed jockstrap. But let’s be realistic about two things. First, no matter how much you love a particular team or player, this stuff should be treated as an investment. If you love it, so much the better. Second, the explosion in collectibles has also sparked a bull market in junk, forgeries, and fakes. How do you begin assembling a collection that will appreciate over time while others fall prey to impulse buys (like the signed Orlando Pace jock recently listed on eBay for $30) and counterfeiters? These simple tips and tricks will help get you started.

Healey Cypher is a Men’s Fitness adviser and head of shopping innovation for eBay Inc.

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The Basics

Every collection begins with a single cherished object. When you’re ready to purchase an item, start small. In investment terms, you’re looking for small-cap stocks with potential, not blue chips. Everyone knows a player like Tom Brady is a future Hall of Famer, so his stuff is going to be out of your price range. One smart strategy is to focus on rookies. Take October’s Men’s Fitness cover guy Russell ­Wilson. A year ago, you could get a helmet with his autograph for about $150. This year, he’s the starting quarterback for the Seahawks, and he’s having a great season. That same helmet is now worth at least $300. And if he wins three Super Bowls like Brady, that number will surge.

There are countless other ways to narrow your search parameters. Look for emerging players who went to the same college as you, or share the same hometown, or who have some other interesting quirk (maybe they’re all lefthanded) and start collecting items related to them. There are risks associated with this strategy—as with stocks, some collectibles appreciate and others lose value—but if you choose wisely, one great purchase could pay for 10 duds.

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Opening Day

When deciding what kinds of items to buy, keep it simple and concentrate on jerseys, helmets, balls, hats, and equipment. The general rule to remember is that game-used gear is always going to be more valuable than mass-produced products like individual or team pictures (not to mention bobbleheads).  
Regardless of what you choose, it’s important to follow the Three Cardinal Rules of successful collecting:

? Make a budget and buy the absolute best items you can afford.
? Collect items only from sports that you understand well.
? If you’re collecting as an investment, seek out categories the rest of the world has not yet exploited.

And never let your personal taste in sports overrule common sense. NFL stuff is always a solid bet because the sport is so insanely popular. Olympics memorabilia, on the other hand, may not be as good a base for a collection since interest ebbs and flows on a four-year cycle.

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Sign Here, Please

One obvious way of increasing the value of an item is to have it autographed. There are players famous enough that their autograph on something as simple as a napkin has incredible value. But the most valuable signatures are the ones that are hardest to find, not necessarily the most popular or well-known sports figures. For example, a Joe DiMaggio autographed baseball can be worth $10,000–$20,000 but a baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe recently sold for close to $200,000.

Helmets, along with jerseys, baseballs, and bats, are the quintessential autograph items because they almost always grow in value and retain it over time.  

Since it’s the autograph itself that makes any item valuable, you’ve got to go to great lengths to make certain it’s authentic. That’s easy if you’re getting the item signed yourself. Snap a picture of the athlete while the signing is happening and you’ve got surefire documentation that your signature is real. One word of caution: If you want the item to retain its resale value, hold off on the personalization. Sure, it’s tough. But while “To Healey,” might have sentimental value, it can render an autograph virtually worthless if and when the time comes to sell it.

On the other hand, if you’re buying an already signed item, you need to do some research. A quick first step is to go online and see if the player has a deal in place with a sponsor. LeBron James, for example, has an exclusive contract with Upper Deck, so if you’re looking at something that’s not from Upper Deck with his signature on it, question it. There’s always a chance that your player could have been out at night and signed something for a fan—but ask questions.  

If you still have doubts, go to an expert. There are autograph verification companies that analyze everything from the ink on an autograph to the way it’s written.

My fave is PSA/DNA (, a ­service from Professional Sports Authenticator. This company has records of thousands of autographs on file for comparison. PSA/DNA also has a feature called Quick­Opinion where, for about $10, they will evaluate an autograph within 24–48 hours. It’s a great idea when you’re just not sure and want some sort of verification.

The best rule of thumb when it comes to authenticity is pure common sense. Start with the price—if there’s a guy selling 10 hockey sticks signed by Wayne Gretzky out of his garage for $50 each, it’s likely
too good to be true.

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