Sports Memorabilia Dealers
Collecting baseball cards and old uniforms has become big business
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01
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"Disposable income is what's spent on this stuff, and let's face it, we're not selling open-heart surgery here. We're selling baseball cards."
Citing the enormous price fluctuation in cards due to a variety of factors, including condition, rarity and provenance, Mastro uses slugger Mark McGwire's rookie card as an example. A so-called gem-mint 10-rated McGwire card could fetch $5,000 in today's market, while a near-mint-to-mint 8-rated card would only bring $250. Mastro says the difference between the two cards is so subtle, it would be impossible to detect the gem-mint example when holding both at arm's length.
Not surprisingly, Mastro, who has sold everything from a nylon stocking that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe when she was married to Yankees idol Joe DiMaggio, to legendary baseball owner Bill Veeck's wooden leg, has blunt advice for beginning collectors.
"When you're a novice at anything, you take your life in your hands, so I tell people to collect within their means. Don't collect just according to what it's worth, or think it's only going to get more valuable later on, because there're no guarantees. If you like baseball cards, collect baseball cards; and if cards don't do it for you but autographed baseballs do, then collect those. Make sure whoever you're dealing with is really reputable, and don't be afraid to call around and ask."
That's smart advice. Big-league forgers still plague the hobby, particularly with autographed memorabilia, as evidenced by the ongoing FBI sting caper known as Operation Foul Ball (begun in 1996 to investigate forged sports memorabilia, particularly autographed items), so authenticity is of paramount concern to every collector. Several independent businesses have sprung up as a result, such as Professional Sports Authenticators, that rate cards and issue certificates of authenticity (COAs) that the cards are unaltered; all, of course, for a fee. But keep in mind that less scrupulous people have produced bogus COAs as well; the U.S. government has successfully prosecuted some of the offenders.
Mastro has turned part of the auction industry on its ear by straying from long-accepted practices of consignors leaving secret reserves on the minimum price acceptable for an item offered at auction. Auction houses would base presale estimates on the minimum reserve while keeping the reserve secret.
"We print the minimum bid right in the catalogue, so that's the reserve," says Mastro. "Collectors don't like hidden reserves. So, if someone bids that number or more, they can win that item. Sure, there're times when the consignors are disappointed," says Mastro, but "anybody that tells you they bat a thousand in this business is ridiculous."
Apart from MastroNet's Mastro Fine Sports Auctions, Robert Edward Auctions and Ron Oser Enterprises, plenty of other auction enterprises ferociously compete in the sports memorabilia field. They range from international giants such as Christie's and Sotheby's to smaller, boutique-type houses such as sports uniform specialists Grey Flannel Auctions of Great Neck, New York (www.greyflannelauctions.com), and the theme sale-oriented Leland's of Seaford, New York (www.lelands.com). All of the above maintain state-of-the-art Web sites and provide a wide array of bidding options that can range from fax and e-mail bids to live-auction, paddle-waving showdowns.
Asked to name his phantom dream item, Mastro doesn't hesitate. "Bobby Thomson's home run ball," he says, the so-called "shot heard round the world" in 1951 when New York Giants star Thomson blasted a game-winning home run to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final game of their spine-tingling playoff. (That shot was back in the news in February when it was revealed that the Giants were stealing the Dodgers' signs during the game.) "If somebody has that ball out there and could prove it, that would be a really big deal."
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