Press Release - July 17, 2006

Note: This is an article is from the July 17th edition of Barrons (not a press release).

Going, Going -- Gone!

By CHRISTIAN GARVIN
E-mail: christian@christiangarvin.com
MONDAY, JULY 17, 2006
Barrons, p. 30.

IN 1961, A YOUNG ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTOGRAPHER, Harry Harris, stumbled upon a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity. While covering the New York Yankees' spring-training camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., Harris was singled out by Joe DiMaggio, whom he knew casually, to come to his nearby hotel afterward and snap a picture of the shy baseball legend and Marilyn Monroe. The divorced couple, in Florida attempting a reconciliation following Monroe's split from playwright Arthur Miller, even agreed to sign a baseball for Harris, who happened to have one in the trunk of his car.

The photo is no doubt faded, but the baseball turned into a goldmine. In May of this year, Harris' estate sold the ball, signed in blue ballpoint ink, for $191,200 at auction to an anonymous collector who was a big fan of DiMaggio and Monroe -- not a bad payout for a chance encounter. It turned out that these two American icons had jointly autographed only once before, and then Marilyn had written "Norma Jean DiMaggio"; that ball hasn't surfaced since it was sold seven years ago for $50,000.


A rare find: one of only two baseballs ever signed by both Joltin' Joe DiMaggio (a.k.a. the Yankee Clipper) and hi ex-wife, movie star Marilyn Monroe. Four decades later a collector who was a fan of both American icons paid a small fortune to own it.

The market for sports collectibles, which generates tens of millions of dollars annually, has clearly matured well beyond its start as a way to trade old baseball cards. At an auction held at last week's baseball All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, a collector forked over $805,000 for a home- run ball swatted by Babe Ruth at the first official All-Star game in 1933. Other hot items of late: Ty Cobb's earliest bat, a check written by the Babe to New York grocer Gristedes and a sweat-stained pair of boxing trunks once worn by then-Cassius Clay that fetched $25,000. Considering these items originally cost virtually nothing, their astronomical returns would make even Google shareholders blink.

Two annual sales hosted by a 31-year-old Dallas outfit, Heritage Auction Galleries, have become the key conclaves for serious collectors, many of whom are spending big bucks to pursue a passion.

While lots of folks can pull old bubble-gum cards out of shoeboxes in their attics, these buyers are usually after pieces with a story to tell. For instance, the 1911 Addie Joss Day Panoramic Photograph from the Frank "Home Run" Baker Collection appears, at first glance, to be nothing more than a grainy old snapshot. But to those who understand its historical significance -- the only surviving photo of what later became the All-Star game -- it's a treasure. Using new technology, the elongated image captured nine future Hall of Famers, including Cy Young, Walter Johnson and Cobb, who came by rail from all over to Cleveland to honor pitcher Joss. The modern All-Star contest, whose first game wouldn't be played for another 22 years, was modeled on it. Originally estimated to generate $40,000, the photo eventually was bid up to $89,625.

Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions at Heritage, estimates the sports-collectibles market at $50 million-$60 million a year if items sold on eBay or by local merchants are excluded (his figure reflects higher-end merchandise sold at auction houses like Heritage, Christie's and Sotheby's). Top-selling items include photos like the Joss panoramas and famous athletes' jerseys, which have a scarcity value since most used uniforms years ago were stripped of names and numbers and recycled to minor leaguers.

The serious buyers tend to focus on large, themed collections devoted to a certain team, player, era or a category like baseball photography. And, "Regardless of the type, quality reigns," says Ivy.

Baseball memorabilia represent 75% of the sports-collectible market, with basketball, football, Olympic events and golf rounding out the mix. Nothing sells like a winner -- New York Yankees' items command the top prices among all available baseball paraphernalia. Notes John Hickey, Heritage's sales-development director: "It's not uncommon to see [an item from a] marginal Yankees player outperform [goods from] a Hall of Famer from another team." Accordingly, prices of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle memorabilia tend to serve as a kind of Dow Jones Industrial Average for the marketplace. It's definitely in a bull phase right now: In addition to the Ruth-baseball sale, a 1954 Mantle game shirt, the second sold this year, recently garnered more than $119,000.

Still, you don't need a household name to bring in the big bucks. One of the most sought-after items in recent years was a jersey worn during the historic 1966 NCAA basketball championship that pitted five black players from Texas Western against an all-white powerhouse team from the University of Kentucky. Texas Western's upset victory prompted hate mail, death threats, a Wheaties box featuring a TW star and a $20,000 winning bid for the jersey its owner Danny Whitlock had mostly worn while doing yard work. (The game was the subject of a recent Disney movie, Glory Road.)

How can a novice collector get started without a six-figure bank account? Live auctions are probably too pricey, but the Internet, where the vast majority of transactions occur, isn't. A quick Web search of eBay yields a baseball signed by San Diego Padres star Tony Gwynn available for about $50, and a U.S. Open flag signed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus offered for $220 on the Heritage Website. Buyers should be aware that Websites generally can't provide the authentication of items auction houses do.

These sorts of items should appreciate (though not to the extent the DiMaggio-Monroe baseball did) over the next decade or two as baby boomers continue to spend to relive the memories of their youth. Michael Parker of Sacramento's HR Collectibles sees it as a cycle, wherein price has begun to trump passion: "The adults have priced the kids out of the market. It didn't start out this way, but it's going to end that way."

CHRISTIAN GARVIN is a free-lance writer in Santa Barbara, Calif., who writes about wine, automobiles, sports items and other collectibles. E-mail: christian@christiangarvin.com.

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