When pressed a bit, Rich Altman will admit it’s nice to be a big shot. When you’re in the sports autograph and memorabilia business, it’s not easy to stand out from the crowd. Everybody, it seems, gets their share of cool stuff to wheel and deal. In the end, intangibles like reputation, name recognition and longevity are probably the best things a dealer can have going for him. And none of them come easily.
But after more than 20 years in the collectibles business, Altman, owner of Hollywood Collectibles in Hollywood, Fla., is certainly one of the biggest fish in a very big ocean. He runs a successful store, has been a fixture at shows across the country, assembled an impressive industry show of his own in 2004, has a world-class stable of athletes and former athletes signed to exclusive memorabilia deals, is widely recognized as an authority on autographs, authentication and valuation and has pretty much done about everything a dealer can aspire to do in the hobby.
And while he can be as gruff and demanding a dealer as you’ll find, Altman turns into a bit of softie when he thinks about how far his business has come since its humble beginnings.
“When people call us and say we are one of the three or four companies in the country that they buy from and that they trust us, and we get these nice compliments, it’s very heartwarming,” Altman admitted. “My wife asks me why I work so hard and why I do this or why I do that, and I just say that this business has been very good to me, and I’ve made a good living. But the way people perceive me in the industry and the reputation and successes we’ve had over the years, it means everything.
“That’s what gives me the passion I still have for this. It’s very heartwarming to hear that kind of stuff. It all began with me traveling around in the backseat of the car with my parents, and I’ve just gone on to bigger things. And I’ve been fortunate to have the staff I’ve had. Some of these people have been with me 10 years.”
Once he was able to maintain a critical mass of customers, Altman said his business gradually became more self-perpetuating. Customers he had dealt with in the past began to consign more items to him for sale in his store, Altman then needed to buy less inventory himself, and the cycle continued. These days, Altman gets to frequently resell things he handled years ago.
“Because we get so much consigned now, we don’t have to buy so much inventory,” he noted. “We’re fortunate in that we get nice collections, and half the stuff has Hollywood Collectibles certs from 12 years ago. It’s nice to sell stuff twice.”
Altman has also gotten a lot of mileage out of exclusive deals with athletes. His first big splash in that arena was landing reclusive legend Bill Russell 10 years ago. That deal eventually helped him land a similar agreement with current NBA poster boy Dwyane Wade (shown above with Altman).
Other players currently in the Hollywood stable include Chris Paul and Brandon Roy (the past two NBA Rookies of the Year) Celtics great Sam Jones, Tyrus Thomas of the Chicago Bulls, Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins, Alex Gordon of the Royals, Matt Garza of the Twins and Miami Dolphins rookies John Beck and Jesse Chatman.
“Obviously, Bill Russell was big,” Altman said. “We’ve had him for 10 years, and it’s given us a lot of credibility in our business. We signed a three-year contract, and when that was up, the last seven years have been on a handshake. It’s opened a lot of doors, and when we were pursuing Wade, me representing Bill Russell didn’t hurt.”
In addition to his success with exclusive deals, Altman has stayed at the forefront of the hobby with many in-store signings, a vast network of partners within the business that he buys, sells and trades with and a thriving online store that complements his brick-and-mortar location. But while Altman has certainly been diversified and progressive when it comes to staying on top of the hobby, he is decidedly “old school” when it comes to auctions. He doesn’t hold them, preferring instead to sell his items for a set price and leave the bidding wars to other dealers.
“I’m one of the few guys left that sells stuff privately,” he said. “Most people have gotten into the auction craze.I’ve always figured that when I list an item, it is what it is, and for the customers it doesn’t come down to who will pay the highest price. It’s much more about personal relationships. I’ve had things in auctions, sure. If it’s something that fits, I’ll consign it, or if it’s something I don’t want to ship home from a show. Most of the big auction houses have bought stuff from me over the years. They choose to auction it off, but that’s their business. That philosophy is not what I chose to do, that’s all.”
Altman admits that the area he struggles most with in today’s collecting world is the role authentication should play. He believes authentication services have their place, particularly for less-sophisticated collectors who might be ripe to be swindled. He just worries about letting the tail wag the dog.
“It’s just something I have very mixed emotions about,” he said. “I’ve had stuff over the years from Mel Allen, Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn — all these people were in my store. Why do I have to have them authenticated when they were sitting in front of me? In a way, it serves people in the industry that don’t have any background, but in another way, it’s very self-serving. Who’s making all the money? The authenticators.
“And some of these guys doing the authenticating are pretty young. I was doing autographs when they were still in diapers.”
Altman can talk all day when speaking about his greatest finds over the years. Among his most memorable pieces were signed contracts from Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Dizzy Dean, Frankie Fritsch and Rogers Hornsby, including Hornsby’s signed 1924 contract from the year he hit .424. Altman no longer has those pieces, but he does own what he claims might be the best single-signed Babe Ruth ball around. It came from a Naval officer who had it signed for him at Ruth’s house in 1947. The man put the ball in a plastic bag and squirreled the pristine horsehide away for many years.
“I was at a show and guy walked up to me and said, ‘‘The guy over there offered me a thousand bucks; will you give me $1,100?’ So I bought it. It looked so good it scared me. I sold if for $5,500, which was a record at the time, and then I was after the guy for the next 13, 14 years to sell it back to me.
“I’ve been offered six figures for it, but I’m not looking to sell it.”
It is those kinds of finds that keep Altman energized. He is reminded almost daily, by other collectors who share his love for rare sports treasures, why he still likes the business so much.
“When you can share somebody’s passion, that still gives me goose bumps.”