By Greg Bates
When the Boston Red Sox sold the rights of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919, the $100,000 cash transaction was a steep price tag.
Fast forward 93 years to 2012, and a jersey worn by Ruth in his first season with the Yankees fetched a sports memorabilia-record $4,415,658 at auction.
That’s a handsome chunk of change, even for this day in age.
However, multimillion-dollar purchases of sports memorabilia are becoming more commonplace. The sale of The Bambino’s jersey has drastically changed the sports collecting market.
“I think it was an eye-opener for a lot of people,” said Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions, which sold the Ruth jersey. “Sports memorabilia has gained a lot more appreciation and a lot more respect in the realm of historical artifacts. There are other markets where you see numbers like that on a regular basis, but for a sports memorabilia item, it was just an unheard of price. It makes a statement that very historic sports items are being recognized with other great American artifacts that have been sold, whether it be movie memorabilia or historical memorabilia. That really broke new ground for this market.”
Gary Cypres, a sports memorabilia collecting icon who owns the Sports Museum of Los Angeles, has witnessed the market’s prices really accelerate in the last five years.
“In the olden days, $200,000 was a major purchase. Now, we consistently see $400,000, $500,000 items, $600,000, $700,000, $800,000,” Cypres said. “The million-dollar market is no longer meaningful in terms of a benchmark. We’re now at the (Honus) Wagner card at $2.8 million. Ruth items, millions of dollars. We’re now seeing constantly in the major auctions, items signed for $500,000, $600,000, $700,000. Fifteen years ago, forget about it.”
Imler has dealt first-hand with a number of the most high-end sports memorabilia pieces over the years. SCP Auctions has been involved in the sales of such items as Jesse Owens’ 1936 Olympics gold medal, which sold for $1,466,574; the signed bat Ruth used to hit his first home run in Yankee Stadium on opening day in 1923, which went for $1,265,000; and a private sale for Wagner’s 1909-1911 T206 card that PSA graded at VG-EX 4, which sold for $2.8 million.
“Seven-figure items don’t come up that often, but we’re seeing very, very strong increases across the board on just the best of the best,” Imler said. “Really high-end material is treading upward at a pretty significant rate. There are a lot of six-figure items and multiple six-figure items that have really, really accelerated in value over the last couple years.”
Some items that come to mind for Cypres are: A Lou Gehrig 1930s baseball cap went for $27,500 in 1992 and 21 years later, it sold for $239,000; Gehrig’s world championship watch from 1928 sold for $155,350 in 2011 and three years later it went for $340,200; a Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps card graded PSA NM-MT 8 had a price tag of $86,638 in 2011, and last December it was auctioned for $268,664.40; a Derek Jeter game-used bat from the 1996 World Series went for $6,644 in 2002, and skyrocketed to $155,350 in February last year, about a week after the Yankees star announced his retirement.
A new project for Cypres
As an avid sports memorabilia collector, Cypres felt there was a valuable tool missing for those who share his passion. There wasn’t an easy way for collectors to look up items over the years that were sold at auction. Cypres sought a website where collectors could conduct searches to see what was said about the items up for sale, see how many times it had been up for sale and the price history.
With the help of his son, Jeremy, there is now a website with all those resources: http://pricerealized.com. The site is the sports card and memorabilia industry’s first and only comprehensive price database and research service.
“In the old days, for the major collectors, we just kept all the catalogs,” said Cypres, who has a sports memorabilia collection with an estimated worth of more than $10 million. “If you really wanted to go research an item, you would have to go through tons of catalogs, which was basically impossible to do. As technology advanced and advanced, it became clear to me that it would be wonderful if there was a site available that took all of this auctioned data, put it into searchable form so one could access information about a current auction item or a private item up for sale.”
It took Cypres two-and-a-half years to compile all the information for the site, which contains more than 500,000 items. Cypres had to obtain permission from all the auction houses – SCP Auctions is one of the featured auction houses – that are used on the site for item information and images.
In the price database, which traces sold items back 20 years, collectors are able to search for items in various ways: Single-signed balls, multi-signed balls, jerseys, game-used items, grade and grading company, just to name a few.
Each item features a photo of the product, original text from the auction house in which it was sold, the name of the auction house, the price and date it sold.
“It’s a great resource for buyers and sellers,” Imler said. “It’s not only information about pricing and values, but it’s also about what’s out there. It tells you a lot about the rarity of a certain item, and you can kind of see what the population is of any given item. Say, a Ty Cobb game-used bat. If you want to know how many have been sold in the last 20 years and what has been the price escalation and so on and so forth. It’s great from a research standpoint, but also on getting a handle on value.”
There are currently seven million-dollar-plus items on pricerealized.com – three from Wagner and two from Ruth. Five of the top 13 highest-paid items in the database are Ruth artifacts.
Escalating prices in all markets
The rise in prices isn’t isolated to just sports memorabilia. Antiques, stamps, coins, contemporary art and movie/television memorabilia are all through the roof.
“I think the top end of these various collectors markets and antiquities markets are outperforming the middle-of-the-road stuff,” Imler said. “Whatever field it is, it just seems like the real premiere items are escalating at a much higher rate than run-of-the-mill stuff.”
Cypres is big into purchasing baseball folk art, which has also skyrocketed.
“You see record prices in almost every avenue of collecting,” Cypres said. “That tells you something – that we’re in a period where there is demand for sort of tangible goods across the board.”
Cypres believes it was inevitable that sports memorabilia prices were going to jump.
“I always thought that sports, especially major iconic figures, major events, team histories, were vastly undervalued,” Cypres said.
Wagner’s T206 card is still the holy grail of cards – with only around 60 believed to be in existence – but it’s not fetching the highest prices any longer. However, it still holds the largest value by far for any rectangular piece of cardboard.
“The Wagner card is always going to be the icon of our field, and then there’s the blue-chip names like Ruth and Gehrig and Mantle – they’re the best items associated with those names and they’re always going to be in great demand,” Imler said. “The market’s very healthy right now.”
What is the next sports memorabilia piece that is going to fetch a prime price tag?
“It would have to be a Ruth item,” Cypres said. “To me, Ruth is sort of the kingpin of the industry. At $4.4 million, that was an amazing year for the industry. Rising tide raises all ships, so you want to see that. Every time you see such dramatic increases, it sort of resets the market. So what happens is, the reset of the market says, all Ruth items move up, all Gehrig items move up, or all (Joe) DiMaggio items move up, or all Mantle items move up, or (Hank) Aaron items move up.”
Imler sees the sports memorabilia market staying steady for years to come. It’s all about supply and demand.
“Nobody’s making more Ruth jerseys or Mickey Mantle game-used bats, so there are only so many that can go around,” Imler said. “As new people enter the marketplace, it’s going to keep pushing prices up. I think as long as more people enter the marketplace, the prices are just going to continue to rise over time.”
Hobby vs. investment
Collecting used to be simple.
It was also relatively inexpensive.
Kids wanted to get their hands on cards of their favorite players. When Mickey Mantle’s 1952 Topps card was released, the young New York Yankees star was a big deal.
It was collecting as a hobby in its truest form.
Nowadays with sports memorabilia items surging past $1 million – an example of Mantle’s ’52 Topps sold recently for nearly $300,000 – the business has turned into an investment.
It begs the question: Is today’s sports memorabilia collecting a hobby or investment?
“I think it’s always going to be a combination,” said Gary Cypres, an iconic collector for the past 25 years who maintains the Sports Museum of Los Angeles. “I think it’s people who have the money who decided that it would be great to have a (Babe) Ruth uniform in my office, blah, blah, blah, blah. Despite the downturn, there are a lot of wealthy people who’ve made a lot of money and who are in the market. You can see it by the broadness of the price increases across all boundaries.”
However, Cypres believes high-end, multi-million-dollar purchases have to be thought of as investments.
“As prices go up, people have to give great consideration to the financial aspect of collecting, but it always starts with a collector’s mentality,” said Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions, based in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “I don’t think anybody is purely looking at the stuff as trade commodity. Everybody who’s buying the stuff has some collector mentality to it.”
Thomas Tull is a collector who isn’t afraid to slap down as much money as it takes to bring home an item. The founder and CEO of Legendary Pictures is an avid collector who is extremely active in the market. His purchases in the last couple years include Babe Ruth’s 1920 jersey in his first season with the Yankees and a Honus Wagner’s 1909-11 T206 card PSA VG-EX 4.
“For me, the drive does not come from the financial investment in the collection,” Tull told PSA/DNA owner Joe Orlando in an interview a few years ago. “I just have a love affair with baseball.”
Starting out as collecting for a hobby can certainly turn into a long-term financial benefit.
“Some people say that they’re in it for the love and pure collecting and they don’t care as much about making money, but there are others that are more concerned with the money than with the item itself,” Imler said.
With prices constantly increasing, Cypres – who has collected for 25 years – has had to evaluate harder about his purchases in recent years, something he may not have done as often in his earlier days of obtaining his items.
“I still collect, obviously, and I’m still an avid buyer,” Cypres said. “I would think now when I buy at the high end, I have to consider, ‘Do I want to put this amount of money into this single item? Is it something I really need? Is it something that fits within my collection disciplines?’ Fifteen years ago, you didn’t really think like that.”
Cypres is still collecting as a hobby. He believes there are a lot of true collectors out there who are in it for the same reason.
“I think it’s a much bigger market out there than it’s ever been,” Cypres said.
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.