What is collectable? Sports Memorabilia Interest surges!

What is collectable? Sports Memorabilia Interest surges!

During the COVID-19 pandemic, collectibles of all sorts enjoyed a resurgence in interest—and prices—as homebound people sifted through their belongings. Any sports fan knows sports memorabilia creates some of the most desired collectibles: a Mickey Mantle baseball card in pristine condition can sell for more than $10 million.

“Cards are the backbone of the market because a lot of people are familiar with them. People grew up collecting cards, they understand them,” Chris Ivy, director of sports collectibles at Heritage Auctions, said. “Cards are popular, and with that popularity, you’ll see more people jumping into the collecting pool, that bidding pool and you see very strong prices for those.”

Not every old baseball card is valuable, of course. That means for anyone looking to make money from their memorabilia habit or who wants to enter collectibles with the aim of making money, there are certain parameters that probably make for a valuable collectible

What is a collectible?

Collectibles are desirable objects that people want to own, like a classic car or a piece of fine art. But how do you define what makes an item truly a collectible? A collectible can be old, it can be expensive, it can be a limited-edition—but those elements don’t guarantee something will actually be valuable.

That hard-to-define quality is what gives the collectible market its wide appeal to people of all ages. It is both a puzzle and a potentially gainful game, making millionaires of some people who finally looked through that dusty box in the attic.

“Collectibles aren’t just about being old, rare or expensive. It’s also about the stories, history or sentimental value that items hold,” Ken Goldin, a well-known authority in the collectible market and head of Goldin Auctions, said. “One thing I always say is if something is newly produced and marketed as ‘a collector’s item,’ it typically will never be a true collector’s item. The items that people do not expect to be valuable… end up becoming the most valuable collectibles.”

A famous example of something unexpected becoming a collectible is the Beanie Baby. Introduced in 1993, the stuffed animals sold well, thanks to their cute names and obvious appeal to children. But then two years later the Beanie Baby manufacturer stopped making some of its animals and began distributing random selections of Beanie Babies to retailers. The result was something that had wide appeal and limited availability—and the Beanie Baby boom was born. At the market’s peak, some Beanie Babies sold for more than $5,000, a thousand times their original retail price.

What makes a sports collectible valuable?

When it comes to sports, it helps to be associated with a widely admired athlete. Mickey Mantle cards are the most expensive in part because the Mick represents a golden age of one of sports’ best-known franchises. Mantle’s Yankees won the American League pennant in 12 of his 18 seasons in large part due to his Hall-of-Fame career.

More recently, memorabilia associated with Michael Jordan or Tom Brady also see very high prices, because of their greatness as athletes and the success their teams had because of them. Recently, collectors care less about completing a full set of something—for example, a complete set of the Topps 1996 Yankees—and are more focused on finding the best of each item, like the first cards issued for Yankees star Derek Jeter in 1993. That means prices are getting stronger for items associated with great athletes, and not so strong with otherwise forgettable players whose card would fill out a team set.

Collectibles also need to be scarce. It wasn’t until the 1980s that people widely began to see baseball cards as collectibles, meaning many Mantle cards were thrown out or left in poor condition from building card towers or playing trading card games. Then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, many trading card manufacturers didn’t keep track of how many cards they produced, meaning most cards from those periods aren’t seen as collectibles. Now, card makers produce a set number of each type of card, helping the memorabilia market.

How valuable is a jersey, for example?

The category of sports collectibles has widened dramatically in recent years. It’s not just about trading cards anymore—equipment, jerseys, sneakers, all see robust prices.

One big caveat with collectibles is that condition and authenticity matter—a lot. If you’re trying to sell a piece of memorabilia, you can add value to your items if you can prove it was game-worn, explain how you acquired it and know who owned it before you. Authenticating items comes with a cost, from as low as $20 a card to perhaps thousands of dollars for an unusual piece, depending on the research efforts needed to validate the item.

“We always recommend you send items out to get authenticated or bring them to the authenticating service. That’s important—collectors want to know that it’s legitimate,” Wayne Tuiskula, the appraiser of Central Mass Auctions and a veteran of Antiques Roadshow, said.

And autographs nearly always add to the value of whatever item you’re collecting, too, often bestowing value on an item that would otherwise be worthless. When it comes to autographs, some athletes have a clubhouse attendant sign items for them. Often the signature will look correct, but a real expert will see it’s not authentic, making the item worthless.

What’s the next big thing in collectibles?

It’s hard to say, but it might be something people don’t think of as terribly valuable today. For instance, ticket stubs and original photographs of athletes, long considered nearly worthless, have now vaulted into prominence as collectors see that they are hard-to-find vestiges of a different era in sports.

Digital collectibles could be the next big thing—many have been issued with a promise of scarcity— or maybe people will never see value in things that aren’t physical. Keep in mind, collectibles can also go down in value: the most valuable Beanie Baby now sells for half its price at the market peak.

“Collect what you’re passionate about,” Heritage Auctions’ Ivy said. “It doesn’t have to necessarily be an investment. But if you are going to spend real money and look at it as an investment, then my advice is to learn as much about what you’re collecting as you can. And deal with authentication firms, auction houses and dealers that you trust. And have fun with it.”

- Article By Brenden Coffey

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