Headliners and heavy-hitters of sports memorabilia

Road gray, game-worn New York Yankees jersey, 1920, sold for $4.4 million in May 2012 by SCP Auctions and purchased by sports memorabilia auction company Lelands.com, with plans to sell the jersey privately, according to an article on ESPN.com. SCP Auctions image.

The sports card and memorabilia market cheered some history-making sales in 2017. However, it’s not only about the pristine and the priciest items. The character of today’s market is also about people of all ages continuing to seek out and attend collector shows, connecting with sports memorabilia dealers and participating in auctions. Companies continue to turn out cutting-edge and innovative memorabilia today that may very well be tomorrow’s cherished collectibles.

As much as collectors may be attracted to a specific type of memorabilia (cards, jerseys, posters, game-worn gear), it’s still a name game. To gain a better understanding of the big names in the sports memorabilia market and the market itself, we turned to Michael Russek, director of operations at Grey Flannel Auctions.

Which seven athletes are the most sought-after when it comes to sports memorabilia?

Michael Russek (MR): The number one athlete on this list must be Babe Ruth. Ruth is synonymous with American history and the game of baseball. He was a larger than life figure whose legend extends much further than the sport. Ruth currently holds the record for the most expensive game-used jersey ever sold.

The only known complete set of New York Yankees World Series tickets, from 1921 to present. The set, which was encapsulated and authenticated by PSA/DNA, sold for $144,000 in a December 2017 auction. Grey Flannel Auctions image.

Bio: George Herman Ruth (1895-1948) batted and threw left-handed. He made his major league debut in 1914 with the Boston Red Sox and won 89 games as a starting pitcher over six seasons. He is best remembered for the 14 seasons he played outfield for the New York Yankees. Crowned the Sultan of Swat, Ruth hit 714 home career home runs, a record that stood until 1974. Ruth opened the 1935 playing for the Boston Braves, but retired three months into the season. He was one of the first players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, a member of seven World Series championship teams, and named the greatest baseball player of all time by The Sporting News, and greatest baseball player of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated.

MR: Ruth’s longtime teammate with the New York Yankees, Lou Gehrig, arguably has the most elegant signature in the history of the sport. One of the all-time greats and well known for his tragic death from ALS, Gehrig remains highly sought-after in the market.

Bio: Native New Yorker Henry Louis Gehrig (1903-1941) batted and threw left-handed and was a talented athlete not only in baseball but football as well. He spent his entire professional career with the New York Yankees, signing his first contract in 1923. His illness forced him to retire early in the 1939 season. He participated in six World Series championship victories, he was the first player to play in 2,000 consecutive games, first to hit more than 20 grand slams during his career, first to have his uniform number retired, and the first athlete to appear on a box of “Wheaties” cereal.

Lou Gehrig’s 1925 contract with the New York Yankees specifying payment of $3,750. The document sold for $197,287.48 at auction in November 2017. Steiner Sports Auction image.

MR: Michael Jordan is a modern athlete whose memorabilia is highly sought after. Widely considered the best basketball player ever, who played for some of the most accomplished teams of all time, Jordan’s memorabilia will always be highly desirable.

Bio: Michael Jeffrey Jordan (1963) was an NBA shooting guard with the Chicago Bulls from the 1985-1993 seasons, reactivated in 1995 and played through the 1998 season. He returned again in 2001, this time playing for the Washington Wizards, a team with which he held ownership. He wrapped his career for good after the 2002-03 season. He’s a six-time NBA champion, 10-time All-NBA player, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and five-time NBA MVP, among other professional successes.

Michael Jordan game-worn, dual signed Converse shoes from the 1984 Olympic game that saw the U.S. team defeat Spain to claim the gold. Sold for $190,373 during a June 2017 auction. SCP Auctions.

MR: Kobe Bryant is another modern athlete with an international following who is beloved by fans across the globe. Kobe holds the record for international jersey sales and is a superstar in every respect.

Bio: Kobe Bean Bryant (1978) was drafted in the 1996 NBA draft. He was a member of five NBA championship teams, playing guard for the Los Angeles Lakers for his entire professional career. During his 20-year career, he also earned 17 NBA All-Star selections, an NBA MVP award, and two Olympic gold medals.

A Kobe Bryant 1996-97 season game-worn Los Angeles Lakers jersey, autographed by Bryant during his rookie season. Sold for $12,000 during a September 2012 auction. Grey Flannel Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image.

MR: In the current baseball market Mike Trout is an athlete who is highly sought-after following his rise to stardom and multiple MVP seasons. Collectors understand the potential Trout has to be regarded as one of the all-time greats.

Bio: Michael Nelson Trout (1991) made his MLB debut in 2011 after being drafted by the Los Angeles Angels. He bats and throws right-handed, plays centerfield and is under contract with the Angels through 2020. He’s a two-time MVP of the MLB American League and two-time MVP of the MLB All-Star Game.

Signed Mike Trout game-worn Nike cleats, 2016, sold for $2,185 during a December 2017 auction. Grey Flannel Auctions image.

MR: LeBron James’ memorabilia extends back to his high school days, as well as his championship teams with the Miami Heat and currently with the Cleveland Cavaliers. With James’ growing following and legend his market for memorabilia continues to grow.

Bio: LeBron Raymone James (1984) plays forward for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. He was the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft, became the first Cavalier and youngest player (age 20) to earn the NBA Rookie of the Year title. He’s a three-time NBA champion, four-time NBA regular season MVP, 14-time All-Star team member, and a three-time Olympic medal winner (two golds).

MR: With the rarity and lack of memorabilia in the market, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time Tom Brady is a highly sought-after athlete. Will he win another? (We will find out Sunday, Feb. 4.)

Bio: Tom Brady (1977) was drafted by the New England Patriots in 2000 and remains there to this day. He took on the starting quarterback position during the 2001 season and has been at the helm ever since. He’s been the quarterback on five Super Bowl championship Patriot teams, is the first player to earn four Super Bowl MVP awards and is a two-time NFL MVP winner.

What types of memorabilia are most popular presently, and why?

MR: Currently, the most popular material is photo-matched game-used jerseys. Collectors value actually “seeing” their specific shirt on the athlete’s back. A true “one-of-a-kind” jersey is very popular. This type of item can tie collectors to memories and times of great success for the athlete. Also, vintage Hall of Famer autographs have been very popular since the beginning of time and they continue to rise in value.

What are some of the positives aspects and challenging factors within today’s sports memorabilia market?

MR: Being able to satisfy customers and on our end, delivering them authentic items that they can trust, is very empowering. The most challenging aspect is uncovering those true one-of-a-kind-collectibles that are “hobby fresh.” Routinely bringing a high impact piece to market that no one ever knew existed is what keeps us at the forefront of our industry.

Regarding the authenticity and instance of forgeries among sports memorabilia, what is your advice for people with interest in sports autographs?

MR: With such a high demand and value of athlete autographs, they, unfortunately, are some of the most forged. Anybody who is interested in sports autographs should rely on the highly regarded and proven autograph experts to avoid forgeries. Brands matter and the authenticator’s track record is paramount. You want to make sure your investment is liquid if you ever go to sell.

Not that you have a crystal ball to predict future, but which elements of the sports memorabilia marketplace do you see possibly being in a position to perform well at auction in 2018?

MR: Photo-matched game-worn jerseys gained serious interest in 2017, and I expect that trend to continue in 2018. As mentioned earlier, collectors highly value the true “one-of-a-kind” jersey that can be definitively attributed to a specific career milestone or historic event.

Visit Grey Flannel Auctions online at www.greyflannel.com