THE best birthday present I ever received came from my wife. She gave me a baseball from the 2009 World Series signed by Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees shortstop. I treasure it because he’s my favorite player but also because my newborn daughter slept in my arms while I watched the Yankees win that World Series.
Like many Yankees’ fans, I spent last Saturday watching the coverage of Jeter getting his 3,000th hit over and over. And then, I thought of all the memorabilia that was coming — all the balls, bats, jerseys, photos and anything you could imagine signed by Jeter.
Three days later, I actually saw some of that memorabilia in the making, at the headquarters of Steiner Sports in New Rochelle, N.Y. The Steiner warehouse looked like a cross between a Home Depot and Santa’s workshop, with shelves stacked to the ceiling with sports merchandise. I saw a half-dozen men framing photographs Jeter had signed Sunday night. There were boxes of balls he had also signed, stacked like crates of oranges. Blown-up Sports Illustrated covers of Jeter were in the back, out of the way for the time being.
I had gone to Steiner Sports to see more than just the Jeter memorabilia, though. I also wanted to understand the broader market for baseball collectibles. What types of things appreciate? Can a collector expect to profit from his hobby? Most important, how do you know if what you have is valuable or just an expensive tchotchke? Here is some of what I learned:
Chances are pretty good that the sports memorabilia most people have is not worth much. All the balls, bats and pictures being sold at retail stores and online to commemorate Jeter’s milestone fit into that category.
Brandon Steiner, who in 1987 founded Steiner Sports, which is now owned by Omnicom, said there were different levels of collectors, ranging from those who save programs and tickets to people who buy things that were used in a game.
In between is the market for so-called authentic collectibles. A day after his 3,000th hit, Jeter signed 500 balls and 400 photos for Mr. Steiner’s company. Those balls are selling for $699.99; the photos range from $599.99 to $799.99.
Mr. Steiner said this was a relatively small signing to meet the immediate demand. He has scheduled two more for Jeter to autograph game-used memorabilia as well as things fans send in and pay a fee to have autographed.
And that’s just for one moment in baseball history, awesome though it was. Retired baseball greats and not-so-greats have been signing memorabilia, for a fee, for 30 years at baseball card shows, flooding the autograph market.
The worst offender may be Pete Rose, who holds the record for the most hits ever, 4,256. Since he was caught betting on baseball and banned from the sport, he has been a prolific signer. Balls inscribed “I’m sorry I bet on baseball — Pete Rose” are being sold on Walmart.com for $189.99 and on Amazon.com for $159.95. (A ball with just his name costs $69.99.)
This segment of the memorabilia industry is an easy target for purists. “I have total disdain for the manufactured memorabilia market,” said Richard Simon, a baseball autograph dealer and authenticator. “That is what is going on right now, as opposed to Babe Ruth signing an autograph book or a photo of himself 70 years ago.”
But Mr. Steiner is unapologetic. “The last three or four years, I’ve been thinking, how do we get to the average fan who can’t afford authentic, let alone game-used?” he said. He cited ballpark dirt and the bricks from the old Yankee Stadium as affordable keepsakes. “People laugh at me about the dirt, but I’ve sold over $10 million worth of dirt.”
Howie Schwartz, chief executive of GrandStandSports.com and a competitor to Steiner, said the relative affordability of Jeter memorabilia — ranging from $400 to $1,000 — matches up well with the huge market for him.
“Look at how many people watch baseball and how many kids play baseball,” he said. The average consumer may think 900 items is a lot. But there were 50,000 fans at Yankees Stadium that day.”
Still, while 50,000 people buying identical signed baseballs may be good for the seller, it is not good for anyone who expects the collectible to increase, or even hold, its value.
HOME RUNS The market for high-end sports memorabilia is different.
The most famous baseball collectible of all time is a baseball card known as the T206. It depicts Honus Wagner, a Hall of Fame shortstop from the early 20th century, and there are only about 60 still around. (Wagner ordered the maker, the American Tobacco Company, to stop production, legend has it, because he was not paid enough for his image or feared that children would buy cigarettes to get it.) The T206 once owned by the hockey legend Wayne Gretzky was sold in 2007 for $2.8 million to Ken Kendrick, owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
At the other end of the scale is the baseball Mark McGwire hit for his record-setting 70th home run in 1998. Todd McFarlane, a Hollywood producer and toymaker, bought it in 1999 for $3 million. Mr. McGwire has since admitted steroid use, and Roger Ponn, president of Roger Ponn Associated Appraisers, said he would be surprised if Mr. McFarlane could get six figures for it now.
Mr. Ponn’s advice to avoid getting caught with a lemon is morbid but practical. “Dead sports stars’ event-used memorabilia will rarely go down in value,” he said.
Scarcity is also a key. Jerry Zuckerman, president of Tary Enterprises, a dealer in Oradell, N.J., said he sold a New York Yankees jersey that Lou Gehrig wore for away games for $363,000 in 1992. Today, he said, it was worth $750,000. A similar jersey worn by Babe Ruth would be worth slightly less, he said, because there are many more of them.
“It’s an up and down market depending on the economy,” Mr. Zuckerman said. “But if you buy quality, that tends to fluctuate less. Game-worn uniforms of exceptional Hall of Famers will always be a valuable item.”
The worst investments come from athletes who played from the 1970s to the present. Many became fixtures at card-collecting conventions and have devalued their signature by signing too many things.
“Sometimes a promoter will have a sports star sign, say, jerseys in a limited edition of 300, but then another couple months later, the sports star will sign another 300 in a limited edition,” Mr. Ponn said. “The market for it is nil.”
But for those collectors with something unique, there are other questions. There will only be one 3,000th hit ball from Derek Jeter. And it, like all one-of-a-kind items, needs to be insured. But just as important for collectors is how they care for what they have.
“A faded signature is not a covered loss,” said Robert Courtemanche, president of ACE Private Risk Services. “That’s a wear and tear thing. We cover it from an unexpected act — flood, fire, theft.”
Mr. Courtemanche is also an avid collector of sports memorabilia. He said he focused on the teams from when he was growing up on Long Island in the 1960s: the Mets, Jets, Knicks and Rangers. He said he has every Tom Seaver baseball card issued, and some Super Bowl memorabilia signed by Joe Namath.
While he knows what his collection is worth for insurance purposes, he said he did not think about it in terms of its value. “I’d never contemplate selling it,” he said. “I enjoy the stuff for what it is.”
And that’s what memorabilia was once meant to be, a connection to a particular time. While I now know that my signed Jeter baseball will not finance my retirement, it will remind me of watching the 2009 World Series with my daughter on my lap.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 19, 2011
The Wealth Matters column on Saturday, about the value of sports memorabilia, misstated the specialty of Richard Simon, who was quoted on the subject. He authenticates and deals in baseball autographs, not baseball cards.