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The bat and ball that Cincinnati Reds’s Pete Rose used for his record breaking 4,192nd hit in 1985 would likely fetch a seven-figure sum, according to auction experts. (Associated Press)
The bat and ball that Cincinnati Reds’s Pete Rose used for his record breaking 4,192nd hit in 1985 would likely fetch a seven-figure sum, according to auction experts. (Associated Press)

Collecting

Investing in sports memorabilia: How to hit a home run Add to ...

Ambling by at street level, you would never know of the treasures stowed in Mike Wilson’s basement in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood.

One turn of a door key, though, and visitors suddenly find themselves descending into the catacombs of hockey history.

A pair of King Clancy’s old 1930s skates here, a Paul Henderson game-used Summit Series stick there, guests can bear witness to some of the timeless moments stamped permanently on this country’s consciousness by the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Wayne Gretzky and Team Canada.

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A broker with Toronto’s GMP Securities by day, in his spare time Mr. Wilson tends to the more than 2,000 pieces in his collection, which includes a pair of 1930s turnstiles and the home dressing-room door from the old Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto. The 59-year-old has been collecting since he was a boy and was given a stick belonging to former Leafs defenceman Carl Brewer.

Though he won’t get into its overall financial worth, the collection, which has seen Leafs alumni such as Darryl Sittler, Frank Mahovlich and Tie Domi drop by for a viewing, has forced him to think about insurance and succession. He would likely get a profit were he to put pieces up for auction. But Mr. Wilson isn’t collecting simply to make a quick buck, and cautions against getting into the hobby purely for financial gain.

“Unless you’re buying something that’s really, really rare or something that distinguishes itself, there’s no money to be made,” he says.

Hersh Borenstein, owner of Frozen Pond Inc., a hockey memorabilia distributor in Concord, Ont., shares a similar viewpoint, and simply advises people to invest in sports memorabilia “because you love it.”

That’s not to say financial gains aren’t there to be made, especially with the legends of the game. As someone who had a business relationship with Maurice (Rocket) Richard’s agent, Mr. Borenstein knew before most that the Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famer was in poor health shortly before his death in 2000, and went out and bought 800 Rocket autographs for about $7 a piece. By the time he’d sold the last of them, in 2005, the asking price had risen to $199.

“I know people who bought Gretzky [game worn] jerseys for about $50,000 and then resold them for $200,000; Bobby Orr jerseys that sold in 1996 for about $30,000 and sold again four or five years ago for $170,000,” he says. “It’s like artwork, there’s a lot of money to be made, a lot of upward potential, but you’ve got to come up with the right items.”

For all of this nation’s fascination with hockey though, it pales in comparison with the enduring appeal of baseball to memorabilia aficionados.

“It’s still probably like 75 per cent [baseball]/25 per cent [all other sports]. And that’s been the power of baseball through the years because it does go back to its beginnings in the 1830s and it’s a chronology of our country’s history,” says Steve Wolter, owner of Sports Investment Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Partly because of the longer history of the sport, as well as the size of the American market, this makes the quality baseball memorabilia market a solid investment.

As Pete Rose’s former insurance agent, the 71-year-old Cincinnati native has a closer connection to America’s national pastime than most, and when the Cincinnati Reds legend needed some cash shortly after breaking Ty Cobb’s career hits record in 1985 with his 4,192nd hit, Mr. Wolter gave him $125,000 in exchange for the bat and ball that rewrote the Major League Baseball record book.

“That was the first time, to our knowledge, that anyone had ever spent over $100,000 on a piece of sports memorabilia,” says Mr. Wolter, who started collecting as a nine-year-old in 1952. “People thought I was nuts. But today that’s nothing.”

Those two items would fetch a seven-figure sum if auctioned today, according to Michael Heffner. As president of Lelands, a New York sports auction house that has sold more than $40-million worth of sports memorabilia in the past five years, the 44-year-old has a unique vantage point on the entire industry.

While he acknowledges that no one really knows what anything is worth until it is sold, he finds that run-of-the-mill items generally hold steady, but it’s the high-end items, those connected to the real legends of the sport, where the best long-term value is to be found.

“Such is the case with Babe Ruth uniforms; there’s only a handful of them known, and a few of them are in the baseball Hall of Fame and a few are in private hands,” he explains. “But there are five guys out there who want to buy a Babe Ruth New York Yankees uniform and these are guys who are willing to spend millions of dollars but there are none available. … We’ve noticed a very significant increase in the high-level items.”

Given that Lelands splashed out a sports-memorabilia-record of $4.4-million (U.S.) on a 1920 Babe Ruth Yankees jersey less than two years ago to sell privately to an anonymous collector, that would certainly seem to hold true.

The company also sold off Mr. Ruth’s 1927 championship ring to actor Charlie Sheen for $250,000 in the 1990s. “There’s no question it would be a seven-figure piece” in today’s market, according to Steve Costello, executive vice-president of Steiner Sports in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Like the Bambino, former Brooklyn Dodgers infielder Jackie Robinson also holds enduring appeal as the man who broke baseball’s colour barrier in 1947. Mr. Wolter sold Mr. Robinson’s 1947 National League Rookie of the Year award for $402,000 through Lelands in January. He had bought it from Mr. Robinson’s widow, Rachel, 20 years ago “for a lot less, but at the time it seemed like a lot.”

The reason for that sum of money for an item associated with a man who died in 1972 is simple.

“Jackie Robinson transcends sports,” says Glen Humenik, owner of Toronto’s From Hockey to Hollywood memorabilia store. “What he did was cultural.”

Unfettered by steroid-mongering, the dark cloud of performance-enhancing drugs that has loomed over baseball for much of the past 25 years, items belonging to the likes of Mr. Robinson, Mr. Rose and Mr. Ruth also benefit from a time of greater innocence in the sports world.

“Steroids kill memorabilia value, totally kill it,” Mr. Wolter says.

However, the higher the value of an item, the greater the possibility of fraud. Collectors such as Mr. Wilson and Mr. Wolter source their items from trusted sources, not off Internet sites such as eBay and Kijiji, where the provenance of items can be hazy at best.

“It certainly is a fine line and as someone who sells autographs you have to be really careful, whether it’s me or you as a private citizen, buying stuff,” Mr. Humenik says. “Buying on the Internet certainly comes with risk but the risk can be minimized by checking out who you’re buying from. On eBay anybody can sell stuff as far as I can tell, but there are some really solid guys everywhere that are really quality people.”

Financial fluctuations can also play havoc with even the most robust sporting stockpile, although buying quality, high-end items seems to be the best way to ensure that your collection is as recession-proof as possible.

“The thing that affects the value of sports memorabilia, more than any other factor, isn’t the particular athlete, or the time period, or the team, it’s the economy,” Mr. Wolter says, “because these things don’t have to be bought, they’re bought with disposable dollars, and especially the more collectable, higher-end pieces. When the economy is doing really well, people tend to spend more on stuff like this that they don’t need.”

THREE TIPS ON COLLECTING

Michael Heffner, president of Lelands, a New York sports auction house that has sold more than $40-million worth of sports memorabilia in the past five years, suggests the following:

1. Do your homework.

Buy from someone who’s reputable and knows what they’re doing. The worst thing in the world is not overpaying for an item, the worst thing in the world is to buy something that’s fake and has no value.

2. Don’t think you’re going to get rich quick.

Do it because you love it. If you make money in the process, so be it.

3. Have an eye for quality.

What you pay for an item is obviously not insignificant, but if the item is the absolute best of the best, it is not that important what you paid for it because it will always be worth more down the road.

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