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Introduction to Sports Memorabilia



The term "sports memorabilia" typically refers to an item signed by an athlete or other sports-related figure, a game-used item, a memento from a sporting event, or another piece of historical significance tied to sports.

Types of items:


Sports autographs appear most often on photos, balls, jerseys, bats, helmets, and other equipment.  In the past, when there was less emphasis on the value of autographs and more emphasis just on obtaining a player's signature, collectors would also commonly have athletes sign index cards, government postcards, or other such items.  The term "cut signature" refers to a signature that has been literally "cut" away from a check, card, letter or notebook on which it was originally signed. 


Jerseys, bats, helmets, and other equipment are typically the game-used items most sought after by collectors.


What makes an item desirable and/or highly valued?


It goes without saying that an autograph or other memorabilia piece from a Hall of Famer, superstar, or significant team will tend to be more desirable than a comparable item from a less prominent player or team.


Aside from this, desirability and valuation depend on authenticity, condition, and scarcity.


We discuss sports memorabilia authenticity in depth in a separate article entitled "A Discussion of Authenticity."  In short, though, collectors place a higher value on items that fit one of the following three criteria:

  • Certified by the player or team directly or by a company contracting with the player or team to distribute autographs and/or game-used memorabilia(For vintage items, this is rarely the case because of the early stage of the sports memorabilia hobby at that time.  Occasionally, a vintage item may be accompanied by a letter of provenance from a player, relative, or estate.)
  • Certified by PSA/DNA Authentication Services or James Spence Authentication for autographs, or MEARS (Memorabilia Evaluation and Research Services) for game-used uniforms and equipment.
  • Vouched for by a dealer or collector with relevant expertise and guaranteed to pass the review of the aforementioned short list of authenticators.

Condition depends on the type of item in question.  For an autographed item, collectors prefer the signature to be nice and bold with no skips, smudges, or contrast issues with the background.  A baseball should be nice and white with bold stampings and no blemishes or other flaws.  Photos, programs, tickets, and other flat items should be free of creases.  Vintage items were usually not preserved as carefully as modern items and tend to show more wear, so condition tends to be evaluated somewhat in line with the time period of the item.


Finally, an item's desirability and value depend on its scarcity.  This is a key driver of the higher value of vintage items relative to most modern items.  Before the sports collectibles industry really began to develop from the 1970s onward, collectors rarely sought to acquire items for future monetary gain.  Children and other autograph seekers would attempt to get as many signatures as possible on a typically inexpensive autograph medium to avoid having to buy another one.  As a result, there are far more autograph books and multi-signed baseballs pre-1970 than there are single-signed baseballs.  The single-signed pieces tend to be items like index cards, government postcards, and cut signatures.  Today, on the other hand, there might be fewer superstars regularly signing autographs at the ballpark, but even many children now come prepared to snag their signatures on official Major League baseballs and 8" x 10" photos.  Perhaps more significantly, memorabilia companies have contracted with players to make nearly every conceivable autographed or game-used item available in pristine condition and in fairly high quantities.  Some items do not come cheaply, but their continuing availability will prevent them from reaching the investment potential of many vintage items.  Of course, there are some exceptions such as autographs with rare inscriptions and game-used items from specific milestones, but the general rule remains true.


One final note on value: Whether you are a collector or investor, these are fun purchases to make!  When comparing a sports memorabilia purchase to another investment alternative, keep in mind that a stock certificate just does not display as well as a Mickey Mantle autographed jersey.  And while building your collection, try to buy what you like.  There is plenty of investment potential in sports memorabilia, but simply getting a thrill from the items you have accumulated is also quite nice.