Over the past 30 years, I have helped collectors all across the world build sports memorabilia collections, find a memento from their favorite player, or acquire a collectible to further enhance their enjoyment of sports. I have also had the chance to help people sell and monetize the memorabilia they possess. Whether it’s a collector looking to liquidate a collection; a player, coach, or sports executive selling items to help pay for their child’s education; or a former athlete looking to clear space in their trophy room, it’s rewarding to be a part of an industry that gives so much joy and pleasure to so many people.
However, the sports collectibles market can be confusing for athletes looking to sell memorabilia. Many athletes have not had the help to understand the inner-workings of the industry and have not been provided with guidance to determine the future of their memorabilia.
The primary concern I hear from athletes is about the perception of them selling their memorabilia.
“I don’t want people to think I’m broke” is a common concern.
In 1990, that concern was understandable, given that players didn’t make the salaries and endorsement fees that they are making today. But, as athletes have become wealthier and the value of sports memorabilia has increased, athletes selling memorabilia to benefit a charity or family member have become commonplace.
In fact, such well-regarded sports personalities as Jim Palmer, Bobby Knight, Mike Eruzione, Ozzie Smith, Don Larson, Reggie Jackson, Bernie Parent and many more recently put their personal collections up for auction. None of these men are suffering financial hardship.
The two most common methods of selling memorabilia are through a private sale or a public auction. There are, of course, pros and cons to both methods.
A private sale to a sports memorabilia dealer is clean and easy for the athlete or heirs. In a few hours, trophies, trinkets, autographs, and equipment can become cash. A private sale will keep the athlete out of the spotlight temporarily, but the items may appear for public sale in an auction eventually. A downside to a private sale is that the estimated values are determined by the dealer. In addition, the dealer will pay the wholesale value, as he then needs to resell the items to collectors at a profit.
The potentially more lucrative method of liquidating memorabilia is to consign it to one of the well-respected sports auction houses, to ensure that thousands of collectors all around the world can bid upon the memorabilia. With a worldwide audience, through Internet bidding and the auction house’s extensive database of high-end collectors, more often than not, the value of the item exceeds the pre-auction estimates of the experts.
It is also advised that athletes consider consigning their collections while they are still alive. Besides the expertise of the auction house, another valuable tool when selling memorabilia can come from the athletes themselves. Living athletes can help the experts provide provenance; they can promote the auction through media interviews; they can add special inscriptions to further increase the value; they can tell stories about the items that add further value for collectors; and they can work with their attorney and accountant to best determine the financial implications of the sale.
An athlete working with the memorabilia experts can best ensure provenance and authenticity. You would not believe how many times an athlete has innocently told us a jersey was from a particular season or game, but upon further review by the experts, it was proven that the item had not yet been manufactured. Once the provenance of an item comes into question, it can devalue the memorabilia.
By bringing all of these assets to the table, the athlete is also in a better position to negotiate a favorable deal with the auction house. A typical auction house receives a 10% to 25% buyer’s premium or a comparable consignment fee. Most auction houses will negotiate the consignment fee or buyers premium based upon the contents of the collection and the active participation of the athlete. In addition, for athletes who need cash quickly, most auction houses will consider cash advances against the values of the collection.
Athletes need to understand that memorabilia is part of their estate planning. We encourage athletes to be proactive and consider their memorabilia an asset with value—just like a house, car, or jewelry. If you think it’s hard for families to part with grandma’s china set, think about the difference of opinion there will be within the family when it comes to selling championship rings, an MVP trophy, or game-worn jerseys. We encourage athletes to save their families from this controversy by making these decisions for their families.
When these items are not sold as a collection, they invariably leak out into the marketplace slowly for much less money. Each of the family members who are willed a piece of memorabilia will eventually sell that item—often for pennies on the dollar.
We encourage athletes to keep memorabilia with sentimental value and to gift items to friends and family so that they, too, can own a sentimental piece of your legacy. But we also remind athletes that game-worn cleats are no different than a Rolex. So treat them that way.