Beckett Media Industry Q & A with REA, April 1, 2008
The following interview appeared in the May/June 2008 edition of Beckett Graded Card Investor & Price Guide magazine. (Note: Questions and answers #4 and #10 were not published due to space limitations, but are presented here).
1) What’s your collecting background and how did you grow REA auctions into the significant presence it is in the industry today?
I began collecting cards as a kid, when I was about five years old, but unlike other kids, I was always fascinated with old cards. I’d look at statistics on the back of the cards and appreciate that this year’s cards, this year’s players, were part of a larger history, and I was interested in learning about that history. This was back in 1965, so cards really weren’t valuable back then, and fortunately everyone humored me. Before long I was canvassing the neighborhood, asking for old cards, and a few years later even placing ads in local newspapers for cards. By 1970 my hobby had turned into a business, as I found that I could sell cards to be able to raise money to buy more cards. The nostalgia craze was just starting to take off, and while the prices were extremely modest by today’s standards, it was a great introduction to learning about the history of baseball, cards, and America, as well as a great introduction to the business world. A few years later, baseball card conventions were introduced, and my parents let me travel all around the country to shows before I could even drive. I was not motivated by money, but by an interest in learning and a love of collecting. The business really developed from those roots and I think it shows to this day in our approach to the material we handle and in the catalogs that Robert Edward Auctions produces. REA has always been a leader in the field, and we’ve also always had a small business approach. Hey, in a lot of ways what we do now isn’t a whole lot different than what I was doing as a ten-year-old in 1970!
I was always very actively involved in selling material on consignment and in 1990 we started operating under the trade name Robert Edward Auctions to more accurately reflect the nature of the business. Back then there were no other auctions like REA. We were always innovators, in part because the auction field that collectors see today really didn’t exist when we started. The whole giant telephone auction format that has evolved into the internet-telephone integrated auction, we created that. There were no million dollar telephone auctions before REA. They didn’t exist. The “ten-minute rule” concept that revolutionized how auctions ended, and in combination with the telephone auction format practically made live auctions in the field extinct – I made that up! Everyone copied this later, and now collectors think the concept was always around, but it wasn’t. It didn’t exist before we decided that would be an improved approach to ending auctions in an orderly manner. It was revolutionary at the time and we have never stopped innovating and never stopped marching to our own drummer. We were the first to approach the documenting and presenting of the material in the way that we do. It was exciting then and it’s exciting now. Really, what we do is we ask ourselves “What’s the best way to present the material, to do justice to it in the best way possible, for both buyers and sellers?” Then, we do that. We’ve always been trying to do something special. Our emphasis on quality, on accuracy, on how the auction is run, on policies, these are all factors that play a role in REA’s place in the field. We do a better job and its no accident. We’re trying to do a better job. We’re trying to make a significant contribution to the field in many ways, not just as a business, but as scholars documenting the material and documenting history, and trying to educate collectors about the field in every way. We’re always trying to show people what the best auction in the world would look like, and we’re always trying to improve. Collectors see this and they really appreciate it. It shows, both with the material we are given to auction and how well the material is received. So in the end, REA’s prominence in the field is really the result of hard work, experience, and trying to do a great job. And when people ask us what our secret is, that’s what we tell them, which to us is funny because it’s so simple and that’s how it really is.
2) How big of a factor to your auction business are professionally graded trading cards?
Graded cards make our job easier and have a positive impact on buyer interest, buyer confidence, and liquidity. This makes cards sell for more so this is also a plus. So I’d have to say it has a pretty big impact. It’s great that someone can call us and say “I have a 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle graded EX 5” and we can have a fairly good idea of exactly what they are offering us even without seeing it. Of course every card is different, but it really helps us when communicating with sellers as we assemble the auction, just as it really helps buyers when they are participating in the auction. We always point out that we auction cards. We’re happy to auction them whether they are in shoeboxes, in stacks with rubber bands, in plastic pages, or encapsulated and graded by professional grading companies. To us, they are still the same cards. But professionally graded cards certainly have an overall positive impact on demand, prices, and the ease with which cards are processed for auction.
3) How does the market for trading cards compare to the memorabilia market?
The memorabilia market is comprised of many different areas: autographs, bats, jerseys, trophies, artwork, pins…the list goes on forever. In most cases, cards are a more structured and well defined collecting discipline than other areas of collecting. Sometimes that’s even part of the appeal to collectors. There’s a set, it’s got so many cards, and that’s it. In most cases, by their very nature, cards are mass produced. They can be, and are, more of a commodity. It’s different with memorabilia. With autographs, for example, every autograph is a little different. The quality of every signature can be different. The significance of the item that is signed can be different. An autographed item is a lot more like a unique artwork. They are usually a lot less commodity-like. There are exceptions. That’s why a perfect Babe Ruth single-signed ball sells for a fortune. So many collectors collect single-signed balls that a Ruth single is a high-demand commodity. Even then, there’s the question of what kind of ball it’s on, what’s the condition of the ball, how bold are the ball stampings, how strong is the signature, when was it signed, is it personalized. It goes on forever! With bats and jerseys and personal items from players, these types of items tend to be very unique. No two Babe Ruth bats are the same. Valuing them involves a lot of subjectivity. For many collectors, that is part of the appeal of memorabilia. With cards, if you are interested in a T206 Ty Cobb, you can look up what many other examples have sold for, and when and where they have sold, and use this information as a guide. With a Babe Ruth bat, there’s a little more to it. You can compare values with many other items, but probably not a Ruth bat that is identical. No two Babe Ruth bats are the same, and the evaluation process for a Ruth bat, or any unique or almost unique memorabilia item, is much more interactive and subjective. It’s a little bit more like buying a Picasso.
4) You’re one of the few auction houses that refuses to resubmit professionally graded cards that are consigned to you. Explain your stance on the position and how it benefits the consumer and/or industry.
Resubmitting cards for grading is not our role. We’re an auction house. A lot of auction houses are also dealerships, and this is part of their normal way of doing business. That’s not how we operate. We are strictly consignments so it’s even more so not an issue with REA. We don’t think the practice of an auction house resubmitting cards for higher grades is fair to buyers. How would you feel if you bought a Babe Ruth Goudey graded EX-MT, paid an EX-MT price, and found out that the auction house owned the card, bought it graded VG-EX, and somehow got it upgraded to EX-MT. Probably not too good. I know it would bother me. And if the auction house resubmits even one card and does not disclose this fact, we think it reflects badly on all the other cards in the auction. After all, if some cards are resubmitted, and that fact were not disclosed, then how are buyers supposed to know which cards have been resubmitted and which cards have not? How are they supposed to know that your consigned cards have not been resubmitted? This could have a negative impact on the results of all graded cards in the auction, including those owned by consignors. The same reasoning applies to doing restoration work on cards. We keep it simple. We don’t resubmit any cards. We don’t restore any cards. We auction them. If a card is graded Vg-Ex and to us looks Ex, we say so. And if a card is encapsulated and graded Nr/Mt and looks Ex, we say that. There’s no fancy shell game going on at REA about what the auction house owns, what cards have been worked on by the auction house, or what cards have been resubmitted by the auction house and gotten higher grades. Our simple approach is better for buyers, and because it understandably gives buyers greater confidence, and with good reason, these policies also translate into better prices for sellers. Everyone wins.
5) You’ve handled some of the most memorable collections and items in the realm of sports collectibles including the Barry Halper Collection and more than 20 T206 Wagners (including the PSA 8 Gretzky/McNall copy). Share with us your experience with selling the famous PSA8 Wagner. How did you get selected to sell the card? What options did you have for selling the card and why did you ultimately choose to sell the card on eBay?
REA got selected to sell the card because Mike Gidwitz is one of my best friends and because he knew I’d do a great job. When the 1999 Halper auction, which REA oversaw, did so incredibly well, Mike pretty much just said, “Hey, it looks like collectors have more money than they know what to do with. It’s time to sell the Wagner.” It was his idea, and it was his hope that the card would sell for a million dollars. eBay was really picking up a lot of steam at this time. Just like today, eBay was not the right place to be selling high end material, but working with eBay was a way of generating a lot of extra publicity for the auction, so it worked out great for everyone. I came up with the idea that eBay could use our auction as a vehicle to promote their business. The card was not really auctioned on eBay, but it was publicized on eBay, and the bids were reported on eBay manually by me seconds after being received. The format of the auction was really the early low-tech predecessor of what we now call the eBay live auction. To this day, I am told, it was the single most viewed auction in the history of eBay, with over 50 million views. So it was really very successful, I had a lot of a lot of fun coming up with a vision of how the auction might work that no one had ever thought of, and I really enjoyed being able to execute this so successfully with eBay.
6) Speaking of the PSA 8 Gretzky/McNall T206 Wagner, what’s your take on rumors that the card has been cut from a strip?
I believe the card was cut from a sheet, as opposed to a strip. The guy who originally owned the card has been quoted as saying that it was cut from a sheet, and everything about the card, including its pristine appearance and slightly imperfect cut, is consistent with that, so I really don’t think there’s any question about it. I’ve always said, and was even quoted in newspaper articles years ago, that there is no way this particular card was ever packaged in a pack of cigarettes, and that it had to have been saved by someone involved with the printing. If it wasn’t cut from a sheet, it probably wouldn’t look so great! And as authors Michael O’Keefe and Teri Thompson so poetically suggest at the end of the book “The Card,” the Gretzky/McNall T206 Wagner is so unique and so much better looking than any other T206 Wagner that it tramples the rules that govern millions of other cards. It may be cut from a sheet, but it’s still the greatest baseball card in the world! By the way, I’d strongly recommend anyone interested in not just the T206 Honus Wagner but the hobby in general to read “The Card.” This is an extremely important book relating to the entire card and memorabilia hobby.
7) In your opinion what are some of the strongest areas of the market for trading cards and why are they in such good shape? Are there any trading card categories that are showing signs of future growth?
All vintage cards have a great collector base. There’s just a lot of collectors out there! If you are referring only to prices, it’s hit or miss, depending on supply and demand. Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Mathewson, Jackson, and all the other immortals of the game will always be very popular. In more general terms, we have seen mid-grade cards really come into their own, and with good reason. High-grade cards are always going to be worth more, and that’s the way it should be, but the lower-grade cards allow collectors to collect the best cards there are in a much more affordable manner, and for a lot of vintage cards, they are so rare that there wouldn’t be any other option anyway. As far as card sets showing signs of future growth, there are plenty of sets that collectors are just beginning to discover, that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. And a lot of unusual cards, including rare sample cards and postcards, surprise people when they are offered. Sometimes they go for a lot more than anyone would have guessed. The reason may be as simple as the fact that some cards haven’t been seen at auction in years, or maybe ever, and guide prices are of no help. Collectors are getting used to thinking on their own when it comes to real rarities. That’s why auction results will sometimes be much greater than suggested by guide prices. It sometimes works the other way around too. If guide prices are high, actual selling prices can be lower. Most guide prices are conservative, so that’s rare, but it can happen.
8) What are a few areas you’d like to see change within the world of professionally graded trading cards?
I’d like collectors to be able to look at the cards themselves with an educated eye, or at least be able to understand the positives and negatives that are associated with any grading system. There are always going to be over and under graded cards, and cards that have qualities that cannot be fully communicated in a single grade. Every PSA 7 of a given card is not the same, and when one is better than another, it is understandable that it would be more highly valued. In our spring 2007 auction, REA had an M101-4 1916 Sporting News Babe Ruth graded Near Mint 7 by PSA that sold for an incredible $82,250. Just one day earlier, a different example of the same card in the same grade, also graded by PSA, sold at a different auction for $41,250. That’s a pretty big difference for a card in the same grade, graded by the same company, just one day apart. But the fact is that our card really was much better, we were able to communicate that our PSA 7 bordered on being NM-MT, and it showed in the final result. I don’t have any all-encompassing suggestions about grading systems in general, but I think everyone would agree that it is a lot more accurate to say that a card has an Excellent appearance and has been downgraded to Very Good due to a clear glue mark on the back rather than just saying it’s VG. We try to give this kind of detail on valuable cards. I’d like more collectors to look for the details that define condition rather than just look at a number, which is a very valuable guide, but doesn’t tell the whole story.
9) What’s your take on PSA’s recent adoption of half-grades within their grading scale?
To us it’s a non-issue though I wonder whether the new grading scale is going to cause unanticipated problems. I think it’s hard enough for grading companies to accurately grade on a one to ten scale, let alone trying to fine tune it with more levels of grades. Another concern I have is with reference to cards resubmitted for a potential bump. With newly graded cards the label is a little different, but for the ten million previously graded cards, there is no way to distinguish a card that has been rejected for an extra half grade from one that has not. I can see this being an issue for someone that is buying cards and hoping to get cards bumped. Clearly a group of 100 T206 PSA 5 cards that have all been rejected for bumps would, all things being equal, be less valuable than 100 T206 PSA 5 cards that have not been presented for half-grade consideration. Maybe this just won’t be a big issue, but if I was buying a collection of cards that had been rejected for the extra half grade, I’d sure want this fact disclosed to me.
10) Do you have a preference to handle graded cards from one company vs. another? If so, which companies and why?
We like handling graded cards from all of the major grading companies. We look at the cards. Of course it’s great to have a very highly graded low pop PSA card that sells for a crazy price just because of the power of the set registry, but that’s the rare exception, not the focus of what we’re about. We can’t control supply, demand, or prices. But we can present the cards in the best way possible, and give collectors all the information we can so that they can have the greatest confidence to bid, and can make their most intelligent decisions. And that’s exactly what we do.
Thursday, 01 November 2007
It looks like an original Babe Ruth advertising poster. So does that high grade T206 Snodgrass error card. A good enough fake--and some creative writing--can make it hard for most of us to tell the difference. It's become a major issue for auction houses and grading companies who take time to separate good from bad. In spite of those good efforts, though, altered pieces still slip through.
Rob Lifson, President of Robert Edward Auctions, took time for some questions and answers about the hot button issue of alteration and restoration.
When considering consignments, how do you examine a) cards and b) advertising type pieces to see if they've been restored/altered?
REA: Ungraded cards often come from original sources, or old-time collections. This doesn’t mean there are no problems with these cards, but the problems are usually pretty obvious. The reasons collectors altered cards twenty-five or fifty years ago were very different than today. It wasn’t to cheat people. For example, when 16 and 18-pocket plastic pages first came out well over twenty years ago, some collectors would clip a little strip off the bottom of tobacco cards, especially when using the sixteen-pocket pages, or clip “E” cards such as E90-1 American Caramel cards, just to be able to fit the cards into the slots of the pages. Obviously, condition was not as big a deal back then. We see cards like this all the time and for us it’s pretty easy to tell. But when dealing with cards that have not figuratively or literally been in a “time capsule”, that is, when dealing with cards from the modern era of collecting, it can get a lot trickier.
Our first line of defense is our experience. I couldn’t briefly communicate what we look for in each and every set, and frankly it could be challenging to even try to articulate in words what we think is possibly evidence of a problem sometimes. How the corners of a card wear, how the edges are supposed to look, the feel of the card, the colors, the texture, the firmness...really just about every element that describes a card, which is a three-dimensional object that just happens to be very flat.
There are always going to be grading errors and there are always going to be differences of opinion regarding grading. That comes with the territory. But experience really helps. There’s a value to having seen so many cards, and having handled millions of vintage cards for literally decades before anyone ever thought to restore cards for monetary reasons. Sure, we often use tools such as black lights and magnification, and great lighting is essential. But if I had to pick one tool that serves us best, it is experience. I can set you up with all the tools, jeweler’s loupes, and the best lighting equipment in the world, but if you don’t know how to interpret the information, it’s not going to do you too much good.
It kind of reminds me of a doctor giving me scalpels and all kinds of brain surgery equipment and telling me, “OK, you’ve got the tools, and you’ve read about brains, so now go ahead and start operating.” Personally, I want the brain surgeon to do the operating. I’m not saying that detecting card alterations is as demanding as brain surgery, but I am saying there’s a lot to it, and I couldn’t possibly outline all the factors that are considered with all cards. There’s just too much information and knowledge that is put to work. And at the end of the day, on many cards, the market often says that the most important thing is whether the card is graded by one of the most respected grading services, and is encapsulated, regardless of what the card looks like. This is beginning to change, and it’s easy to see wildly varying prices on the same cards in the same grade, graded by the same company, because one card really is better than another card, even though they have the same grade.
Also, remember that for the most valuable cards, it’s pretty much standard to send them in for grading (encapsulating). But one of the contradictions about grading that is rarely pointed out is that for raw cards, all a buyer who gets cards graded wants is for the raw cards to be graded by the grading companies. If they grade, they’re happy. And there’s a presumption that if they are graded, they are unaltered. And for already graded cards, buyers naturally want cards to be accurately graded and to be unaltered.
But we’ve pointed out obviously altered encapsulated cards to collectors and what is surprising is that, so far, many just haven’t cared all that much. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to us. Yet cards that are graded by companies that are well known for encapsulating altered cards-- and there are a couple with this reputation-- their cards sell for a remarkable discount to the cards encapsulated by the most reputable companies. So the market obviously does care. Things are just evolving slowly. Right now the market is saying “Well, I know that some cards are obviously altered, or obviously overgraded, but since the brand of the grading company is strong, and most of their cards are accurately and properly graded, and their marketing is great, and no one else seems to care, I’ll give them a pass on my misgraded cards. I’ll pretend they're fine.” But of course in the long run that’s just not going to cut the mustard, and it’s easy to see the market waking up to this issue.
Raw cards and graded cards are largely two different and very distinct markets with different rules. Many cards that are consigned are already encapsulated. This makes reviewing them for alterations much more difficult. It is much more common for us to be able to declare that in our opinion a card is overgraded, or to be able to point out specific flaws with a card that are present that might be inconsistent with a given encapsulated card’s assigned grade, than for us to be able to declare with certainty that an encapsulated card is definitely altered. There is no doubt that some encapsulated cards are altered. We have rejected many, but there’s just no doubt that we’ve auctioned many also.
The fact is that we do not guarantee that all cards are unaltered. Why? Because we can’t. But neither can anyone else. We all live in the same world. What we can guarantee is that Robert Edward Auctions does not alter any cards. Ever. This is really a pretty big deal to a lot of buyers and we can understand why. That’s why we make a point to identify many cards which we personally send in for grading and provide provenance information whenever we think it is appropriate. Collectors know that we don’t do anything to the cards. It’s no secret and it’s no accident that these cards often bring a premium.
With advertising pieces, restoration is usually not a big issue. Not only can we usually tell, but it’s also not a big deal with reference to value. More often than not, restoration on a display piece is an expensive process executed by a professional restoration company for a dedicated collector, who wanted the piece to look its best when hanging on the wall. When a collector like that sells, more often than not we find they actually make us aware of the restoration before we even see the item. Most true collectors of display items are OK with restoration if it enhances the display value of the item. They just want to know that it has been restored and be made aware of exactly what was done if this is possible. Who could argue with the reasonableness of that?
You wrote about a spike in the number of fake advertising pieces earlier this year. Why do you think it's happening? Any idea what is being done to try and pass items off as "vintage" and are there certain items that show up more frequently? What should collectors look for to know a fake from the real thing?
REA: There are as many fake items being offered as ever but collectors are becoming aware of the problem, and that is a big step in the right direction. But there are always new collectors, and new victims for these scams. We’ve seen many fakes being manufactured, often with the use of computers, and sold as vintage. It’s incredible the lengths to which some of these forgers will go. Most of the reproduced items can be found in a book or auction catalog somewhere, and the forgers are making the reproductions from these illustrations. At times we’ve seen reproductions that we know have been made from fairly small book illustrations and have been blown them up to poster size. You wouldn’t think it’s possible but computers can do a lot of things these days.
We’ve also seen diecut standups, such as the Babe Ruth Kay Woody Pipe diecut advertising store display sign, and the 1941 H&B diecut store display of Joe DiMaggio reproduced. Both of those were actually reproduced from the 1999 Halper catalog. If you didn’t know what the originals look like, many collectors could be fooled, especially since standup easels have been added to the backs, making them appear to be store counter displays. The reproductions we have seen are about fifteen inches tall.
The originals of these two items are giant cardboard standup store display pieces with easel backs but are much larger than the reproductions, each standing well over twenty-five inches tall. So the originals are very different, but they are so rare, it’s not like collectors get to see them in person. Only a couple examples of each are even known to exist. The reproductions are made one at a time very carefully, and specifically to cheat collectors. I can see how they could fool someone. We’ve saved a few people from buying (and in one case from auctioning) the Kay Woody Ruth piece over the past couple years.
While there are always a few types of reproductions that are widely passed off as originals, such as Babe Ruth Candy wrappers and “Fan for a Fan” baseball fans, and even Babe Ruth rookie cards, the fact is that there are many items that crooks make and try to pass off. Even the most seasoned collector can sometimes be fooled, although when they actually get the “item,” they can often at that point be suspicious that something is not quite right.
We just got a very advanced collection in. Everything was vintage, very high quality, and really just great across the board. Except one item. It was an uncut partial sheet of 1920s strip cards that was in a large, thick plastic screwdown holder. I didn’t like the colors right away, and even in the holder I sensed that the edges were too smooth and the thickness was not right. It was strange to say, with this being one item among hundreds of outstanding items assembled by a true connoisseur, but as soon as saw it I immediately suspected that these strip cards were really some kind of modern Xerox. I called the consignor and told him about that piece before even opening the thick plastic holder to verify. I told him that my guess is that he bought this particular item on eBay. He wasn’t sure. When I opened it and was able to hold the sheet in my hand, it was painfully obvious this was a fake.
Practically every large collection we handle has a few fake items. It’s endless. Many of these items are “fantasy items,” meaning that there is no real item from which they are copied. These can be among the most dangerous, because all examples of a given fantasy item are the same. There’s no “real” example which is a little different. So we are constantly having to tell people that the “This pin certifies Babe Ruth shook my hand” metal pinback button, for example, or the “Never Forgotten Babe Ruth” pinback picturing Ruth holding three bats, are modern fantasy items. These are just a couple of examples. Pins, cards, advertising pieces, and autographs, these are all areas that have their problem items.
The best defense is doing a little homework, getting the opinion of other knowledgeable collectors if you think there might be a problem, and buying from a company or a person that you have confidence in. The problem is not getting better as far as the number of fake items being manufactured and offered, but collectors are becoming much more aware of the problem, and this greater awareness is starting to save them a lot of money.
Any idea how many advertising pieces you rejected before your last auction because they were modern repros made to look old? How about restored/altered cards?
REA: We’re pretty in tune with what’s real and what isn’t just from images and asking the right questions before we allow an item to be sent in, so as far as advertising pieces, this is not a big problem for us. We get calls all the time for items that we are able to determine with certainty are not real on the phone, or from scans. While we don’t actually have these items sent in to us, we do get them offered to us. It’s an almost everyday occurrence. We’re talking about hundreds of rejected fake items over the course of the year that, if they were real, would be worth a fortune.
Altered cards are a little trickier. It’s very difficult to be certain that an encapsulated card has been altered, and there can also be times when different people can have different opinions. Yet there are encapsulated cards that we reject, because we personally are not comfortable with them, and others that we reject because we are certain they are altered.
During the past year, for example, we have had two different examples of the famous T206 “Nodgrass” error card submitted for auction, each graded and encapsulated by a different company. On both of these cards I felt that I could say with certainty that they were altered, that the “S” had been removed to “transform” a common card into a rare T206 error worth thousands of dollars. On one card we were able to help the consignor get a refund from the grading company, who agreed with our assessment. The other example, which was purchased on eBay for $9,500, has just been sent back to the second grading company for review. We have no idea what their findings will be, they may have a different opinion than ours, but can only say that this particular card will not appear in an REA auction.
Sometimes these problem cards are the result of a learning curve from many years ago. The first fraudulent “Nodgrass” got graded, then the second, etc. Eventually the grading companies add to their knowledge, and adjust to deal with new types of alterations that previously didn’t exist. My guess is that both of those “Nodgrass” cards were graded long ago, and those same cards would not get graded by these same companies today. Mistakes happen. That comes with the territory and I’d encourage collectors not to overreact to an occasional grading error. The grading companies are not perfect and they don’t claim to be. Are there any problems? Is there room for improvement? Sure! But overall they do a pretty good job. That fact shouldn’t be lost.
It’s even rarer to find fake cards that have been encapsulated, because that is a very rare occurrence, but it has happened. Last auction, for example, we had a consignor send in the highest graded 1928 George Ruth Candy card. One problem. It was a fake. The card just wasn’t real. The grading company was great about it by the way. They couldn’t thank us enough for calling this to their attention, and they worked directly with the consignor to make him whole. You really couldn’t ask for more. There are other examples, and they have resulted in some very substantial refunds for consignors. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do but give them the bad news, but sometimes we’re able to help them also. Every case is a little different.
By Dave Grob (Mears)
A while back I began a feature that I hope to run throughout 2007 that presents a Q&A session with various hobby/industry personnel. I sent these questions out to a number of folks that included both those that have and do not have a business relationship with MEARS. In my e-mail out to potential respondents, I made the point to mention that I would not edit their responses in any manner. Rob Lifson from Robert Edwards Auctions has been kind enough to provide answers to my questions. For ease in reading, my questions are identified as Dave Grob's Question (DG Q:) and Rob Lifson's Answer (RL A:) Without any further delay, here we go:
DG Q: I know that you are a collector as well, when did this start for you and what was it with?
RL A: When I was a kid I collected cards, like many other kids, but by the time I was seven or eight, for some reason I became very interested in old cards. By the time I was ten years old, this is back in 1970, I had complete sets of Play Balls, hundreds of tobacco cards, and really a little bit of everything. I enjoyed learning about the history of cards, the history of baseball, and the history of America. Cards weren't very valuable back then, especially compared to today, but I bought and sold them, and this was my introduction to the world of business. I'm not really that much of a collector actually. I really consider myself more of a researcher and my interest in working with material is in learning about - and teaching - the history of baseball and the history of America through objects.
Collecting personally for myself has never been a high priority. That doesn't mean I don't love the stuff, and I enjoy having a few display items on my walls. It's just that actually owning the material has never been my priority. While that may be rare or even unique for someone that runs auctions in this field and writes about the history of cards and memorabilia, I always thought that this helped make me better at what I do. In the past I have bought many items I liked specifically because I thought they were undervalued, as an investment. I never considered it a collection because really anyone could buy my items but I enjoyed having an inventory of items that I personally liked, especially nineteenth century items. The only area of sports collecting in which I was ever a real collector was pinback buttons. I really like pins, everything about them. I still do! I sold my entire 30-year baseball pinback collection privately intact just during the past couple of years. It was really quite a collection, but I wasn't doing anything with it, it had become very valuable and it was not my intention to have an extremely valuable personal collection (like everything else, pins have appreciated quite a bit over the past thirty years) and I know it's got the best possible home.
My collecting these days for the most part involves very modest value items and still revolves around pins, but is pretty much limited to non-baseball pinbacks, and covers all areas of popular culture, as well as political collectibles. I have always had a special interest in causes of all types, and have a personal collection of political campaign items, mostly pinbacks but also some posters, which relate to the history of civil rights, and activism in America, and covers all types of political ideas and causes. I also like illustration art.
DG Q: On a personal collecting level, what is the one item you have parted with over the past that you wish you still had?
RL A: There really isn't anything. That may sound crazy, because I've had just about every great item in the entire field of baseball collectibles pass through my hands. I always tell people that ask about this that "I can appreciate the Mona Lisa, but I don't have to own it." I do enjoy playing a role, usually a small role but sometimes a significant role, in preserving history and being a part of building great collections. The fact that I help make sure that great items get properly documented and wind up in great collections is a thrill. Some of these great collections, in a way I feel they are mine too, because I helped build them. It's exciting to have items that I have handled or discovered wind up in the very best collections in the world, in some cases in museums, including the Hall of Fame.
Discovering, researching, and authenticating The Rosa Parks Bus, even though it's not a sports item, will probably always be the highlight of my career. The bus was purchased by the Ford Foundation and is now the number one exhibit at the Ford Museum in Michigan. Hundreds of thousands of people a year go to see it and learn about the legacy of Rosa Parks and her role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America. I'm responsible for that, and it is very satisfying to know that long after I'm gone, my commitment to researching the bus will have played such an important role in preserving and teaching history to future generations. The fact that my strong interests have always included the history of political causes, Civil Rights, and political activism in America, and that I happened to be the person who discovered and authenticated the Rosa Parks Bus, gives that project all the greater personal meaning to me. Looking back, it's hard to say if it this was just a big coincidence or if it was something that I was somehow just destined to do. If I didn't have the great passion for American history that I do, I wouldn't have pursued the authentication of the Rosa Parks bus as tirelessly and with such an uncompromising commitment. Everyone said my efforts would be fruitless. I had no idea that I would actually wind up being successful. Because of the advanced ages of many of the people that I needed to speak with to help in the project, if the Rosa Parks Bus had come to my attention just a few years later it would have been too late; it wouldn't have happened the same way; the bus wouldn't have been authenticated; and the exhibit at the Ford Museum wouldn't exist.
One of my proudest days was when Rosa Parks herself, when she was eighty-eight years old, attended the unveiling of the bus as the guest of honor at the Ford Museum. To me, the way things developed and the breaks that I got during my research, including that the people I needed most to help me were still alive, and willing and able to help some forty-five years later, was a miracle. There was a lot luck involved, but there's also an old saying: you make your own luck. So even my greatest find of all, the most meaningful research project of my career, the Rosa Parks bus, would I want to have this item back? Not in a million years. I want this bus on display for people to see, and it will be forever. That's sort of how I feel about handling all important items, whether it's the 1848 Knickerbocker Constitution, Lou Gehrig's 1939 jersey from the day his famous farewell speech, or The Rosa Parks Bus.
In 1997 I was lucky enough to recognize that the Gehrig jersey consigned to REA might have a greater significance, and I was able to properly identify and authenticate it with certainty as the jersey he wore on Lou Gehrig Day. I believe this authentication project was the very first application of pinstripe match authentication ever involving a baseball jersey. At the time I considered it groundbreaking. No one had ever done anything like that before to the best of my knowledge in the sports memorabilia world. I've never collected jerseys or any game-used equipment but I didn't have to be a collector to appreciate the excitement of researching and essentially discovering Lou Gehrig's jersey from the day of his famous speech, and presenting it to the world. Just properly documenting the items, unlocking their historical significance, and presenting the stories they have to tell is really a large part of the fun of the collecting world for me. Everyone can get a catalog so I can share my appreciation of history and my enthusiasm for items with everyone.
My great friend Mike Gidwitz always said about the items in his incredible collection that "he didn't really own them, but that he was just borrowing them, looking after them and taking care of them for a while." That's not too far from how I feel, but I get to share the history and the significance of items with thousands through auction catalogs, and work with collectors that care about the preserving the history of the game and America through memorabilia. If the interest of collectors wasn't there, maybe I'd feel differently, but they are, and I'm grateful they are there. They make it easy for me to say there's absolutely no item that I've had that I look back and regret parting with.
DG Q: How did you come to be involved with Robert Edwards Auctions?
RL A: I started dealing in vintage cards in a big way in 1969. I actually started collecting as a kid in 1965 (that's why I still have a set of 1965 Topps cards which I keep because I remember being so exited about buying them at the candy store) but was always interested in older cards. Everyone thought it was really strange but my family humored me. By 1968 I was able to assemble quite a collection of old cards, a lot of it for free just by asking parents of friends (cards had very little value at this time), a lot of it by making purchases, trading and selling. Every cent I had went to buying cards. Every free moment was invested in learning about and finding old cards. I actually went door to door back in 1969-1970, literally casing the neighborhood for old cards. It was a different world at this time, no one would ever allow a kid to do this today. By 1969 I had a very substantial card collection and a thriving small business. I am 46 years old. In 1969, I was nine years old. By 1972 I was one of the most active dealers in the country in vintage cards.
My first auctions were in the early 1970s. They were a lot smaller back then, sometimes just a quarter-page in the old Trader Speaks and the early years of SCD, sometimes a page or two, as were my first fixed price sales. In the early 1970s all bids were only by mail. I was dealing with adults from all over the country by the time I was 12 years old. Back then I didn't know about anything but baseball cards, which in retrospect may have been my greatest strength, because no one told me I could not buy, sell, and trade baseball cards with adults. I took a loan out from the bank to expand the business in 1973 (my Dad co-signed), which I repaid over the next two years. I purchased the Kurzrok collection from Dr. Lawrence Kurzrok's family a year following his passing (I did a lot of dealing with Dr. Kurzrok for many years. He was impressed by my enthusiasm, dedication, and interest in the business, and he instructed his wife to contact me and sell me the collection when he passed away). Dr. Kurzrok passed away in 1975 and I was 16 years old in 1976 when I purchased his collection. This was perhaps the largest collection, or at least one of the largest collections, of vintage cards to ever trade hands, and was probably the largest vintage baseball card deal in the history of collecting at the time in terms of dollars. The total cost was over $20,000 (that was really a lot more in 1976 than it sounds today, there just weren't any deals that big in those days). The collection included among other cards over 2,000 Old Judges, dozens of E card sets, hundreds of Cracker Jacks, hundreds of Ramlys, hundreds of Allen & Ginters, hundreds of T202s, etc. In the early days I was a dealer who also worked extensively with consignments.
Over the years this has evolved to all consignments. In 1990 I changed the name of the business to Robert Edward Auctions to better reflect the nature of the business. For how long I've been around, many people assume I am older than I am. I have not just been around for 35+ years, I have been very active on a daily basis this entire span. I count myself very lucky to, by pure chance and circumstance, bridge the gap between the days of Charles Bray (the first real baseball card auctioneer and dealer, who I used to bother to no end as a kid) and the modern era. In the old days everything was cards. In the old days there was very little interest in jerseys and bats and other memorabilia, and very little knowledge about the material, but of course this has changed dramatically over the past fifteen or twenty years.
DG Q: What are three things that you would like to see change within the industry/hobby and why?
RL A: Robert Edward Auctions handles mostly cards, in part because there are a lot more cards around than bats and jerseys, they are very valuable, and that's always been our primary specialty. I think that collectors have no idea how hard it is to offer quality bats and jerseys, especially at REA where everything is consignment. In some cases the problems with which I'd like to see change in the industry are the same with cards as with bats and jerseys other memorabilia. There are industry problems that apply to both cards and memorabilia, and some problems that are unique to each type of collectible.
I'd like to see all the big issues regarding auctions addressed but it's hard to limit it to just three. With reference to cards, off the top of my head: 1) The epidemic of card alterations, including by auction houses. 2) Disclosure of lots owned by the auction house. 3) Shill bidding. When you really connect the dots, what we have is a system that is very conducive to problems: a system where dealers and auction houses sometimes buy cards; then they alter cards; then they offer the cards at auction. And then they ask you to trust them with your "upto" bids also. If I wanted to create a perfect ecosystem for the creation of life, I'd come up with a menu of essential ingredients like water, sun, gasses, and proteins. If I wanted to create a perfect environment for fraud and corruption in the auction business, I'd choose the policies that are widely accepted as standard in the auction business in this field today. There's no accountability. There's no protection. There are a lot of problems out there, and no checks and balances. Robert Edward Auctions trying to call attention to these problems and promote significant change by creating policies that both call attention to and address the issues that we think are significant. Not everyone will agree with us on everything, and all we can do is say that this is how we are proceeding with reference to any given issue, and in the process call attention to the problems that are out there. REA didn't always have a policy of insisting that when authenticators consign items they authenticate, that it must be disclosed right in the description. We decided this was an issue that had never been properly addressed, and we made it a policy to provide this disclosure. REA didn't always have a policy of disclosing what items were owned by employees and executives. We decided this would be a significant improvement over the industry standard, and was worth instituting. REA didn't always have Honest Auto Bid, the system that allows bidders to place limit bids online with us with a 100% certainty that no one in the world, except the bidder, is privy to the limit of your bid, or even that you have placed an "Up To" bid on a given lot. We saw the value in this and paid for the development of this system feature. This cost us a fortune. We're not sure that everyone appreciates the significance of Honest Auto-Bid, but for anyone who cares or gives it any thought, we think it's hard not to appreciate. It's a big deal.
The game-used memorabilia side of the collectibles world has the reputation for having more problems than the world of cards but I'm not convinced that this is justified. I think bats and jerseys that have problems just tend to get more attention. Mistakes happen, improved systems develop, knowledge increases. I think that collectors have never had more information and more valuable resources available to them in assessing items to get what they are supposed to be getting than today. I'm not saying there aren't problems with the memorabilia world, just that I'm very encouraged. Many of the same issues (listed above) noted for cards also apply to memorabilia. Over and above I think that maybe the one additional issue, and this applies to autographs as well as to memorabilia, is that there are widely promoted authenticators that very often provide poor authentication services – inexcusable errors time and time again. I mean, it's crazy. There are autograph authenticators for whom I have seen a thousand items authenticated by them and all of the items had one thing in common – they weren't real. I've been asked "How can this be? Can an authenticator be that bad?" When people ask this I am always reminded of when I took my SATs in high school. Everyone naturally wanted to get every question right and get a perfect score of course, but there was always an old urban myth that if you got every single question wrong, they would automatically give you a perfect score anyway, because no one could get them all wrong without being absolutely brilliant and actually knowing all the correct answers; it was statistically impossible. Well, these authenticators that always get everything wrong, I always tell customers that maybe they're actually great authenticators because, really, no one could possibly be that bad. Maybe they're the best darn authenticators in the entire world. We use the authenticators that we have the most confidence in. The most problematic authenticators are in the field of autographs. There are some authenticators that when a potential consignor says they have an item with their letter, we just won't even allow them to send the item in. We have no interest. We just don't want to waste our time or pay the postage sending these fake items back.
This may make MEARS uncomfortable, but you said you will publish whatever my answers are verbatim, and I am entitled to run my business however I want to: You will never ever see Lou Lampson's name as an authenticator in a Robert Edward Auctions catalog. Lou might be a very nice guy, and I have met him and he has always been very pleasant, but I personally do not have confidence in his abilities as an authenticator. This is just my personal opinion. Lou used to live just a few minutes away from REA. I even ran into him at the deli a couple of times. Very pleasant fellow. The last time I saw him I think he ordered a cinnamon-and-raisin bagel with cream cheese. I respect his opinion about bagels. I ordered the same and was very happy. But I'm not as enthusiastic about his opinions on jerseys. Even living so close, literally five minutes away, it would have never dawned on me to consider having Lou Lampson do our uniform authentication. I'd rather have my grandmother do it. This is just my opinion and I know that some auction houses, and presumably some collectors (though I do not know them) have great confidence in Mr. Lampson's abilities. If ever a bidder was interested in a jersey at REA and they were not satisfied with the authentication work by MEARS and wanted Lou Lampson (or any one else) to look at it for a second opinion, by all means we would be happy to cooperate in any reasonable manner. This hasn't happened yet. To me it is very interesting that so many of the auction houses that use Lou Lampson's services own the items that Lou Lampson is authenticating for them and that they are offering. I don't know the significance of this, but it is interesting. I'm not saying Lou Lampson is wrong all the time. I'm sure he's been right many times. But when there is an issue with a Lou Lampson authentication, well, he's not exactly the easiest guy to reach. I don't even know if it's possible to contact him. In contrast, when there's an issue with a MEARS authentication, the communication and options that are available to collectors is tremendous. I do understand that Lou Lampson's authentication rates are extremely reasonable, but there's an old saying: you get what you pay for. The modest cost, the quality of his authentication services, and his inaccessibility may serve the purposes of some auction houses well but I don't think it's very good for collectors.
DG Q: What are three things that you consider the strengths of the industry/hobby at this time and why?
RL A: The industry has a lot of strengths. There's a lot of great things that have happened and are happening. As far as game-used equipment – jerseys and bats – I think this area is a particular bright spot in the collecting landscape. I think the two most positive factors in this area are the MEARS and the Game Used Universe websites and forums. I know that sometimes the two sites don't see eye to eye on everything, almost like there's a cold war at times, but maybe that's the way it's supposed to be: Checks and balances. The fact is that both sites have very similar goals. The valuable services and dedication and scholarly approach to the field by both of these entities is to be applauded. Both of these sites are fantastic and both give collectors access to information that just a few years ago was not accessible, and in many cases didn't even exist. If that isn't progress, what is? There has never been a better time to collect game-used items with reference to information available. Which brings me to the third strength of the field that I think is actually directly related to the quality and great value of MEARS and GUU: the collectors are coming back. For a while the problems with authentication were making collectors shy away from bats and uniforms. A lot of factors go into determining values, so I'm not saying that prices on any type of item are going up or down or anything like that. I'm just saying that real collectors are back with a confidence that they never had before, and that they are armed with knowledge that they never had before so that they can make the most intelligent decisions possible without just blindly relying on opinions of others. This is great. There are still plenty of problems out there, but it is now possible for collectors to collect memorabilia and understand what they are buying and not get burned. This is a big change from years past. As far as cards go, I don't have enough time to write about all the problems in the card industry. But maybe the number one strength of the field, which applies to both cards and memorabilia, is simply that there is a growing awareness about the problems that exist, and that's really the first step towards progress in addressing any of the issues in the field that need addressing. MEARS and GUU should be very proud. You guys don't get the credit you deserve. From my perspective, your work is laying down the foundation that will make this field continue to survive and thrive in the future. MEARS and GUU are literally keeping the field from falling apart. I like what Steiner does also, with the new material, making sure that people are getting what they are supposed to be getting, and John Taube and Vince Malta also deserve positive mention as being part of the progress that has occurred with the body of knowledge relating to the authentication bats. I'm sure there are others and I apologize for leaving anyone out. I have also heard that GAI has a very knowledgeable authenticator but I have no personal experience with him, but have heard good things and don't want to leave him out.
DG Q: Complete this sentence/thought…If I was just starting to collect game used sports memorabilia, I would recommend….
RL A: Baseball Hall of Fame Flannels.
DG Q: Who do you consider the most important sports personality of the 20th Century with respect to influence on the hobby/industry in the following sports and why?
RL A: Baseball: Babe Ruth. He's the man. There has never been anyone who revolutionized the game like Ruth. So many factors came together – his great talent, the era in which he lived, his personality. Babe Ruth saved baseball. He made baseball popular again after the dark days of the Black Sox scandal. I consider him to be the most important baseballs personality of the twentieth century.
I don't have a strong opinion about who is the most important sports personality of the twentieth-century for the other sports, although for boxing I might have to say Muhammad Ali. But that might just be nostalgia. Ali was a part of my childhood. I've always been a big fan. If I lived in an earlier era, maybe I'd be saying Jack Johnson.
DG Q: I have just let you in on a project I have been working on for the Department of Defense that involves time travel…Rob Lifson, (Jack Bauer is booked) you have 24 hours to go back in time an retrieve one piece of sports memorabilia, what do you go after and what do think the value of it would be in today's market?
RL A: It would be easy to say "the first baseball" but that would be something that would be hard to define and, really, I've always been a "printed word kind of guy." I've always been about ideas and the printed word, so I would probably go back in time and get one of two printed items that actually exist: a copy of the 1838 Philadelphia Olympics Constitution or a copy of the 1848 Knickerbockers Constitution. Both of these items are of monumental significance with reference to the origins of organized baseball. The incredible thing is that there is only one example known to exist of each of these items and I've actually handled both. There were only two or three dozen of each of these documents printed, and for even one example of either constitution to even survive is amazing. For me to have discovered one of these, let alone to have discovered both, is really one of the collecting miracles that I shake my head over. It's preposterous. But it's true. So the two items that I'd go back in time and get, I've actually had. When I think about it, like with the Rosa Parks Bus, it's almost like I was destined to handle them. There are plenty of great items, but some have a lot more meaning in my eyes than others. It has nothing to do with value. To me these items are priceless. I can't provide a value. Sometimes the most historically significant items are not the most valuable. A T206 Honus Wagner in top shape would be worth a lot more than the Olympic Constitution, the Knickerbockers Constitution, and the Rosa Parks Bus all put together, but really, is there any question about what is more historically significant? Of course not. Any one of these three items is far more significant. But that's just another fascinating dimension of the collecting world.
This interview with Robert Edward Auctions president Robert Lifson appeared in the May 2004 issue of Beckett Sports Collectibles
By David Lee (Beckett Sports Collectibles)
Beckett Sports Collectibles: You knew we were going to hit you with a Barry Halper question somewhere, so let's dive into one right off the bat. Just what did it mean to you personally to be entrusted with the sale of such a massive and significant collection? Specifically, what was your company's roll in the sale having teamed with Sotheby's?
Robert Lifson: "It was the greatest honor we could possibly have been given to oversee the sale of the Halper Collection. We knew there would never be a collection of this magnitude and significance ever assembled outside of Cooperstown, let alone auctioned. This was a time to make history, both in the larger collecting world, and in the organized hobby. It was a thrill to be entrusted with the responsibility, and to know that I could do the best job in the world with the best collection I the world.
"Both Barry Halper and Sotheby's insisted that we oversee the project. It was the ultimate honor to be recognized as the only choice to handle the sale of the largest and most important collection ever assembled.
"As far as what Robert Edward Auctions did, I personally wrote the entire catalog (over 1,000 pages), decided what was going to be in the auction and how it was going to be presented, organized all the lots (this may not sound hard, but you'd have to see how big the collection was to understand what a huge and complicated processes that was all by itself), chose all illustrations, oversaw the layout of the catalog, chose the authenticators, took care of all matters relating to research, did all the grading and personally set all estimates and reserves. It was an endless list of responsibilities, but it was really just what Robert Edward Auctions has always done, just with a bigger collection.
"The fact that we didn't have to worry about the actual bidding process (Sotheby's took care of that) actually made the project easier for us. It was a pleasure from beginning to end. The fact that the collection was so huge allowed us to partner with Sotheby's and allowed us to concentrate on what we enjoy the most: research, processing material and producing the ultimate auction catalog worthy of being saved and referred to forever. It really doesn't get any better than that from our perspective. Personally, I felt like Babe Ruth and it was 1927. The auction and the whole experience could not have been more successful. If anyone out there has another $26 million collection, please tell them to give us a call."
BSC: Do you still keep in touch with Mr. Halper today? Is he still collecting?
RL: "Yes, I still keep in touch with Barry on a regular basis. And while Barry would have everyone believe he's no longer collecting, when I visit him I am astounded by just how much stuff he still has. His entire hobby room is just packed with baseball material beautifully displayed. At first glance, it almost seems like he never got rid of anything.
"Many items he kept are signed and personalized to him, but he's still got a little bit of everything. And he still really enjoys following every aspect of the hobby. Barry has gotten to have his cake and eat it too. He still enjoys the hobby, but on his terms; he's not a prisoner of a giant collection, but he has fun with it, and loves following [baseball]. It's great to see him doing so well in every way."
BSC: In your opinion, what is the most significant piece of sports memorabilia ever sold through Robert Edward Auctions?
RL: "We've sold just about all of what most would consider the greatest baseball items in the world of collecting, everything from the uniform Lou Gehrig wore when he gave his famous "Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth" speech to over 20 T206 Honus Wagners. But the material Robert Edward Auctions has handled that I consider to be the most significant has no relation to any specific star, but has a historical or cultural significance which transcends the game.
"We've handled a lot of material relating to the origins of baseball, the Knickerbockers (the first baseball team), and the Negro Leagues, and this is the type of material I consider to be the most significant. If I had to pick one item, I'd probably pick the Knickerbocker constitution we sold about 20 years ago. That volume is the earliest rulebook for the game of baseball, and really represents the foundation of the game as we know it today."
BSC: Talk a little about the Gretzky-McNall "Million Dollar" Wagner that sold for $1.265 million. That's got to be floating around near the top of the significant items list.
RL: "It was a very exciting project, and of course, it was very successful. What made it so successful to me was coming up with the concept of working with eBay to create an incredible amount of publicity for the card and for the hobby, and executing this concept. It was just the right item, time and place for this type of promotion. I'm really proud of that project. There's a lot more to these things than just coming up with the idea. Working with people and following through to make it happen flawlessly is more than half the battle.
"To this day, that was the most successful publicity project ever executed in partnership with eBay. In just 10 days the Wagner auction received over 50 million hits. And there were literally thousands of articles published all over the country and the world. It was great for eBay. It was great for collecting. It was a public relations coup."
BSC: What's your take on card companies buying vintage game-worn or used memorabilia, cutting them up and putting the pieces into their trading cards?
RL: "Personally, it doesn't bother me at all. In fact, I think it's pretty neat. I would've loved to have had a card with a section of uniform worn by Sandy Koufax, or Mickey Mantle, or whoever when I was a kid. And it gives collectors an opportunity to have a piece of a significant uniform or bat when they might otherwise never be able to afford an entire jersey, bat, or whatever.
"I understand the reservations some collectors have expressed about losing significant items to the cutting room, but I don't personally share that opinion. This is America. If someone owns a jersey, and they want to cut it up, it's theirs, they should be allowed to. Economics will ultimately dictate. If a Babe Ruth jersey is more valuable cut up into 10,000 pieces, then that's what will happen to it. The idea that this is wrong just doesn't hit home with me."
BSC: Through the years, what are some rules of the business that you have had to learn the hard way, and how have you benefited from those lessons?
RL: "These are not actually lessens ‘learned the hard way,' but there are a few things around which everything else revolves that are really the lessens that I would most like to share with any business person. The first is to treat everyone with respect, exactly as you would want to be treated, whether they are your biggest customer, your smallest, or even if they are not one of your customers at all. The reason to treat people right is because it's the right thing to do, but it's ironic that it's also really in your own best interest. When you treat people right, somehow it comes back to you, maybe not in some immediate or measurable way, but I do believe it comes back to you in some way.
"I've had people tell me that they sought out Robert Edward Auctions to sell their collections because 20 years ago I was courteous and helpful to them. I've seen young collectors who, when they were kids, were thrilled that I took the time to talk to them, answer all their questions about collecting and give them advice. Some of them have grown up to be huge collectors.
"Another essential lessen is an uncompromising commitment to honesty and integrity. This is important for any business, but is an especially significant area for an auction house, where both the bidders and consignors are placing their complete trust in you. It's a big responsibility, and there is no gray area. Anyone can hang an auction house shingle out, but there's a lot of problems out there. Let's just say the laws of human nature have not been repealed.
"A very related area is protecting the integrity of the auction process. For an auction house, this should be a top priority. The integrity of the auction takes many forms and cannot be compromised. As most of your readers know, our auctions have what we call a ‘witching hour,' a specific time on the closing day before which you must place a bid on a given item if you wish to continue bidding on the item after the ‘witching hour.' Robert Edward Auctions invented this concept, by the way. I had no idea that when we instituted this rule in the early-1990s that it would prove to be so revolutionary and successful that everyone would copy. Today just about every telephone auction utilizes this format.
"Anyway, in the early days of auctions using this rule, one auction Barry Halper called up after the 6:00 PM ‘witching hour' and wanted to bid on an item that he really wanted. He thought he had placed an initial bid on the item days before. The problem was he was wrong. He made a mistake. He had never bid on the item. I should probably add somewhere that Barry tells this story himself. Anyway, Barry was convinced he had placed a bid on this item earlier and really wanted to place a bid on it and I wouldn't let him. And he was really getting kind of mad at me. In fact, I think he thought I was crazy.
"He was pretty steamed that night, but when he thought about it later, he really appreciated the approach and my uncompromising desire to protect the integrity of the auction, no matter who was bidding. Of course, years later we wound up handling Barry's entire collection.
"Ironically, maybe that incident actually played a small positive role in his decision. At the special dinner held for Barry at Sotheby's the day before the preview for the Halper Collection opened, Barry Halper stood up and told that story. The respect of the people in your industry isn't something you can buy. It's something you have to earn everyday. Good character isn't something you can fake. Honesty and integrity aren't qualities that have any meaning if they're turned on and off depending on the situation. These are the real building blocks of success."
BSC: In general, where do you see the sports memorabilia industry five and 10 years from now?
RL: "The sports memorabilia business will continue to grow, and become more and more sophisticated with reference to all issues relating to exactly how business is conducted. This includes exactly how material is authenticated, exactly how auctions are run, and what conflicts of interest are lurking in the background.
"The high-profile Operation Bullpen forgery cases may have made a lot of headlines, but really they've just scratched the surface of the problems out there. We see a lot of room for improvement. I see less vintage material coming to the market in the years ahead, especially with reference to quality jerseys and bats. Collectors don't realize how good they've had it over the past five years as far as high quality material coming to the marketplace. Most of this material isn't going to be seen again for a long time.
"Over the next five to 10 years, this will probably translate into higher prices overall, but there are no guarantees about any specific given item. The market can be very fickle. Competition and the lower supply of quality material may actually result in fewer auction houses surviving in the years to come.
BSC: Talk a little bit about the upcoming May 1 auction. What excites you the most about it?
RL: "Well, it's just a great auction from beginning to end. And, like all of our catalogs, it's really designed to have a place on the bookshelf forever. A lot of work goes into every REA auction. The serious collectors really appreciate that.
"The more knowledgeable the collector, the more they appreciate our auction catalogs. It might sound like a funny way of putting it, but it's usually the other way around. The items which are most exciting are the Jeff Eastland Negro League Collection, not because it's so valuable (which it is) but because we were able to present the history of the Negro Leagues, in words and pictures, in a manner which really hasn't ever been done before, using one of the world's greatest collections of Negro League material as a vehicle. It was an honor to handle the collection, and it was also a great learning experience.
"The other area of extraordinary significance is a selection of material relating to the origins of baseball. One of the greatest myths of American folklore is the story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball. This was a huge controversy in the early part of the century.
"Al Spalding was the chief proponent of the theory that Doubleday invented the game, citing the claims of a Mr. Abner Graves that he saw Doubleday invent the game in Cooperstown in 1839. Henry Chadwick, the preeminent sportswriter of the 19th century, contended that the sport evolved from the English game of Rounders.
"Spalding, who was one of the game's pioneers and at this time also one of the most powerful forces in the game, had a great interest in promoting baseball to the world as a purely American sport. In 1905 Spalding created the Mills Commission to "once and for all" determine the origin of the game of Baseball. In the end, under Spalding's direction, the Mills Commission found that based on the available evidence, the game of Baseball was invented in Cooperstown by Abner Doubleday in 1839, thus ingraining into the consciousness of American Popular Culture one of the greatest myths in all of American folklore.
"Today, scholars almost universally side with Chadwick in the debate regarding the origins of the game, but Cooperstown will forever officially remain the birthplace of baseball.
"The upcoming May 1 auction includes an incredible letter written by Chadwick in which he calls the commission's findings ‘inherently flawed,' refers to Spalding as ‘overzealous in his patriotism to a fault,' and out and out calls the Graves story a ‘ridiculous fraud.'
"This letter really tells the story and captures the spirit of the controversy surrounding the origins of the game, and while we've handled many items which are more valuable, this is definitely one of the most significant and exciting items we've ever handled. When our auction catalog can play a significant role in documenting and teaching history, well, that's what we strive for when we get the opportunity, and that's what collecting is really all about."