Hot Simpson collectibles reflect folly of investors

June 24, 1994|By ANDREW LECKEY | ANDREW LECKEY,Tribune Media Services

The sports collectible market, seeking to recover from an early 1990s swoon that followed the boom of the late 1980s, obviously has its ups and downs.

It also, unfortunately, has a ghoulish side.

In the aftermath of the tragic murders of O. J. Simpson's ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman, sports collectors went on a frenzied buying spree for the former football star's memorabilia. Their feeling was that these long-overlooked items would go through the roof because Simpson's arrest.

"It's sick and a sad commentary on fame in America," said Alan Rosen, owner of the respected Mr. Mint Inc. collector business in Montvale, N.J.

A year ago, Rosen was stuck with hundreds of autographed Simpson footballs he was unable to sell, so he unloaded them at deep discount to a home shopping cable channel.

Then, as the recent Simpson story was unfolding, Rosen came home one night to find his telephone answering machine full of messages from would-be collectors.

"One phone message was from a guy who said he knew that I'd once had O. J. Simpson footballs and had reduced the price, so he wanted to buy up to 1,000 immediately," recalled Rosen with a sigh. "Something bad happens, everybody jumps in."

Simpson's alma mater, the University of Southern California, even took his jersey and Heisman Trophy out of display cases because it feared they'd be stolen by "fans" seeking to capitalize on recent events.

"It's gone wacko, with people coming into card shops who'd never been in one before, all seeking O. J.'s cards that haven't moved in a long, long time so they could turn around and sell at a profit," said Tom Mortenson, editor of Sports Collectors Digest, published in Iola, Wis. "His autographed footballs are selling for $200, double the usual price."

But here's the bottom line to this morose mania, according to the experts: Such sudden price jumps in sports collectibles are generally short-term events and prices ultimately settle down to previous levels once the hoopla cools.

When Magic Johnson announced retirement from professional basketball because he'd tested positive for the AIDS virus, HIV, his memorabilia jumped dramatically in value. It has since settled down to more realistic preretirement levels. The same up- and-down cycle occurred after Michael Jordan's surprise early retirement from basketball, as well as Pete Rose's ban from baseball.

The Simpson events admittedly are more bizarre, dramatic and likely to be a focal point for a longer period. Yet they should have the same consequences in terms of memorabilia, no matter what Simpson's fate.

Value of sports items generally settles at whatever level the athlete's perceived talents and accomplishments merit.

While the sports collectible market is bigger than ever in terms of collector shows and shops, a lesson has been learned that not all items appreciate and not all even maintain their prices.

A World Series program from the 1937 series between New York's Giants and Yankees that sold for $250 last year tumbled to around $150, according to Leland's Auction House in New York. Stadium seats from demolished Ebbetts Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, that sold for $6,000 last year are going for half that price.

New York Yankee Don Mattingly's 1984 rookie card that once sold for $75 has slipped to $45, as his career batting average has slipped. The 1986 rookie card of slugger Jose Canseco, now a Texas Ranger, was once one of the most in demand, but its value plummeted as his ability waned and he suffered injuries.

On the other hand, selected classic items are skyrocketing. Baseballs autographed by Babe Ruth doubled in price to $4,000 over the last two years. A game jersey of hockey great Wayne Gretzky can command $9,000. Signs such as "No Spitting" or "No Ballplaying Here" from demolished stadiums bring thousands of dollars.

"Always buy what you like, for investment is a complicated matter, and buy from people who are reputable and stand behind their material with letters of authenticity," advised Joshua Evans, chairman of Leland's, the nation's largest sports auction house. "Start by buying football memorabilia because it's priced less than other sports, and, in all sports, seek cards of future Hall of Famers likely to appreciate."

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