“I feel fortunate because it’s like having your cake and eating it, too,” Mr. Shanus said. “You get a lot of pleasure in holding it, but if you sell it, it’s an appreciating asset.”
Unlike, say, fine art or coins, the growth in sports memorabilia collecting has been a function of a collision of demographics, economics and technology. For decades, players routinely gave away their autographs and their gear, including balls, bats and jerseys. Babe Ruth, baseball’s biggest titan, signed his name for almost anyone who asked. Trading cards were mostly collected by children, though starting in the 1930s, visionaries like Jefferson Burdick created a cataloging system that became the foundation of the industry years later.
It wasn’t until the go-go years of the 1980s, when the first baby boomers were reaching middle age, that large amounts of money poured into the sports memorabilia market, especially for baseball-related items, which make up about 70 percent of the vintage market. The value of trading cards for the most famous players including Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron jumped. So did autographs and signed photographs. Serious collectors began paying five-, six- and even seven-figure sums for scarce items, like jerseys worn by Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and others, and ballplayers like Pete Rose were paid thousands of dollars to appear at autograph signings.
But like any unregulated market, the risk of fraud was ever-present. To the unsuspecting buyer, an autograph could be forged and an ordinary ball substituted for a rare one. And the internet, which helped match buyers with sellers, was also used to pawn off fakes.
So in time, insurers started writing policies that covered sports memorabilia and authenticators began to verify the legitimacy of cards and other items. Sports leagues, sensing a chance to enhance interest in their games, have also been authenticating game-used bats, balls, jerseys and other items. And while authenticators have not been above reproach, their entry into the market has generally reassured buyers.
“Any industry where authentication has been introduced, the market has flourished, whether it’s baseball cards, comic books or game worn jerseys,” said Troy Kinunen, who is in charge of consignments, sales and purchases at Mears Online Auctions in South Milwaukee. “Authentication created consumer confidence and consumer confidence create higher prices.”
Higher prices, he added, have also attracted thieves, the ultimate backhanded compliment. In recent years, a rash of sports museums have been pilfered, with thieves getting away with Yogi Berra’s World Series rings, Roger Maris’s most valuable player plaque from 1960, the 1903 Belmont Stakes trophy, and a replica of an alligator-skin belt with a solid gold buckle given to the golfer Ben Hogan. None of the items have been recovered.
Perhaps the most brazen theft occurred this year, when a journalist and memorabilia collector from Mexico stole the jersey worn by Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback, out of his locker soon after the Patriots Super Bowl victory. After an investigation spanning two countries, the jersey — which some experts said was worth about half a million dollars — was recovered about a month later.
“People are realizing the value and demand of it,” said James Spence, the founder of JSA, a company that verifies the legitimacy of sports memorabilia.
The demand, it seems, is insatiable, at least for the most coveted items, the values of which have risen so reliably in the past several decades that some people are investing in sports memorabilia to diversify their portfolios, according to Chris Ivy, the director of sports collectibles at Heritage Auctions in Dallas who is currently selling the only known jersey worn by Jackie Robinson in 1947, his rookie season. (The auction will last until mid-November.)
“There’s only so much you can put in real estate and Wall Street,” said Mr. Ivy, whose company handles about $60 million in auction sales annually. “Collectibles in general are seeing a lot of growth and sports is seeing most of that.”
But for every investor looking to make a buck, there are hundreds if not thousands more who collect because they love a sport, team or player. The great thing about sports compared to, say, stamps, which younger people rarely use now, is there is always another generation of fans who turn into collectors.
“I see it like art, something we grow up with and at the end of the day, evokes passion in us,” Mr. Ivy said. “Anything that does that will hold a special place.”