When it comes to collecting, trading and selling sports memorabilia, Don Hurley has it down. He’s been collecting since 1968 and has occasionally been known to part with his treasures. Selling memorabilia -- and making money at it -- involves a few challenges, but he says that it’s doable. We asked him for a few tips of the trade.
eHow: What are some important things to consider when you're starting out?
Don Hurley: Before you can sell sports memorabilia, you have to acquire items that someone else is willing to pay money for. That’s not all that hard -- there’s something almost universally magical about collecting or owning a mark, like an autograph, made by someone you truly admire. A signature is as old as time and it’s one of the few tangible things that remain after the athlete is gone. People will part with their hard-earned money to collect and invest in these things, so you should have a ready-made and almost unlimited supply of fans if you can reach them. But acquiring items to start up your business is going to cost you an initial outlay of money, particularly if you want a high-end business with historic and vintage pieces. Some items signed by Babe Ruth can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Your initial investment will depend on the scale of the business you’re interested in starting up. If you have less cash available, you can start small and build up to big ticket items over time.
eHow: What sort of items should you collect to sell?
Don Hurley: Make sure that what you collect to sell is truly investment-grade memorabilia. It tends to hold its value over the years. Babe Ruth comes to mind again, and almost anything by Lou Gehrig. Be wary of up-and-coming athletes, whether they’re in in baseball, football, racing or whatever. They might not have staying power -- they could just be flashes in the pan. Many people consider Mike Trout to be the future of baseball (this article was published in November of 2014), but we won’t know that for sure for a few years yet. You can usually get autographs from these guys for free early in their careers -- just be in the right place at the right time -- so your initial investment is nil. If they really are stars, you can turn a nice profit years down the road if you’re patient. But warehouses and garages are filled with tons of mildew-collecting memorabilia associated with the supposed “next Joe DiMaggio.”
eHow: How important is authentication?
Don Hurley: It’s easy to get fooled when you’re collecting. You should be wary and you should expect that your buyers are going to be wary, too. Almost everyone will want the peace of mind of some third party authentication to go with what they’re buying from you. You should look for it yourself as well when you’re collecting. There are many certified authenticators in the hobby today who will either witness an item being signed by an athlete or use training in forensic analysis to reliably certify than an item is genuine. They’ll generally place an invisible daub mark on the item that’s unique to them, and sometimes a hologram as well. If you purchase something like this, you’re set. If the seller doesn’t take care of this for you, have the item authenticated yourself. Now you can give your buyer proof that he’s purchasing the real deal when you eventually turn around and sell the memorabilia. If you don’t take this precaution, your buyer will probably do it after the sale and you might find yourself in the position of having to return his money if the authenticator says the item isn’t real. This can happen even when you know for a fact that it’s real. I’ve had situations where I personally watched the guy sign a ball or jersey only to have an authentication service state that the autograph was fake. I might have been standing there when Peyton Manning scribbled his name, but maybe he deviated from accepted exemplars because he was exhausted or distracted or in a hurry. There’s not much to be done in these situations, but taking photos of the signing can sometimes help.
eHow: Which is better, a storefront or the Internet?
Don Hurley: Actual storefronts in the memorabilia business are becoming increasingly rare in this age of electronics and the Internet. Online sales dominate and they’re cheaper for the seller. You’re not looking at carrying the overhead of rent or mortgage for brick and mortar. But a storefront lends credibility, a sense of stability and a comforting feel for your customers. They can personally view an item you have for sale as opposed to looking at an image online. If you do decide on a storefront, it all comes down to location, location, location, just as with any business. See if you can get a place nearby to a stadium or ballpark. If that’s not possible, go with other areas that fit your market and offer significant traffic, like a mall kiosk.
eHow: How do you reach prospective buyers?
Don Hurley: You have to promote yourself. Get your hands on trade publications like the Sports Collector’s Digest. Place ads for your items and participate in written and online dialogues of current developments in the industry. In other words, flaunt your expertise. And word of mouth is huge. Successfully transacting with others over a period of time will establish you and get your name out there. You’ll build a good reputation and repeat buyers will come to you first when they’re looking for something specific. This is particularly important in the memorabilia business because it’s fraught with perils of fraud and even unintentionally unreliable items making it onto the market.
About Don Hurley
Don Hurley’s expertise -- and passion -- is baseball, but he’s been trading in all manner of sports memorabilia, and doing it successfully, for 46 years.
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