We are about to close out the “Zero’s”, pre-teens, or however you care to reference the first decade of the 21st Century. Of the four decades I have been involved in this hobby, this was by far the most significant. I say that because it was in this decade that a segment of the hobby truly became an industry. The evaluation or “authentication industry.” I base my opinion and observation off of these definitions of the word “Industry”:
A: The aggregate of manufacturing or technically productive enterprises
in a particular field, often named after its principal product.
particular field, often named after its principal subject.
While some might argue that the sports memorabilia authentication industry existed prior to the year 2000, I would suggest what we had was loose confederation of individuals and related business entities making money off of a common commodity line. In my mind, the difference has been brought about by technology and the impact of information and
I truly look at the Barry Halper Auction as the tipping point or forcing function in all of this. The Halper Auction occurred in 1998 and did a number of things:
1. Represented the high water mark for the sports memorabilia craze of the 1980s and 1990s.
2. Served to focus national media attention on sports memorabilia in a dollar figure/value added construct, worthy of industry status and “industry level attention.” The Halper Auction was a 20+ million dollar event.
3. Began to actually highlight the shortfalls with the individuals, organizations, and processes/standards engaged in the authentication activity.
It was about the same time of the Halper Auction that I started collecting information and building data bases to support evaluations. I saw that while elements of definition “A” were in place, the “industries” requirements were lacking as called for by definition “B.” The industry standard for authentication was grounded in the premise that because someone had been involved for a requisite amount of time, their opinion was to be seen as credible. This was also bolstered by the fact that these same individuals or organizations were a long time source of the same product moving through the collecting community. These individuals and organizations sought out buyers for both their services as broker and confidant simultaneously. There is of course nothing wrong with this, and it actually makes great sense from an individual business perspective. This standard of authentication was by and large accepted without any substantive or objectively defendable information or observation, much beyond a photograph and description of the item. The down fall of all of this hit home on 1 January 2000…yet they didn’t see it coming or know it was happening.
As we approached Y2K, world wide realization occurred of how dependant we had become on information and how much we relied on the digital and virtual world for it. For the “authenticators”, this also meant that much of the information they had and monopolized was soon to be readily available to the general collecting public. It also meant that their work would inevitably fall under greater scrutiny. Additionally, the advent of E-Bay meant that collectors could now find both product and information on their own. For the auction house segment that had long subsisted off of published paper catalogs, on-line auctions created increased exposure of their product. This same exposure also facilitated greater scrutiny of their product, processes, and those they employed to authenticate for them.
My sensing, around 2001-2002, was that “authentications” was the lowest performing segment of a much larger under performing industry. My assessment of “under performing industry” had nothing to do with the money being made as it was and remains staggering. My definition focused on the quality of product and services being provided by authenticators as it related to what collectors were spending on their product. I defined product as a combination of the actual item and the substance of the body of work offered to legitimize the item as being as what is was represented to be. This was in line with the “scholarship” portion of definition “B.” I also started to think about what would fall into the category of “ancillary activity in a particular field.” In my mind this spoke to the relationship many individuals and organizations had as dealers and sellers of product. It also implied issues of recognized responsibility.
All of this told me, that to excel in this under-performing segment of the sports memorabilia industry, an individual or organization had to address the three things in earnest as core requirements:
1. The work had to be scholarly in nature, objective, and quantifiable. The opinions would have to be conveyed in such a manner that they stood on their own merits. This effort would also have to be supported with similar scholarly research and writing required to demonstrate mastery of the subject matter that would serve as the basis for claimed expertise.
2. Relationships that existed in more than one community (authenticator, dealer, auction house) had to be recognized and clearly identified or abandoned. In a word…disclosure.
3. Formal responsibility for the quality of the work had to be recognized and assumed.
How accurate was my assessment in 2002/2003? In 2004 MEARS would service an auction house for roughly $1500 an auction. This fee was the same whether it included modern or vintage items and the quantity of items did not matter. Today, single pieces of sports memorabilia are evaluated at this rate, and in some instances, even higher. Why will collectors pay these fees?
1. The work is scholarly in nature, objective and quantifiable, and conveyed in such a manner that it stands on its own merits. This has been supported by similar scholarly research and writing, demonstrating master of the subject matter that serves as the basis for claimed expertise.
2. MEARS has as a core policy provision the requirement for disclosure. This works along the macro line of establishing and maintaining trust and confidence through transparency.
3. MEARS has a Buyer’s Protection Program. This addresses the issue of responsibility and serves as a forcing function for quality and consistent work.
What I am suggesting by all of this is that MEARS has established a standard for the authentication industry in line with the actual functional requirements of the word. It also highlights that any one person or organization could replicate all of this given the requisite level of resourcing (time, effort, energy, and money) should they truly care to.
Not only is MEARS Authentications enjoying the success of this analysis, but the benefits are spilling over into MEARS Auctions as well. Why? Largely because of the tireless efforts of Troy Kinunen and also because he had the wherewithal to find applicability and utility for these same three core requirements and he embraced the policy guidance and implications that I offered. He also had the foresight to invest heavily in supporting physical infrastructure in the way of the 15,000 square foot MEARS Research and Conference Center, the home of MEARS Auctions. MEARS Auctions remains well nested to the three core requirements of MEARS Authentications/MEARS On-Line by:
1. Leveraging the work of MEARS Authentications and MEARS On-Line to support the auction division, ensuring quality in evaluations and presentation.
2. Ensuring continued disclosure and organizational transparency. This includes the provisions for no shill bidding or hidden reserves and the added requirement of a self imposed audit.
3. Continued formal responsibility for the quality of the work, and now in this case, the quality of the product or memorabilia offered.
I can assure you that I have been thinking about where MEARS wants to be in 10 years and what it will take to get there. I envision MEARS Authentications/MEARS On-Line and MEARS Auctions as viable entities collaboratively leveraging shared infrastructure. The question is what that will look like. I have my ideas and it won’t be simply bigger and better. It will be in line with identifying current environmental shortfalls in the market place and acting first and best, while remaining nested to the core requirements for MEARS.
For those reading this thinking I am simply trying to rewrite history on favorable terms, I invite you to go back and look at the issues I have been addressing and policies and procedures that have been focused on since the 2002/2003 time frame. I look forward to challenges and opportunities of the next decade with MEARS as I have the past. I was wanting “MEARS” and I knew “MEARS” had a place 10 years ago, I just didn’t know what it was going to be called or look like. Now that it is here and I know what it looks like, the future seems all the more promising. MEARS will continue to define the environment and our place in it on our terms, giving little thought to being bound by the “no one does things that way” school of thought or convention. It will remain an ethics based organization, truly setting the standard for the industry by adhering to the three baseline fundamentals of the definition; quality, transparency, and responsibility.
If you want to know the magic formula to compete with MEARS or how we plan to compete in this industry, there you have it. It has not been a secret since before our inception, at start up, today, or in the future. The reliance on information and a more educated and skeptical collecting body will only continue to amplify the importance of the three core requirements I identified a decade ago. If you look back at this decade against the back drop of those individuals or organizations that have struggled, I would offer that you can tie it directly back to their ignoring or dismissing one or all three of these within the context of proliferation of information in the digital age.
Just some thoughts for the past decade and the next.
As always, collect what you enjoy and enjoy what you collect.
MEARS Auth, LLC
For questions or comments on this article, please feel to drop me a line at DaveGrob1@aol.com