Honest and Integrity in Sports Collecting

By definition, honesty is “fairness and straightforwardness of conduct or adherence to the facts mean uprightness of character or action. HONESTY implies a refusal to lie, steal, or deceive in any way. HONOR suggests an active or anxious regard for the standards of one’s profession, calling, or position. INTEGRITY implies trustworthiness and incorruptibility to a degree that one is incapable of being false to a trust, responsibility, or pledge.” Is it possible to be honest and work with integrity in business? Of course it is and plenty of people and companies do it everyday. However, increasingly more and more people are crossing the line and trading their ethics for a healthier bottom line. We see it in the news everyday, from the Enron and Tyco scandals all the way to Martha Stewart.

The sports collecting industry is no different and is replete with many disreputable characters. Unfortunately, their greed comes at the expense of those in the hobby who participate because of a true love for the sport and its collectibles. The question then becomes, how does one differentiate between an unscrupulous hobbyist/dealer/auction house and a reputable one. Identifying trustworthy people and companies is never an easy task. As in any other field, education and knowledge are often the consumer’s best defense against being swindled. Do your homework, research and know the right questions to ask. With the enormous breadth of information available via the internet, researching is not the daunting task it once was – use this tool to its fullest extent. Check the reputations of people and organizations you intend to do business with before handing over your money. Visit the many sports related bulletin boards, blogs and websites – see what others have to say and what their experiences have been. Just because someone puts out a flashy catalog, doesn’t mean that they have your best interest at heart. Buy, bid and trade with caution.

A big concern for many collectors today is the fact that some auction houses will purchase and sell items outside the forum of the auction. In many cases there is greater profit to be made for the auction houses by trading privately than by including items in an auction. Thus, the auction house is equivalent to a dealer, which many see as a big conflict of interest. One must question the integrity and intentions of an auction house that conducts business in such a manner. Whose interests are they most concerned with? By the very nature of their business, dealers are out to make a profit. The difference between an honest dealer and an unscrupulous one is simply how much profit they are seeking to make in a single transaction assuming, of course, their wares are what they claim. Is their asking price fair compared to the fair market value of the item or are they seeking to gouge the unassuming collector? In many cases, greed takes over and the collector generally does not find out that he has been taken until he tries to resell the item and finds it is worth half of what he paid or worse. This is another important reason to educate yourself within your specific collecting interest. Use your head as well as your heart when collecting and you will not be disappointed.

Another important facet of the sports collectible field is the reliance collectors place on Letters or Certificates of Authenticity, commonly referred to as LOA’s or COA’s. For many years, the sports hobby was akin to the Wild West when it came to the subject of authenticity. There were no governing bodies and every dealer touted himself an expert, happily providing a letter of authenticity on every item sold. For obvious reasons, such letters (issued by the seller) were normally not worth the paper they were printed on. Over the years, as consumers have became more sophisticated, so has the Letter of Authenticity. To date, leading members of the hobby (with help from the FBI, which shut down a major forgery ring a few years ago) have done an admirable job in collectively policing the field of sports memorabilia. Gone are many of the dealers who masqueraded as self-proclaimed autograph and equipment “experts.” In their place we now have a small group of established, well-respected and impartial authenticators whose expertise is built upon knowledge and experience. It does not behoove these authenticators to give their stamp of approval to fake or forged items since there is no monetary gain from it. They are paid simply for the opinion they render. The most important fact a consumer must understand is that when an authenticator does pass judgment on an item, especially with regard to autographs, it is simply an opinion, albeit a highly informed one. Therefore, there is always a leap of faith on the part of a buyer when purchasing any signed item or piece of game-used memorabilia. It is for each individual buyer to determine just how far that leap should be.

Another important point that many consumers should be aware of is the fact that experts have been known to change their opinion on items, especially as more information becomes available. There have been many instances where an autograph expert has provided an LOA for an item, only to later change his opinion and reject that same item when reexamining it. Many times authenticators, as a matter of course, will have to reexamine items for auction houses as a condition of sale. Conversely, when large group lots of autographed materials are sold at auction, some of the items are often submitted to the same authenticator for more detailed and extensive LOAs. In either scenario, there have been times when authenticators have rescinded their original LOA. When such a situation arises, what options does the buyer or seller have? To begin, its advisable to find out the policies of the company, auction house, dealer or authenticator with whom you are transacting. Do they guarantee their product? What are their return policies? Who’s liable when errors in authenticity have been made? Will the auction house/dealer and authenticator bounce you back and forth like a ping-pong ball, each shirking responsibility and laying blame with the other while your now worthless purchase sits collecting dust as you attempt to reconcile the problem? Both have profited and neither party is likely to willingly return your money. It’s an uphill battle and an easier war to win if you ask all the right questions up front.

With so many aspects to consider in this unregulated hobby, your best defense is to be prepared, educated, and to proceed with caution. Although they do exist in the hobby, do not assume that everyone is honest and transacts with integrity. Buyer beware!