A while back I began a feature that I hope to run throughout 2007 that presents a Q&A session with various hobby/industry personnel. I sent these questions out to a number of folks that included both those that have and do not have a business relationship with MEARS. In my e-mail out to potential respondents, I made the point to mention that I would not edit their responses in any manner. Rob Lifson from Robert Edwards Auctions has been kind enough to provide answers to my questions. For ease in reading, my questions are identified as MEARS Auth, LLC’s Question (DG Q:) and Rob Lifson’s Answer (RL A:) Without any further delay, here we go:
DG Q: I know that you are a collector as well, when did this start for you and what was it with?
RL A:When I was a kid I collected cards, like many other kids, but by the time I was seven or eight, for some reason I became very interested in old cards. By the time I was ten years old, this is back in 1970, I had complete sets of Play Balls, hundreds of tobacco cards, and really a little bit of everything. I enjoyed learning about the history of cards, the history of baseball, and the history of America. Cards weren’t very valuable back then, especially compared to today, but I bought and sold them, and this was my introduction to the world of business. I’m not really that much of a collector actually. I really consider myself more of a researcher and my interest in working with material is in learning about – and teaching – the history of baseball and the history of America through objects.
Collecting personally for myself has never been a high priority. That doesn’t mean I don’t love the stuff, and I enjoy having a few display items on my walls. It’s just that actually owning the material has never been my priority. While that may be rare or even unique for someone that runs auctions in this field and writes about the history of cards and memorabilia, I always thought that this helped make me better at what I do. In the past I have bought many items I liked specifically because I thought they were undervalued, as an investment. I never considered it a collection because really anyone could buy my items but I enjoyed having an inventory of items that I personally liked, especially nineteenth century items. The only area of sports collecting in which I was ever a real collector was pinback buttons. I really like pins, everything about them. I still do! I sold my entire 30-year baseball pinback collection privately intact just during the past couple of years. It was really quite a collection, but I wasn’t doing anything with it, it had become very valuable and it was not my intention to have an extremely valuable personal collection (like everything else, pins have appreciated quite a bit over the past thirty years) and I know it’s got the best possible home.
My collecting these days for the most part involves very modest value items and still revolves around pins, but is pretty much limited to non-baseball pinbacks, and covers all areas of popular culture, as well as political collectibles. I have always had a special interest in causes of all types, and have a personal collection of political campaign items, mostly pinbacks but also some posters, which relate to the history of civil rights, and activism in America, and covers all types of political ideas and causes. I also like illustration art.
DG Q: On a personal collecting level, what is the one item you have parted with over the past that you wish you still had?
RL A: There really isn’t anything. That may sound crazy, because I’ve had just about every great item in the entire field of baseball collectibles pass through my hands. I always tell people that ask about this that “I can appreciate the Mona Lisa, but I don’t have to own it.” I do enjoy playing a role, usually a small role but sometimes a significant role, in preserving history and being a part of building great collections. The fact that I help make sure that great items get properly documented and wind up in great collections is a thrill. Some of these great collections, in a way I feel they are mine too, because I helped build them. It’s exciting to have items that I have handled or discovered wind up in the very best collections in the world, in some cases in museums, including the Hall of Fame.
Discovering, researching, and authenticating The Rosa Parks Bus, even though it’s not a sports item, will probably always be the highlight of my career. The bus was purchased by the Ford Foundation and is now the number one exhibit at the Ford Museum in Michigan. Hundreds of thousands of people a year go to see it and learn about the legacy of Rosa Parks and her role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America. I’m responsible for that, and it is very satisfying to know that long after I’m gone, my commitment to researching the bus will have played such an important role in preserving and teaching history to future generations. The fact that my strong interests have always included the history of political causes, Civil Rights, and political activism in America, and that I happened to be the person who discovered and authenticated the Rosa Parks Bus, gives that project all the greater personal meaning to me. Looking back, it’s hard to say if it this was just a big coincidence or if it was something that I was somehow just destined to do. If I didn’t have the great passion for American history that I do, I wouldn’t have pursued the authentication of the Rosa Parks bus as tirelessly and with such an uncompromising commitment. Everyone said my efforts would be fruitless. I had no idea that I would actually wind up being successful. Because of the advanced ages of many of the people that I needed to speak with to help in the project, if the Rosa Parks Bus had come to my attention just a few years later it would have been too late; it wouldn’t have happened the same way; the bus wouldn’t have been authenticated; and the exhibit at the Ford Museum wouldn’t exist.
One of my proudest days was when Rosa Parks herself, when she was eighty-eight years old, attended the unveiling of the bus as the guest of honor at the Ford Museum. To me, the way things developed and the breaks that I got during my research, including that the people I needed most to help me were still alive, and willing and able to help some forty-five years later, was a miracle. There was a lot luck involved, but there’s also an old saying: you make your own luck. So even my greatest find of all, the most meaningful research project of my career, the Rosa Parks bus, would I want to have this item back? Not in a million years. I want this bus on display for people to see, and it will be forever. That’s sort of how I feel about handling all important items, whether it’s the 1848 Knickerbocker Constitution, Lou Gehrig’s 1939 jersey from the day his famous farewell speech, or The Rosa Parks Bus.
In 1997 I was lucky enough to recognize that the Gehrig jersey consigned to REA might have a greater significance, and I was able to properly identify and authenticate it with certainty as the jersey he wore on Lou Gehrig Day. I believe this authentication project was the very first application of pinstripe match authentication ever involving a baseball jersey. At the time I considered it groundbreaking. No one had ever done anything like that before to the best of my knowledge in the sports memorabilia world. I’ve never collected jerseys or any game-used equipment but I didn’t have to be a collector to appreciate the excitement of researching and essentially discovering Lou Gehrig’s jersey from the day of his famous speech, and presenting it to the world. Just properly documenting the items, unlocking their historical significance, and presenting the stories they have to tell is really a large part of the fun of the collecting world for me. Everyone can get a catalog so I can share my appreciation of history and my enthusiasm for items with everyone.
My great friend Mike Gidwitz always said about the items in his incredible collection that “he didn’t really own them, but that he was just borrowing them, looking after them and taking care of them for a while.” That’s not too far from how I feel, but I get to share the history and the significance of items with thousands through auction catalogs, and work with collectors that care about the preserving the history of the game and America through memorabilia. If the interest of collectors wasn’t there, maybe I’d feel differently, but they are, and I’m grateful they are there. They make it easy for me to say there’s absolutely no item that I’ve had that I look back and regret parting with.
DG Q: How did you come to be involved with Robert Edwards Auctions?
RL A: I started dealing in vintage cards in a big way in 1969. I actually started collecting as a kid in 1965 (that’s why I still have a set of 1965 Topps cards which I keep because I remember being so exited about buying them at the candy store) but was always interested in older cards. Everyone thought it was really strange but my family humored me. By 1968 I was able to assemble quite a collection of old cards, a lot of it for free just by asking parents of friends (cards had very little value at this time), a lot of it by making purchases, trading and selling. Every cent I had went to buying cards. Every free moment was invested in learning about and finding old cards. I actually went door to door back in 1969-1970, literally casing the neighborhood for old cards. It was a different world at this time, no one would ever allow a kid to do this today. By 1969 I had a very substantial card collection and a thriving small business. I am 46 years old. In 1969, I was nine years old. By 1972 I was one of the most active dealers in the country in vintage cards.
My first auctions were in the early 1970s. They were a lot smaller back then, sometimes just a quarter-page in the old Trader Speaks and the early years of SCD, sometimes a page or two, as were my first fixed price sales. In the early 1970s all bids were only by mail. I was dealing with adults from all over the country by the time I was 12 years old. Back then I didn’t know about anything but baseball cards, which in retrospect may have been my greatest strength, because no one told me I could not buy, sell, and trade baseball cards with adults. I took a loan out from the bank to expand the business in 1973 (my Dad co-signed), which I repaid over the next two years. I purchased the Kurzrok collection from Dr. Lawrence Kurzrok’s family a year following his passing (I did a lot of dealing with Dr. Kurzrok for many years. He was impressed by my enthusiasm, dedication, and interest in the business, and he instructed his wife to contact me and sell me the collection when he passed away). Dr. Kurzrok passed away in 1975 and I was 16 years old in 1976 when I purchased his collection. This was perhaps the largest collection, or at least one of the largest collections, of vintage cards to ever trade hands, and was probably the largest vintage baseball card deal in the history of collecting at the time in terms of dollars. The total cost was over $20,000 (that was really a lot more in 1976 than it sounds today, there just weren’t any deals that big in those days). The collection included among other cards over 2,000 Old Judges, dozens of E card sets, hundreds of Cracker Jacks, hundreds of Ramlys, hundreds of Allen & Ginters, hundreds of T202s, etc. In the early days I was a dealer who also worked extensively with consignments.
Over the years this has evolved to all consignments. In 1990 I changed the name of the business to Robert Edward Auctions to better reflect the nature of the business. For how long I’ve been around, many people assume I am older than I am. I have not just been around for 35+ years, I have been very active on a daily basis this entire span. I count myself very lucky to, by pure chance and circumstance, bridge the gap between the days of Charles Bray (the first real baseball card auctioneer and dealer, who I used to bother to no end as a kid) and the modern era. In the old days everything was cards. In the old days there was very little interest in jerseys and bats and other memorabilia, and very little knowledge about the material, but of course this has changed dramatically over the past fifteen or twenty years.
DG Q: What are three things that you would like to see change within the industry/hobby and why?
RL A: Robert Edward Auctions handles mostly cards, in part because there are a lot more cards around than bats and jerseys, they are very valuable, and that’s always been our primary specialty. I think that collectors have no idea how hard it is to offer quality bats and jerseys, especially at REA where everything is consignment. In some cases the problems with which I’d like to see change in the industry are the same with cards as with bats and jerseys other memorabilia. There are industry problems that apply to both cards and memorabilia, and some problems that are unique to each type of collectible.
I’d like to see all the big issues regarding auctions addressed but it’s hard to limit it to just three. With reference to cards, off the top of my head: 1) The epidemic of card alterations, including by auction houses. 2) Disclosure of lots owned by the auction house. 3) Shill bidding. When you really connect the dots, what we have is a system that is very conducive to problems: a system where dealers and auction houses sometimes buy cards; then they alter cards; then they offer the cards at auction. And then they ask you to trust them with your “upto” bids also. If I wanted to create a perfect ecosystem for the creation of life, I’d come up with a menu of essential ingredients like water, sun, gasses, and proteins. If I wanted to create a perfect environment for fraud and corruption in the auction business, I’d choose the policies that are widely accepted as standard in the auction business in this field today. There’s no accountability. There’s no protection. There are a lot of problems out there, and no checks and balances. Robert Edward Auctions trying to call attention to these problems and promote significant change by creating policies that both call attention to and address the issues that we think are significant. Not everyone will agree with us on everything, and all we can do is say that this is how we are proceeding with reference to any given issue, and in the process call attention to the problems that are out there. REA didn’t always have a policy of insisting that when authenticators consign items they authenticate, that it must be disclosed right in the description. We decided this was an issue that had never been properly addressed, and we made it a policy to provide this disclosure. REA didn’t always have a policy of disclosing what items were owned by employees and executives. We decided this would be a significant improvement over the industry standard, and was worth instituting. REA didn’t always have Honest Auto Bid, the system that allows bidders to place limit bids online with us with a 100% certainty that no one in the world, except the bidder, is privy to the limit of your bid, or even that you have placed an “Up To” bid on a given lot. We saw the value in this and paid for the development of this system feature. This cost us a fortune. We’re not sure that everyone appreciates the significance of Honest Auto-Bid, but for anyone who cares or gives it any thought, we think it’s hard not to appreciate. It’s a big deal.
The game-used memorabilia side of the collectibles world has the reputation for having more problems than the world of cards but I’m not convinced that this is justified. I think bats and jerseys that have problems just tend to get more attention. Mistakes happen, improved systems develop, knowledge increases. I think that collectors have never had more information and more valuable resources available to them in assessing items to get what they are supposed to be getting than today. I’m not saying there aren’t problems with the memorabilia world, just that I’m very encouraged. Many of the same issues (listed above) noted for cards also apply to memorabilia. Over and above I think that maybe the one additional issue, and this applies to autographs as well as to memorabilia, is that there are widely promoted authenticators that very often provide poor authentication services – inexcusable errors time and time again. I mean, it’s crazy. There are autograph authenticators for whom I have seen a thousand items authenticated by them and all of the items had one thing in common – they weren’t real. I’ve been asked “How can this be? Can an authenticator be that bad?” When people ask this I am always reminded of when I took my SATs in high school. Everyone naturally wanted to get every question right and get a perfect score of course, but there was always an old urban myth that if you got every single question wrong, they would automatically give you a perfect score anyway, because no one could get them all wrong without being absolutely brilliant and actually knowing all the correct answers; it was statistically impossible. Well, these authenticators that always get everything wrong, I always tell customers that maybe they’re actually great authenticators because, really, no one could possibly be that bad. Maybe they’re the best darn authenticators in the entire world. We use the authenticators that we have the most confidence in. The most problematic authenticators are in the field of autographs. There are some authenticators that when a potential consignor says they have an item with their letter, we just won’t even allow them to send the item in. We have no interest. We just don’t want to waste our time or pay the postage sending these fake items back.
This may make MEARS uncomfortable, but you said you will publish whatever my answers are verbatim, and I am entitled to run my business however I want to: You will never ever see Lou Lampson’s name as an authenticator in a Robert Edward Auctions catalog. Lou might be a very nice guy, and I have met him and he has always been very pleasant, but I personally do not have confidence in his abilities as an authenticator. This is just my personal opinion. Lou used to live just a few minutes away from REA. I even ran into him at the deli a couple of times. Very pleasant fellow. The last time I saw him I think he ordered a cinnamon-and-raison bagel with cream cheese. I respect his opinion about bagels. I ordered the same and was very happy. But I’m not as enthusiastic about his opinions on jerseys. Even living so close, literally five minutes away, it would have never dawned on me to consider having Lou Lampson do our uniform authentication. I’d rather have my grandmother do it. This is just my opinion and I know that some auction houses, and presumably some collectors (though I do not know them) have great confidence in Mr. Lampson’s abilities. If ever a bidder was interested in a jersey at REA and they were not satisfied with the authentication work by MEARS and wanted Lou Lampson (or any one else) to look at it for a second opinion, by all means we would be happy to cooperate in any reasonable manner. This hasn’t happened yet. To me it is very interesting that so many of the auction houses that use Lou Lampson’s services own the items that Lou Lampson is authenticating for them and that they are offering. I don’t know the significance of this, but it is interesting. I’m not saying Lou Lampson is wrong all the time. I’m sure he’s been right many times. But when there is an issue with a Lou Lampson authentication, well, he’s not exactly the easiest guy to reach. I don’t even know if it’s possible to contact him. In contrast, when there’s an issue with a MEARS authentication, the communication and options that are available to collectors is tremendous. I do understand that Lou Lampson’s authentication rates are extremely reasonable, but there’s an old saying: you get what you pay for. The modest cost, the quality of his authentication services, and his inaccessibility may serve the purposes of some auction houses well but I don’t think it’s very good for collectors.
DG Q: What are three things that you consider the strengths of the industry/hobby at this time and why?
RL A: The industry has a lot of strengths. There’s a lot of great things that have happened and are happening. As far as game-used equipment – jerseys and bats – I think this area is a particular bright spot in the collecting landscape. I think the two most positive factors in this area are the MEARS and the Game Used Universe websites and forums. I know that sometimes the two sites don’t see eye to eye on everything, almost like there’s a cold war at times, but maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be: Checks and balances. The fact is that both sites have very similar goals. The valuable services and dedication and scholarly approach to the field by both of these entities is to be applauded. Both of these sites are fantastic and both give collectors access to information that just a few years ago was not accessible, and in many cases didn’t even exist. If that isn’t progress, what is? There has never been a better time to collect game-used items with reference to information available. Which brings me to the third strength of the field that I think is actually directly related to the quality and great value of MEARS and GUU: the collectors are coming back. For a while the problems with authentication were making collectors shy away from bats and uniforms. A lot of factors go into determining values, so I’m not saying that prices on any type of item are going up or down or anything like that. I’m just saying that real collectors are back with a confidence that they never had before, and that they are armed with knowledge that they never had before so that they can make the most intelligent decisions possible without just blindly relying on opinions of others. This is great. There are still plenty of problems out there, but it is now possible for collectors to collect memorabilia and understand what they are buying and not get burned. This is a big change from years past. As far as cards go, I don’t have enough time to write about all the problems in the card industry. But maybe the number one strength of the field, which applies to both cards and memorabilia, is simply that there is a growing awareness about the problems that exist, and that’s really the first step towards progress in addressing any of the issues in the field that need addressing. MEARS and GUU should be very proud. You guys don’t get the credit you deserve. From my perspective, your work is laying down the foundation that will make this field continue to survive and thrive in the future. MEARS and GUU are literally keeping the field from falling apart. I like what Steiner does also, with the new material, making sure that people are getting what they are supposed to be getting, and John Taube and Vince Malta also deserve positive mention as being part of the progress that has occurred with the body of knowledge relating to the authentication bats. I’m sure there are others and I apologize for leaving anyone out. I have also heard that GAI has a very knowledgeable authenticator but I have no personal experience with him, but have heard good things and don’t want to leave him out.
DG Q: Complete this sentence/thought…If I was just starting to collect game used sports memorabilia, I would recommend….
RL A: Baseball Hall of Fame Flannels.
DG Q: Who do you consider the most important sports personality of the 20th Century with respect to influence on the hobby/industry in the following sports and why?
RL A: Baseball: Babe Ruth. He’s the man. There has never been anyone who revolutionized the game like Ruth. So many factors came together – his great talent, the era in which he lived, his personality. Babe Ruth saved baseball. He made baseball popular again after the dark days of the Black Sox scandal. I consider him to be the most important baseballs personality of the twentieth century.
I don’t have a strong opinion about who is the most important sports personality of the twentieth-century for the other sports, although for boxing I might have to say Muhammad Ali. But that might just be nostalgia. Ali was a part of my childhood. I’ve always been a big fan. If I lived in an earlier era, maybe I’d be saying Jack Johnson.
DG Q: I have just let you in on a project I have been working on for the Department of Defense that involves time travel…Rob Lifson, (Jack Bauer is booked) you have 24 hours to go back in time an retrieve one piece of sports memorabilia, what do you go after and what do think the value of it would be in today’s market?
RL A: It would be easy to say “the first baseball” but that would be something that would be hard to define and, really, I’ve always been a “printed word kind of guy.” I’ve always been about ideas and the printed word, so I would probably go back in time and get one of two printed items that actually exist: a copy of the 1838 Philadelphia Olympics Constitution or a copy of the 1848 Knickerbockers Constitution. Both of these items are of monumental significance with reference to the origins of organized baseball. The incredible thing is that there is only one example known to exist of each of these items and I’ve actually handled both. There were only two or three dozen of each of these documents printed, and for even one example of either constitution to even survive is amazing. For me to have discovered one of these, let alone to have discovered both, is really one of the collecting miracles that I shake my head over. It’s preposterous. But it’s true. So the two items that I’d go back in time and get, I’ve actually had. When I think about it, like with the Rosa Parks Bus, it’s almost like I was destined to handle them. There are plenty of great items, but some have a lot more meaning in my eyes than others. It has nothing to do with value. To me these items are priceless. I can’t provide a value. Sometimes the most historically significant items are not the most valuable. A T206 Honus Wagner in top shape would be worth a lot more than the Olympic Constitution, the Knickerbockers Constitution, and the Rosa Parks Bus all put together, but really, is there any question about what is more historically significant? Of course not. Any one of these three items is far more significant. But that’s just another fascinating dimension of the collecting world.
END OF INTERVIEW.
Information about Robert Edwards Auctions (REA) can be found at:
MEARS Auth, LLC