Interview with John Brigandi of Brigandi Coins & Collectibles,
Conducted by Collectable’s Senior Editor, David Seideman.
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Since it was established in 1959, Brigandi Coins & Collectibles has become one of the nation’s preeminent dealers of rare coins, paper currency, gold & silver bullion, vintage sports memorabilia, rare autographs and Americana. While catering to collectors, the family owned business has always promoted its merchandise as an “alternative investment opportunity”— long before the term became in vogue.
In the mid-1980s coin stores sold valuable sports cards and collectibles before card shows and shops popped up everywhere. Back then, I visited Brigandi in midtown Manhattan a few blocks from my office almost every day at lunchtime, marveling at eye-popping, high-end Tom Seaver rookies and Mickey Mantle Bowmans. I bought my fair share of cards. My biggest deal was trading a 1920s $20 dollar gold piece I have saved up for in high school for a near mint Topps 1957 Ted Williams.
Today Brigandi’s business is better than ever, operating from its new location off Park Avenue around the corner from Heritage Auctions. During the pandemic, most of its brisk sports collectibles business is online.
I recently caught up with John Brigandi, the head of the vintage collectibles department, bullion trading and rare coin sales. John frequently appears on TV as a collectibles expert on ESPN, History Channel, and PBS.
David: Your website stresses investment as much, if not more, than collecting.
John: Obviously, we have collectors. But there are the safe haven guys, beginning on the bullion side, seeking hedges against inflation. They are worried about the end of the world and want to be sure they are protected. Some think of it as Armageddon since the pandemic started over the last two years.
Which is why, out of nowhere, collectibles went up tremendously. Basically, we are seeing collectibles now as a tangible asset that is a hedge against inflation and fiat currency, meaning not backed by anything. We have been preaching that for years. At the end of the day we trade a portfolio.
But since it’s a tangible asset, you just can’t randomly buy this stuff. It has to be great and in great condition. We have never lost money. You can’t screw up!
David: Your family has a 62-year record of promoting alternative assets like coin and gold. What motivated you in the 1980s to get into baseball cards?
John: In 1985 I was coming home from the Far East dealing with foreign gold. On the way back I stopped at a coin show. I saw a ’54 Mantle. That’s what started it. Then it became an obsession to buy. I realized that because of coins you have to buy great condition stuff. We have always kept looking for that. If you’re going to put money into it, and the piece is great, you argue over the price. The piece just speaks for itself.
Besides condition, as long as it’s the right player and vintage you can’t go wrong. Lately, we have been making lots of buys in mid-grades because the top grades are so expensive unless you do something like fractional shares. A Hank Aaron PSA 9 (mint) goes from $400,000 to $650,000. Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, and Sandy Koufax (in their prime) go for less than $10,000 in very good to excellent condition. That’s great value.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around modern cards. I don’t know if anybody understands it. A lot of crypto money is going into that. But what that has done in the last three to five months is cause a lot of cross over from modern into the vintage. There’s only x amount of vintage unlike modern which they can keep producing. They can’t do that with vintage. There’s really a definite number.
David: How have alternative investments fared compared to traditional ones?
The right guys are fine. Maybe, there are six, seven, or eight guys. In baseball, the post-war players are Jackie Robinson, Mantle, Clemente, and Koufax. You can’t screw them up. The pre-war are Cobb Ruth, and Gehrig, and Wagner, though Wagner is not as popular as the others, except the fame from his T206 card. These are the biggies.
Then there’s a second rung. Mays will get more and more important. Maybe he’s more popular than Aaron. Here are statistics for Aaron: 2,297 RBIs and 2,174 runs scored. It’s amazing. But Clemente and Jackie Robinson are more popular. I admit it’s marginal and subjective.
Anything Yankee sells. Team balls. Maris is really popular. So is Munson.
You worry when you invest in Tris Speaker and Napoleon Nap Lajoie, and certain early Hall of Famers. But there are Hall of Fame collectors. Their autographs sell for dramatically high prices. A Mel Ott single signed ball goes for $30,000 to $50,0000. Lajoie and Speaker go for $40,000 to $50,000
Think of Cy Young. No one is ever going to beat his record. (511 victories). The game has changed. We treat pitchers differently than before. Today pitchers throw closer to 100 miles per hour. Arms can’t hold up. It’s like thoroughbreds being treated with kid gloves.
David: You mention the Yankees. What about the Brooklyn Dodgers? Aren’t they a cult favorite?
John: When I first got into the hobby, the Dodgers might have been hotter than the Yankees. It’s not like it used to be. A lot of collectors have passed on. We just sold a single signed Roy Campanella ball before his accident in January 1958 for only $15,000. There can’t be more than 15.
An aura is slowly fading. Still a ’51 or ’53 ball goes for a couple of thousand. At least $1500. That’s not true of the Milwaukee Braves. No team had more wins between 1953 and 1959. They were a great franchise.
David: I find it interesting that you mostly define modern as post war vintage like Jackie Robinson rather than the last 10 years.
John: It’s all about vintage. Be skeptical of the new stuff. The Jordan card goes for $700,000. Then it evens out at $350,000. What if you bought two of them? For sure, Jordan is like Ali. These guys transcend the sport. They are world famous.
David: You wrote a definitive article on the history of Babe Ruth autographs. His autograph and cards seem in higher demand than ever. Do you think that will continue?
John: There’s a fine amount of all that stuff. It has gone up in a meteoric way over the past few years. A very good 1933 Goudey has gone up from $5,000 to $15,000 to $20,000. Buy and put it away. (Brigandi has a 1933 Ruth Goudey on its site for $20,950, Best Offer.)
Again, it’s about inflation. It’s running rampant from two percent a year to five percent. I just had a water heater put in. The last one I bought was $1,200 ten years ago. Mine was under warranty, so it cost me $600 in labor. I asked how much a new one was: $2300. Outside of computers and electronics, your dollar buys less and less. If you buy the right sports stuff, you’ll be fine.
Like Ruth. Lousy Ruth autographs you can barely read go from $5,000 to $6,000. We sold a pretty nice one over the weekend for $20,000. We have a PSA 7.5 (Near Mint+) on an unofficial ball. Over the past year, our asking price has gone from $60,000 to $100,000. We buy things like that and keep them. We call it baking the stuff. Brigandi quality is near mint to mint.
Ruth is like Mantle. He’s universal. Mantle is the post war Ruth. Everybody around the world knows them. And, as I said, Ali and Jordan transcend generations.
Mantle is still affordable. There are so many of his balls. They go from $600 to $800. I just spoke about inflation. What’s the difference between $600 and $800? We’re in the luxury department store area. You know how many people walked around with Louis Vuitton or a Channel bags or ripped jeans for $600?
The other day, a wealthy guy spent seven figures in an auction on pre-war, mostly tobacco cards with populations of five or less. He said, “Listen, John. We’ll have this discussion in three to five years.”
The grading is becoming so conservative. The grading companies are not going to allow the grading to weaken. It keeps the grading companies in business. It behooves them to stay tight because it keeps people energized. I really think they are splitting grades like 8.5 so they don’t have to give out 9s.
Customers come in and have consignments. How could this not be excellent? I tell them you’re lucky if you get a very good or very good plus. You can’t grade a vintage card the same way Mahomes rookie. There were different ways of making the cards. Back then they cut on big sheets. The blades would get dull. The ’54 Topps are straggly. How do you grade an Aaron rookie like a modern card?
David: In one recent auction, several 1969 Mets PSA 10 (Gem Mint) Mets commons like Ron Taylor, Jerry Grote, and Ron Swoboda sold for $15,000 to $30,000 because there are only a handful of each. I found that shocking.
John: Well, there are ’69 Mets fans. But these go into the registry sets on PSA’s site (where collectors compete for the best overall grade). I have to believe there’s a better buy unless your love is the number one spot.
It’s becoming harder for the average collector. When they started breaking cards into fractions, it became a marketable commodity. I get it. Everyone has a chance. As time goes on, the strategy makes more and more sense. The popularity of fractionalization is going to grow dramatically. It’s worth a shot getting into cards for $5,000 or less. If you bought $5000 of PSA 8 (Near Mint-Mint) 1952 Topps Mantle valued at $150,000-$200,000 and saw it go to $500,000 to $600,000, you tripled your money.
Would you buy into an Aaron for $800,000 in a nine? That’s not a bad idea. I get the rationale. If it really catches on, the concept is pretty valid. The sky’s the limit.
David: You’ve also dealt a lot with Mickey Mantle.
John: What I used to sell a ’69 Mantle in a well centered PSA 8 for $200 is now $4000. You put a Mantle in any grade in our store window and it goes right away. The ’66 Mantle is a triple print and pretty popular.
Everybody wants a ’52 Mantle. Back in the ‘80s we bought original packs from Canada and found two Mantles. four Jackies, and one Campanella. We sold a pair of Mantles for $125,000. They could have ben nines and tens.
They didn’t do much in the 90s.
David: Is there anyone else in pre or post war you recommend?
John: I would stick to my top eight. You can’t make a mistake. Unless you do something foolish.
People are running around spending money in auctions as opposed to paying flat fees. Someone else is bidding against them because they are just as crazy. I have a guy who is extremely rich. Because there’s a lunatic with just the same amount of money, both of them have a false sense of security. There are better buys.
David: What’s moving markets?
People love population reports.
Plastic, plastic, plastic. Like The Graduate, the future is plastics. People love plastic holders. Type 1 original photos look great in the holders. We sell a lot. With Type 1s, there are less 10 or even less than four or five.
David: What are astute people collecting?
Pre-war. Good autographs. Anything that has quality. I am going to buy all the Clementes. You can’t mess him up too much.
The ’48 Leaf Jackie Robinson is very hot; I think on the higher end than it should be. I’d go for a ’49 Bowman. A PSA 9 mint went for half a million dollars a few months ago.
You gotta buy the card, not the holder. Centering is really important. Years ago it wasn’t. Just don’t buy dramatically off center. Worse than 60/40 is not acceptable.
David: What’s moving markets in the major sports?
John: People have caught on and realize that these are valuable and tangible assets like the gold we sell. That’s a tangible investment.
Location, location, location. Like real estate You don’t look for the buy. You buy the location.
David: I know you have experience in counterfeits in coins. How do you spot fraud in sports?
John: Autographs, yes. We don’’t buy anything without PSA/DNA or JSA authentication
With cards, it’s not too often. There used to be a lot of fake ’51 Mantle Bowmans and some tobacco cards. I don’t really see phonies. It’s the autographs.
Consignors have raw cards. I would know it. The feel. Everything about it. Experience really helps.
David: What are three items you recommend?
Anything Ruth autographed.
Jackie Robinson autographs. Because his cards have run up so much. Wait for those to settle down. They have to. I get his strength. But certain things have gone up in a meteoric rise.
Mickey Mantle. Signed balls are really good. Signed oversized photos like 11 x 14s are also desirable.
David: What’s the future of the hobby?
I think it’s great. Better than ever before. The pre-pandemic period was dormant. To repeat, now these are tangible assets— something we always hoped would happen.
The amazing part of it is that the new cards have spurred the vintage. When you see a Jordan rookie or a Mahomes rookie selling for such big money, you think that you could buy a Clemente for $5000 to $10,000.
I’m seeing millennials from their late 20s to 40 with good jobs in the economically better part of their lives coming into my store.