INTERVIEW WITH AUTOGRAPH EXPERT, RON KEURAJIAN,
CONDUCTED BY COLLECTABLE’S SENIOR EDITOR, DAVID SEIDEMAN.
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When a collector recently bought a rare lot of Mexican Negro League cards on eBay, it included a signed postcard of the immortal Josh Gibson. But Sports Collectors Daily, which broke the news, reported that “many forged [Gibson] postcards exist.” The authority they cited was Ron Keurajian, a leading authenticator known for really doing his homework.
Keurajian is the author of two seminal books, Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs: A Reference Guide, 1st edition and second edition. (Both are available on Amazon.) In his exhaustively researched books, Keurajian digs deeply into archives for signatures on everything from wills to motor vehicle licenses. As a longtime Forbes senior contributor, covering the purchase of sports collectibles for fun and profit, I frequently reached out to Keurajian for autograph and investment advice. On two occasions he was a guest contributor, offering prescient guidance worthwhile investments that would have made me a wealthier man had I followed it. A banker by day, Keurajian has both feet planted in the collecting and investment worlds.—David Seideman
David: Hi, Ron. Welcome to Collectable U. We’re excited to have you because of your deep knowledge of the autograph world and your canny forecasting of the market. How long have you been collecting autographs and how did you start?
Ron: I started collecting autographs in the late 1970s when I was 10 years-old. Early on it was just the current players of the day; Rusty Staub, Milt May, Lance Parrish and the like. In the early 1980s I started to collect former players and Hall of Famers. Tigers second baseman Charlie Gehringer lived by me, and I was lucky enough to meet him and he gave me a signed Hall of Fame plaque postcard of him.
I have always been fascinated by old time baseball and autographs. To me, the appeal is they are so personal, no two are alike and the player actually touched the piece. Babe Ruth actually had his hands on that baseball!
David: Tell us about some of your early buys when a Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb signed ball cost $50. Did you buy any?
Ron: Back in the 1980s they used to have really good card shows in Plymouth, Michigan. Dealers from all over the country would attend and autographs and cards were really affordable. I can remember one dealer had a complete T201 card set in excellent condition; asking price was $400. In the early 1980s both Cobb and Ruth baseballs could be purchased for under $100. Yankees signed team baseballs from the 1930s with a Gehrig signature were a little pricier, but not by much. Now a Gehrig ball is worth at least $4,000 to $5,000. I remember buying a nice 1937 Yankees ball with Gehrig, Lazzeri, DiMaggio and the rest for $125. I also secured a game used American League baseball signed and inscribed by Babe Ruth in bold black ink, that one set me back $75. The Ruth is easily $15,000 I still have both to this day.
Ty Cobb’s daughter, Beverly Cobb McLaren, was running the Cobb Educational Foundation. Cobb had set up this charity to help underprivileged kids go to college. Back in the mid-1980s if you donated $20 to the foundation, she would send you a signed bank check of The Georgia Peach himself. Many forward-thinking collectors, including myself, obtained multiple examples. Today they are worth $3,000. Forty years ago just about all Cobb and Ruth cards and autographs could be purchased for $100 or less. A 1933 Goudey Ruth in very good to excellent condition was a mere $50 to $75; today that same card sells for $20,000 to $30,000. Times have certainly changed.
David: What’s your best acquisition?
Ron: Many years ago, I purchased an American League baseball signed by both Cobb and Ruth. It was signed in 1925 at Navin Field here in Detroit. I bought it from the original owner. It is not in the greatest condition but to have something signed by the greatest player and greatest slugger on one item is a treasure and probably valued at $10,000, though I would never sell it. I also have a New York Giants payroll check from 1902 endorsed on back by Christy Mathewson. It is one of the earliest Matty signatures known. I bought it back in 1988 for $350, that was by far and away my biggest purchase up to that time. The current value is around $15,000. Today, both reside in my safety deposit box.
David: Writing for Forbes, you were very prescient about buying signed Koufax rookie cards. How much have they appreciated since you suggested that in 2017?
Ron: Koufax signed rookie cards generate strong demand. Four years ago, a nice, signed example could be purchased on eBay for $750 to $1,000. Today recently completed eBay sales show that these cards are selling for $3,500 to $4,500 with a superior signed example selling for over $10,000. That is a strong rate of return. High grade specimens will continue to increase nicely. Unfortunately, many signed examples that have been certified and slabbed as genuine by the authentication companies are nothing more than forgeries, so caution is warranted.
David: You also had the good sense to place big bets on Ty Cobb in another Forbes piece. His cards have and memorabilia have since skyrocketed. Why do you think they were so undervalued, and will they continue to rise?
Ron: Cobb is a magical name in history, American or otherwise. He remains a household name. Considering that he played his last game close to 95 years ago; that is quite impressive. In 2016 when I wrote my Forbes article about investing in Cobb material a T206 red portrait, graded 8, was worth in the $40,000 range. In the years that followed auction prices have reach close to $200,000 for the red portrait.
David: How high can this material go? I have been asking myself that for the past 30 years. Values continue to march on. The green portrait of that same set blows by the red, in terms of demand. A green portrait, graded an 8, is approaching $500,000. Cobb cards are becoming prohibitively expensive, heavy hitting investors are targeting this material.
Ron: I suggest buying anything related to Cobb that was issued during his playing career, it does not matter what it is. Pins, domino discs, postcards, premiums, felts, etc. The 1914 blanket set (catalogued as B-18) is a fine example. There are three different Cobb blankets, and they have all increased in value. A couple of years back a nice condition white infield version, the most common, could be purchased for $150. Today, they are selling for around $1,000. If you cannot afford the tobacco cards the odd ball material is quite attractive and should progress nicely.
Simply put, Cobb is pure gold.
David: As you’ve noted, you’re very bullish on Babe Ruth, saying you can’t go wrong. Can his cards and autographs double over the next several years?
Ron: Cobb may have received more votes than Ruth in the first Hall of Fame vote, but the Babe is the most beloved athlete of all time. Demand for his material is off the charts, and like Cobb, it will never fade. His autographs over the past three years have tripled in value. A nice Ruth signature could be purchased for $2,000. Today they sell on eBay for $6,000 to $7,000. A signed baseball, in average condition will sell for over $10,000 with museum grade specimens starting at $50,000. I can easily see Ruth material doubling in a couple of years. I really like any Ruth Goudey card, even the 1935 Goudey 4 in 1 which for many years was looked down upon, demand for these cards is very strong,
As material is removed from the market demand will only increase. You cannot quantify demand for Ruth. In terms of liquidity, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb have hit commodity status. If you list a card at market value, its gone within 24 hours.
David: What are astute people collecting these days? What’s moving markets?
Ron: These two questions are closely tied together. Value of certain desired items, whether it be collectibles, metals, stocks, or bulk staples are determined by demand and the existence of alternative investments. Rate of return and principal protection are key. Values rise or fall based on what investment vehicles are available at any particular time. Today we see the stock market increasing nicely, perhaps too much. Cash is pouring into the market because the main alternative investment has little rate of return, that being the certificate of deposit. A safe investment to be sure but a weak rate of return; hence money is dumped into stocks. If interest rates increased and CDs were paying 6% to 7% over two years, the stock market would see a material decline.
Now you have a principal guaranteed vehicle with an acceptable ROR to park your money. The lack of alternative investments has been a boom for the baseball market. If you feel stocks are inflated and due for a correction and don’t want to invest in CDs that pay essentially nothing, then where does the money go? Cobb, Ruth, and Mickey Mantle! A lot of non-collector investor money is being dumped into these three names — thus the rapid increase. These three make up the core of the entire sports memorabilia world, baseball or otherwise. They increase demand for other names.
The second tier that also generates sound demand centers on Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. Shoeless Joe Jackson is also in great demand, but material is very limited when compared to the names above. After the Black Sox scandal and lifetime banishment from baseball, Jackson material went into the trash by early collectors trying to erase the stain of the 1919 fix. Today, supply of investment grade Jackson material is restricted.
As of this writing, lesser grade Topps Mantle cards from the 1960s are still affordable. I consider these to be a good investment with strong upside potential. I also think higher grade Topps cards of Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Sandy Koufax, and Willie Mays, are good targets as well as pre-1976 cards of Pete Rose, Brooks Robinson and Nolan Ryan. I can see these cards really starting to move in the next year or so.
There is, however, a caveat. Certain big names are increasing nicely in value but at the expense of other names. The current money is targeting Cobb, Gehrig et. al. as demand for other names has dropped. Values for names like Sam Crawford, Chuck Klein, Herb Pennock, Paul Waner, and other less known Hall of Famers have stalled.
One final thought, It is not just the baseball market that is hot, other areas of collecting are also realizing strong rate of return. For example, I have been telling people to buy good quality vintage beer cans, the older the better. Over the last 12 months some have tripled in value!
David: What makes something rare and collectible? Please give examples.
Ron: Demand drives everything. Rarity is a relative term. Something can be rare but of little value if no market exists. Take for example a signature of Bill Sweeney, an infielder for the Chicago Cubs who played in the dead ball era. He died in 1948 and his signature is rare but of little value; no one really wants it. As to collectability, focus on the legends and quality items. Avoid the pedestrian material, you may have to spend a little more but in the long run it will be worth it.
David: How do you spot fraud? One piece of advice I have heard, even from auction house heads like Mike Heffner at Lelands, is to examine as many examples of autographs as you possibly can in reference books and on the Internet, no matter who says it’s real.
Ron: Fraud and collectibles go hand in hand. The more something is worth the more likely it will be targeted by the criminal element. Forgeries, fakes, and counterfeit items are lurking around every corner. Follow the general rule: If it is too good to be true it probably is. The majority of Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig autographs in the market are fake, certified or otherwise. Use common sense. DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
David: Which autographs are most commonly forged?
Ron: Mostly the newer players simply because their signatures are illegible with no measurable letter construction and because of this they are quite easy to forge. Take Mike Trout for example. The signature is a mere scrawl of ink and hence easily forged. The same can be said for Tom Brady, LeBron James, Justin Verlander, Frank Thomas, and the list goes on and on. I fear penmanship appears to be a dying art replaced by the expediency of gibberish scribbles.
A forger with limited skills can produce convincing forgeries of the modern celebrities. The older, more expensive, signatures require a higher level of skill to create. It would be far more difficult to replicate a signature with strong letter construction such as Tris Speaker or Harry Heilmann. A forger of skill is needed. Moreover, a forger who wishes to dabble in the vintage names must also fake the aging process, this is no easy task. If you wish to forge a signature of Willie Keeler (an autograph easily worth over $10,000) then you must make it appear to be 100 years old. That is an extra layer of skill needed. In short, it is simply easier to create multiple Trout forgeries and sell them for a couple hundred bucks a piece.
David: Where do you see the vintage autograph industry in 3-5 years?
Ron; I think the market will continue to grow, at least for certain bid names I have highlighted. As with anything else, research before dropping cash into an investment. Tread carefully before buying lest you may drown. Certain names fall out of favor and demand may never return. The back bench Hall of Famers seem to be losing steam. Bill McKechnie, Dave Bancroft, and executives like Will Harridge and Billy Evans are good examples. In recent years demand for Roy Campanella material has stalled. We are seeing this in other areas of autographs. Values of certain authors and composers have plummeted over the past 40 years. Signatures of James Fenimore Cooper and Zane Grey were worth a lot more 20 years ago.
The market will always be there for the legends of the game.