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Investing in Original Rare Sports Photography

A transcribed interview with renowned collector Ben Weingarten (@weingartensvint).
Conducted by Dan Silvershein, Collectable’s Head of Acquisitions & Strategy.
Disclaimer: NOT INVESTMENT ADVICE The Content is for informational purposes only, you should not construe any such information or other material as legal, tax, investment, financial, or other advice. Investments in alternative assets are illiquid, speculative and loss of invested capital is possible. A more complete description of these risks is contained in our offering circular, available here. We urge you to review full details and disclaimers on https://collectable.com/disclaimer/.

Dan: Ben, thanks for joining us as our first guest on CollectableU! For those who don’t know, you are one of the premier vintage/original photograph collectors in the hobby. Let’s start from the top. How did you get started? Tell us a little about yourself for anyone who did not read the PSA feature on you.

Ben: I grew up, like everybody else, collecting cards as a kid. I started when I was about 4 years old, when I got my first packs and made forts out of them. I played with these cards until I was about 7 or 8. Then, in 1983, I got my first full box of football cards.  That’s really when I started putting them in sleeves and taking care of them.

I worked in a baseball card shop and was turning deals when I was 12. I then went off to college and, like many, lost track of the hobby for a bit. When I graduated, I wanted to get back into the industry. This was right around the time when PSA was emerging and I started reading up on photography. I noticed the rarity. I loved the imagery. I loved the crossover between art and sports. The rest, as they say, is history.

Dan: The most striking aspect of original photos, to me, is their rarity and scarcity, and that’s one quality for which Collectable always looks. The rarity, coupled with the “artist originals” makes them feel like the sports version of an Ansel Adams landscape or painting from Rembrandt. It’s a fascinating intersection of sports and art. Collectable has been mainly focused on the underlying artwork behind the iconic rookie cards. What do you love so much about these pieces?

Ben: You are definitely right. That is one of the main components of this subsector that appealed to me, too. Photographs are historical records, both sports history and overall society. There’s a ton of interesting crossovers between the art and sports community. 

Photographs have long been considered an artistic vehicle, and these rookie card photos have the added benefit of being the basis on which these culturally significant and iconic cards are created.

Dan: Seems to me the historical importance of some of these photos can’t be overstated. The further back in sports history we go, the less likely there are moving images of the subject. Talk about that a bit.

Ben: I completely agree. Not only do these original photographs have significance as art and sports collectibles but they are the actual historical record of the games. The further back in sports history we go, the significance increases. It’s often our primary glimpse into the subject and their environment.

Dan: As we know, sports cards have been booming. We’re seeing record prices in both vintage and modern as demand has skyrocketed. Yet the original photographs behind these cards have not experienced the same fervor. Why do you think that is?

Ben: There are many reasons, most notably because cards are “easier” to collect. There are sets, they’re numeric, there are population reports and real infrastructure created under them to sell and collect them. Photos aren’t quite there yet. The PSA system clearly provides some structure, but not as much as cards have. Hopefully that changes over time.

Another reason would be the rarity. We all collected cards as kids, not photos. Remember that. Many collectors lack the same emotional connection to photos that we do cards, since we just haven’t had photos in our possession. To understand the power, significance and rarity of photos, you need to be an owner. Once more collectors explore what photos have to offer, the upside is undeniable. In my opinion, photography is the future of collecting.

Dan: Have you found that the original photos that eventually became the basis for iconic rookie cards are the most sought after images, or do people tend to gravitate towards more “moments in time” types of images?

Ben: Right now, the attention is on rookie card photos, yes. With cards being as hot as they are, many collectors are looking into categories that may play catch up. Images used as the basis for iconic rookie cards are the most correlated to the booming card market.

Historically, however, great moments have been among the highest value. You’ve got Lou Gehrig Day, the famous Ty Cobb sliding photo by Charles Conlon, and a lot of other significant images throughout baseball history. The fascinating thing to me is, sports photography has not come remotely close to the popularity of photography in the broader art world.  There are photographs in the art world that go for millions and they’re not even prints from the actual time. They are numbered prints after the time off the negative. 

This strikes me as an opportunity, once the sports photography market matures a bit. I believe the sports world and the art work will converge, leading to greater interest in iconic sports photography.

Dan: From our understanding, the photographer taking the photo is almost as important as the subject when it comes to these types of images. Can you tell us about the more well known photographers in this space and the followings that they have?

Ben: I love when people talk about the actual photographers, because they are the true artists.There are some great well known photographers. Bob Olen was the Yankees photographer. Barney Stein was the Brooklyn Dodgers photographer. William Jacobellis’ compositions in the 50s and 60s were huge, it seems like he shot every player. Also you have Don Wingfield of that era. Malcolm Emmons is a great one mostly in the 60s through 80s. Before them, there was Carl Horner, he did the great T206 portraits. Of course there is the father of photography, Charles Conlon. He photographe almost every player as well. One guy I collect personally is Paul Thompson, a great news service photographer.

Dan: Collectors may be overlooking just how rare some of these type 1 original photos actually are. Often times, the type 1 photos are far more scarce than the rookie cards, yet the rookie cards can sell for multiples of the price.

Ben: I couldn’t agree more on this. A prime example was the recent Heritage Auction. The original image used to create the Jackie Robinson 1948 Leaf rookie card sold for $360,000. The Type 1 photo is a Pop 2. 

By contrast, the Jackie Robinson 1948 Leaf Rookie in a PSA 9 is a Pop 8. In other words, there are 4x more PSA 9 rookie cards than Type 1 photos. Remember, the card is based on the image! 

Here’s where it gets interesting. Despite the information above, the SMR price of the PSA 9 rookie card is $600,000. Most big collectors would agree that $600,000 figure is very, very conservative. It’s most likely a 7-figure card at this point.

In summary, the market is valuing the photos at roughly ⅓ the price of the rookie card, yet its 4x more rare AND its the true original. This feels like an opportunity to me.

Dan: I have always been struck by the artistic composition of iconic images like the Mickey Mantle Bowman card and the Joe Namath Topps rookie. Do you find there’s more “collectability” or “investability” in terms of portraits versus action photography?

Ben: That’s all personal preference. From our conversations, you seem to have the same eye and love of portraits as I do. The action shot has to be pretty special for me to favor it over a  portrait. 

That said, if you get just an absolutely beautiful action shot with a lot of stuff in the background and information and the composition works artistically….well, there’s nothing better than that. 

And for many of the photographers listed above, action shots carry greater scarcity than their portraits. In earlier eras, film and photography capabilities made it difficult to get a good, clear photo of moving action. For instance, Babe Ruth in a game, close, crystal clear, up close images from down on the field are extraordinarily rare.  

In my opinion, there is nothing better than a controlled portrait. But it’s largely personal preference. I know many collectors who only collect action shots, some who only collect portraits, and some who collect a bit of everything. It really does come down to what speaks to you.

Dan: With the sudden success and fervor around NBA Top Shot, do you think the idea of “collecting media” will bring increased attention to collecting “vintage media”, or photographs?

Ben: Yes, I do. It’s the natural progression. In recent years, the popularity of modern assets has seemingly acted as a leading indicator for vintage. Let me explain. 

Once the newer basketball cards started trading for high prices, collectors realized the value proposition vintage presented. For instance, Wilt Chamberlain looks comparatively dirt cheap compared to modern players.. As a result, vintage basketball exploded in the last two years. 

And now with all these video clips and moments selling for crazy amounts of money, it’s really just bragging rights. Why would they not move into vintage media like slides, or film, or photos? It’s the natural next step for low supply, rare media.

Dan: As we know, many collectors consider PSA to be the leading grading agency and authenticator in the hobby. Does the same hold true for the photo market in terms of PSA’s importance? Talk to us a bit about this.

Ben: PSA is certainly the authority when it comes to the Type 1 classification of photos. PSA, in my opinion, is very important to photo authentication right now, both in the short and long term. 

As we know, PSA dominates the card market, and PSA graded cards largely command a premium over other grading agencies. This boils down to trust. The market is convinced that PSA graded assets will have better resale value going forward. 

PSA doesn’t assign a sliding number grade to photos like they do cards; however, PSA authenticated photos convey the trust needed to command premium prices – particularly for original rookie card photography. The PSA authentication acts as social currency. In my view, for collectors to make the jump from cards to photos, they will want the PSA stamp of approval. 


Dan: Let’s talk more about PSA’s Photograph Type Classification system. For those who don't know, each authentic photography is given a classification from Type 1 to Type 4 based on its characteristics. Type 1 is typically the most desirable. Tell us more.

Ben: You got it. Type 1 photographs are the most desirable and valuable of the four. This is due to their originality and vintage. Type 1’s are considered “1st generation photographs”, meaning they were developed from the original negative within 2 years of when the picture was taken. Type 2’s are the second most desirable, typically. These are also developed from the original negative, but more than 2 years after the picture was taken. 

Every time you develop something off the original negative, whether it’s at the time or 10 years later, it’s up to that person developing it to develop a great print. In theory, a Type 2 should be just as good, if not better, quality due to the advent of new technologies — but it’s just not the original time period. In the collecting world, originality and purity are what’s most important. 

Type 3’s and 4’s are considered second generation photographs, developed from duplicates or wire transmission. At the high end, collectors are focused primarily on type 1’s, but all photograph types are collectible.

Dan: Using the Lou Gehrig speech as an example, Type 1 photos would have been printed within two years of the speech whereas a Type 2 photo would have been printed at some point after two years using the same original negative?

Ben: Correct, a Type 1 would have been developed the same year or two of when the event happened or the original film or glass negative was created. Type 2 would be, in theory, 3 years or after off the original negative.

Dan: Would it be fair to think of Type 1’s as the equivalent of a “masterwork original painting”?

Ben: That’s how I see it. Type 1’s are pretty rare. In the long term, I think demand for Type 1 photos of iconic shots will far outstrip supply.

Dan: Are print runs ever really publicly known? Or is it solely determined by market research, how many pop up as authenticated and how many show up at auctions?

Ben: This is another part of photography collecting that has kept the larger card collector from transitioning into photographs. There are no print runs of photographs specifically known or publicly shared, any kind of “pop report” is done strictly by researching auction and private sales and compiling data independently.

Dan: What goes into authenticating these photos? How difficult is it for a layman, at first glance, to tell the difference between Type 1 and Type 2? Do you need to be an expert to even have a chance of knowing what you are looking at?

Ben: At first glance to a layman? Not very good. There is a lot that goes into it. Ultimately the paper type and quality of image are the most important factors. Other indicators could be the date, photographer or any kind of news service stamps.

Just like any other kind of authentication process, these are being done by the foremost experts in their fields. They conduct a forensic examination using existing exemplars from the time period, spectrum light analysis to see any hidden images beneath the surface and other tools – similar to what would go into authenticating a painting, stamp, coin or similar item.

Dan: Many collectors view original photography as a fascinating, underappreciated, and under reported segment of the hobby. What do you think is “holding it back” from being more mainstream?

Ben: The development of a trustworthy and centralized population report would do wonders for the space. It would be a great way to document and communicate the rarity to the masses.  In my opinion, If PSA were to put one together, the photography market would go nuts.

Dan: Collectable was fortunate to consign some amazing Type 1 original photos of iconic cards, such as George Mikan, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb and Joe Namath. We understand there’s a pretty neat story about the Namath. Can you talk about that?

Ben: In 2011, Namath went on the Late Show with David Letterman and told the story behind the photo. He said that he was at the Lenox Hill Hospital following his first knee surgery and had just been in bed for 8 days straight, losing 27 pounds in the process. The Jets’ media director walked into his hospital room carrying shoulder pads, a football and his jersey and said “the show must go on”. He proceeded to limp out into the hallway on crutches, lean up against a wall and snap a single photo that turned out to be one of the most iconic images to ever grace a football card. It’s just another aspect that makes these photographs so much fun to collect, they are snapshots of time and each carry their own story.

Dan: What does your personal collection look like? Are there specific players or photographers you tend to center your collection around?

Ben: My collection is centered around Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the earlier the better. I have lots of early images of them both, particularly those shot by Charles Conlan, including several images of the icons used for cards. Another collection I have are the Paul Thompson T205 images and I have about 70% of the set in Type 1 photos.

Dan: Are there any holy grail images that you know to exist but haven’t been able to acquire?

Ben: Oh that’s a good question. One grail that I know exists that I would love to own would be the Gehrig Goudey image by Charles Conlon.

Dan: This has been great. So informative. With more investors and collectors pouring into the sports collectibles space, what do you think the impact will be on the original sports photography market?

Ben: It’s a fascinating, nascent market that I believe has tremendous upside. In order for the market to explode, three things must happen. First, more structure around the industry. For instance, the establishment of population reports would be a massive innovation. Second, more education around it. Interviews like these with forward looking companies like Collectable will raise awareness for the asset class. Third, and perhaps most importantly, people need to touch and see these incredible images in person. They are truly amazing. That’s what will make the difference in the end. Once you see them, you’re hooked.

Thank you, Ben, for your time and extraordinary insights. For more information on the vintage sports photography market, follow Ben on twitter: @weingartensvint or on his facebook page: m.facebook.com/WeingartensVintage