Interview with Collectable President, Joe Orlando
Conducted by Collectable’s Senior Editor, David Seideman.
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Last July, Joe Orlando, the CEO of Collectors Universe, the parent company of PSA, stepped down after an investor group led by entrepreneur and sports card collector Nat Turner acquired the company. Turner replaced him.
Simply put, Orlando is a hobby god. Under his 20-plus years of leadership, PSA became an absolute powerhouse. Today, it’s not only the number one card grader, but the sole authenticator and grader of memorabilia like tickets, photos, and bats. Besides authoring multiple books on collectibles, his regular column in PSA’s magazine was a must-read in the hobby because he was one of its foremost experts on a variety of subjects.
Over my last decade as a hobby reporter, including 350 columns for forbes.com as a senior contributor, I relied on Orlando’s immense knowledge on everything from pine tar on bats to the importance of eye appeal in appraising vintage sports cards. He was my go-to guy.
Since the age of five, Orlando has been a passionate collector in his own right. After an interview, his infectious enthusiasm inspired me to take a game bat off my shelf and take a few swings.
Collectable has hired Orlando as president of Sports. On his first day, I had the chance to interview him about his new role and seek his sound advice and thoughts about the state of the industry.
An edited and condensed version of our exchange follows.
David: What will be your specific duties?
Joe: We had a meeting of the minds about the value and impact of evergreen content. I fully expect my role to evolve over time, but content production will be the first order of business. The focus will be on educational content, via video and blog vehicles, to help arm buyers with essential information. An informed consumer is more apt to participate and increased knowledge generally enhances the collecting experience. Over the long term, we will explore how Collectable can expand its menu of services.
David: Given your vast network of connections, will you be acquiring items for Collectable to fractionalize?
Joe: I do expect to be involved in collector and consignor outreach.
David: You’ve explained how excited you are to join Collectable. What is the potential growth for fractional shares? Can it one day rival the big auction houses?
Joe: On high-value items, I believe it can. I also think it’s complementary to the traditional way of collecting, not an all or nothing proposition. I expect a healthy balance of both in the future. As time goes on, the market for premium items generally escalates. What are best described as “blue chip” items tend to pull away from collectors on modest budgets. This is why I believe the fractional option will become more and more relevant.
All you have to do is look at the prices over the last month, or last six months, where even people with solid spending power have been priced out on certain items. If this trend were to continue, these collectors will be faced with some tough decisions. First, they could decide to stop buying altogether, which is not part of their DNA. Second, they could adjust their personal quality standards, which is very hard to do as a collector. If we are used to collecting PSA 8s (on a scale one to 10) it’s very hard to collect PSA 4s. Once you’ve had a filet, it’s hard to eat ground chuck. Once you have fine wine, it’s hard to drink from a $5 bottle. As collectors, we develop our own tastes with experience.
Or, collectors can open their minds to the fractional concept so they can stay involved in the type and quality of collectibles they desire.
I think there are groups of collectors who would rather own a fraction of a high quality piece than the whole of a mediocre or lower quality item. That’s important as we look into the future. Collectors are drawn to certain items. The fractional concept gives you a chance to stay in the game. It’s inclusive.
David: Does eBay’s possible entrance into the fractional market lift all boats or will they become a monopoly and squeeze out competition?
Joe: If eBay enters the fractional market, I think it’s a largely positive sign. It fully endorses the concept for the average collector. eBay can reach large volumes of people in ways that few others can. For so many, the fractional concept is still new and unfamiliar, but that is part of the opportunity. Competition and new entrants are not bad things if they help expose more people to the idea.
I don’t envision eBay becoming a monopoly, just like I don’t believe any one auction house has the ability to become a monopoly. That’s one reason the hobby is so great. There are so many options for collectors. That said, eBay is a power player. If eBay does a great job of exposing the concept to the masses, as you said, it’s the rising tide lifting all boats.
David: Collectable sells items graded by the top three companies. Now that you’re liberated from PSA, do you subscribe to the adage “buy the card, not the holder?” For vintage cards, it’s conventional wisdom that PSA commands the highest value.
Joe: I have actually written a few pieces at Collectors Universe on this topic in the past. I have always been a proponent of buying the card, not the holder. No one should blindly buy a number on the label. Not all cards within a grade category are equal. Some examples possess attributes that are as close to the next grade up as one could imagine, while others barely made the grade they find themselves in. That said, I think it would be disingenuous to say that brand doesn’t matter, because it absolutely does when it comes to resale value.
What I would always suggest is that collectors do their independent research so they have a better understanding of which brands garner the best resale value in different areas of the market. In some cases, a lot of money is at stake, so it’s an important exercise. Remember that this is also something that can change over time. Pay attention to any significant market shifts that might impact brand power.
Equally as important; make sure the card is what you want it to be. For example, some collectors might focus more on centering than corners, or the other way around. Personal satisfaction is crucial in such a personal hobby.
David: I’ve heard that the gap between PSA and SGC narrows for pre-war cards, particularly early 1900s and 19th century. And Beckett does well with ultra modern.
Joe: It’s important for collectors to understand that different grading service brands can have different followings or market shares in different segments. Depending on what era the card is from, or the genre, resale value can vary from brand to brand.
David: From all my reporting in recent years, I’ve realized how vital centering is when evaluating a card, no matter the grade.
Joe: When I first started collecting, many years ago, centering wasn’t nearly as important. Today, centering has become of primary importance for a lot of buyers. One reason behind this movement is that centering is something the average person can clearly see, which means its strength or weakness can affect eye appeal for many potential buyers. In the world of grading, the irony is that the technical defects the average collector has trouble seeing can often impact the final grade even more.
In many cases, collectors are attracted to items because of their visual attributes. If a defect is easier to spot, your eyes will naturally be drawn to the problem. They can be hard to unsee once your eyes lock on. The image of a card, and its centering, are right in front of you. The card’s beauty, or lack thereof, hits the viewer right away. It doesn’t require magnification or a dark room with a halogen light. It can be evaluated at arm’s length with the naked eye.
When it comes to centering, the higher the grade, the more centering is scrutinized. Context is important here too. Knowing whether or not the card is commonly found centered or off-center is critical as well.
David: What do you think the hottest material is today?
I turned 50 in October and have been collecting since I was about five years old. I have never witnessed a time when so many different segments have been hot at the same time. In the sports collectibles world, when the market surges, it always seems to start with cards. Their simplicity, commodity-like nature and link to our youth are all reasons why this part of the market tends to take the lead.
From game-used to original photos, from tickets to unopened material, virtually everything appears to be hot. When the pandemic hit, the card market was the first to respond in a positive way as the hobby received more mainstream media coverage, attention and participation. Over the past six to nine months, memorabilia has picked up too. As many collectors know, some memorabilia offers extraordinary scarcity and terrific stories behind the items.
David: Did you expect tickets to continue to skyrocket? A Jackie Robinson debut ticket just sold for $480,000. A Michael Jordan Jordan debut went for $468,000. A Mickey Mantle ticket that sold for less than $10,000 for years fetched $141,000 overnight. Collectable sold shares of a full Brady ticket for $107,000.
Joe: This appreciation is long overdue. Most vintage tickets offer extreme scarcity and they connect us to the actual events that took place. These are the items that allowed people to attend the games and watch history be made. They weren’t manufactured collectibles, but are instead historical items that had to survive the test of time.
They are also great complementary pieces to an existing collection, especially for those who focus on specific players or teams.
David: Can you explain why last game tickets are far less desirable? There’s a Mantle and Robinson, each listed for $10,000, sitting on eBay for many months. In neither case did he announce his retirement.
Joe: Some collectors approach tickets the same way they approach cards. There’s something extra intriguing about collectibles that link to the beginning of something special. A debut ticket is the closest thing a collector has available to them to a rookie card. Generally speaking, debut tickets were also saved far less frequently because the player’s story wasn’t written yet. For those reasons and more, collectors tend to place more value on them. That said, a player’s final appearance is a significant moment as well.
Interestingly enough, in the game-used world, final jerseys, bats and gloves seem to garner more attention. Just two weeks ago, Mantle’s final jersey sold for $2.2 million. This was the highest price ever recorded for a Mantle jersey of any kind. There have been plenty of other examples of “final” game-used items garnering strong prices over the years.
It also depends on the athlete and their story. Willie Mays was arguably the greatest five-tool player who ever lived. Unfortunately, a lot of people who were fans of Mays and the Mets said it was hard to watch him at the end. They weren’t watching the player they came to know anymore, so the connection to that period isn’t as appealing for some collectors as those from his Giants days are. The truth is that most legends of sport end their careers as something less than what they once were, which is why there is such a thing called a “prime” to begin with, but the way a career ends varies from athlete to athlete. Collectors associate different feelings with different endings.
So, while debut tickets are currently preferred, perhaps tickets from an athlete’s final appearance haven’t received their proper due yet.
David: What are astute people collecting?
Some very astute collectors are looking for value in cards that haven’t had their moments yet, in addition to opportunities in the memorabilia market, which is part of why certain types seem to be moving up as of late. As we discussed earlier, there always seems to be a delayed reaction in the memorabilia market. Of course, when it starts moving, it tends to move quickly because the supply is so low compared to cards.
Let’s talk about cards for a moment. A lot of collector demand will tend to become hyper-focused on a particular piece. For example, when the 1939 Play Ball Ted Williams rookie card started to escalate quickly, people seemed to be taking their eyes off other iconic issues of Teddy Ballgame, like his 1941 Play Ball card, which is his best-looking Play Ball card in the three-year run (1939-1941) and it’s tied to his incredible .406 season. When one card is on fire, it usually means something else is being ignored for the time being.
David: Which players pre-war and post-war are the biggest?
Joe: No matter what era we are talking about, the brand names are the ones that consistently generate the most interest. These are the names the average person recognizes, not just hardcore fans or collectors.
The player who has risen in stature the most in recent years is Jackie Robinson. He has always been a top tier name in the hobby, but his collectibles have gone to a whole new level now. With social justice issues on the minds of many in our world, there seems to be an even greater appreciation for what Robinson did than ever before. His name is now part of a very elite group, which includes the likes of Ruth, Mantle, Jordan, Ali and Brady.
Collectors are always looking for what might seem to be undervalued at the moment and, sometimes, like in the case of Robinson, a delayed market reaction can occur. An overlooked name or collectible always has the opportunity to get greater due later on. Most of the time, however, there’s a reason that those players are “undervalued” and they will usually remain in that category forever. When it comes to names, undervalued often means not as popular with collectors. It takes special circumstances and collective reevaluation for collectibles to change course in a major way.
David: Do you think it’s still worth paying top dollar for Robinson?
Joe: I have been a collector for a long time. Is it exciting to find a diamond in the rough? Of course. It’s one of the things that keeps us hunting. We don’t know what is left undiscovered. The reality is with so much information available to everyone in this day and age, it has become harder to find great deals. Becoming a bargain hunter is a dangerous game. I would rather focus on buying the right names and to overpay today for something of exceptional quality. Those are the items that tend to be the surest bets in the long run.
In my opinion, once an athlete reaches “brand” status as Robinson has, it’s hard to imagine his collectibles taking a step backwards because his legacy is etched in stone.
If I look at my own collection, every time I thought I was overpaying at the time, I ended up much happier over the long haul. In some ways, it meant I was buying the right things, something that others considered special too. I have never regretted stepping up for an item of quality, but there have been plenty of times I have regretted not pulling the trigger when an opportunity presented itself. Many seasoned collectors feel the same way.
David: You’ve long been a big proponent of game-used material like bats, which you wrote the seminal book on, Legendary Lumber. With cards so high and the new bat population report on PSA’s website, do you see bats and jerseys rising in value?
Joe: It’s all tied to available information like the Legendary Lumber book and PSA Population Report. Information moves markets. It helps buyers feel more confident, which leads to greater participation in the hobby. There is much more available information and data about cards, which is why that market has been more efficient in the past. The more information that is shared about any collectibles will ultimately lead to stronger markets for those same items.
Bats and gloves are tools of the trade, the objects that helped make players famous. It’s akin to Picasso’s paintbrush or Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. Of all the pieces of baseball equipment, bats are the most customized. They are customized when they are manufactured and further customized by the player in preparation for use. From a collecting standpoint, bats often generate a visceral reaction when they are seen or, even better, held due to their character and symbolic presence.
Vintage gloves are often so challenging, but incredibly appealing items. In many cases, they cannot be authenticated on their own merit or placed in the player’s hands to quite the same degree that a bat or jersey can. When you do find a glove that checks all the boxes, from its professional stature to the proper markings to excellent provenance, it results in a special piece. Gloves of this nature are exceedingly rare and desirable.
David: What about game-used caps with solid provenance? Are they undervalued as other game-used material rises?
Joe: There’s no question that game-used caps are so challenging to obtain and fully authenticate. There were periods of time when the player’s name was stitched inside the cap, which was the case for most of the 1930s, but provenance is often a necessity for caps used in other eras. Sometimes, collectibles can be so rare that their scarcity deters people from collecting them in the first place. Building a collection of just game-used caps would not be for the faint of heart. That said, caps can be a great complement to a collection of other game-used items, which is how most collectors approach cap collecting. Since they are not a tool of the trade in the same way a glove or bat are, they don’t receive nearly as much overall interest, but they are a symbolic part of the uniform and sport nonetheless.
David: What’s moving markets?
Joe: In my view, access to information moves markets in a general sense. The more information, the more activity and cards have been the initial driver in nearly every era.
Over the past four decades, it has always started with cards. There was the 1980s hobby explosion, which was largely driven by card interest. Then, after the market suffered from the 1994 baseball strike, a resurgence in the late-1990s and early-2000s, which coincided with the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase, the dot-com boom and the rise of the internet, drove the market forward. The same dynamic is taking place now as cards have led the way over the past two years.
If you used to be a collector, it’s nostalgic because you remember the experience as a child. Cards are also an easier entry point for new hobby participants because of the amount of information available. People can put their toes in the water with cards and some of those new participants begin to expand their horizons fairly quickly. That’s when you see these other segments grow.
If Tom Brady or Michael Jordan cards are routinely selling for six and seven figures, buyers start looking at their jerseys and other types of items. It’s happening with a lot of iconic players, in all sports.
David: Does the stock market correction give you pause?
Joe: If you look back at some of the events that have impacted our society – 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis – the collectibles market has been resilient. The emotional, sentimental and nostalgic element present here separates this asset class from most others.
If you’re buying a share of stock, the only interest an owner usually has is whether or not it goes up or down in value, or issues a dividend. In this market, the financial component can’t be ignored with the price levels being recorded, but there is more to it than just monetary returns. The hobby is an escape. We have all been witnessing the Ukrainian/Russian tragedy. People come home and dive into their hobbies to distract them from the harsh realities of life, which are sometimes hard to watch or think about.
For some people it’s fishing, and for others it’s painting or reading. Even when the world around us is dealing with serious issues – internationally or domestically – it’s a safe place to go. Collectibles and the activity of collecting provides comfort food to millions of people around the world.
David: What’s one piece of collecting advice you’d like to share today?
Joe: Eye-appeal matters and affects everything in the collectibles field. It’s often hard to articulate and it can be hard to quantify, but it impacts value beyond the technical grade. Don’t underestimate the aesthetic quality of a collectible. It can play an enormous role in the first impression a collectible makes. The more experience you have and the more you handle items, the more you’ll start understanding what constitutes exceptional eye-appeal. It’s the most instinctual part of attraction to a collectible. If there is something special about the way a collectible looks and you are drawn to it in an instinctual way, chances are others will be too.
David: What’s the hobby’s future?
Lots of new people are coming in and spending money on the collecting side, but the money being spent is not limited to consumer consumption. New money is being invested into the space, which gives the hobby a very bright future. We’re going to see these companies continue to innovate in ways that move the hobby forward. As companies like Fanatics and Collectable become more entrenched, their immense reach will help expose our great hobby to even more people. This will benefit everyone involved.
When you look at every stage of major growth our hobby has enjoyed, from the 1980s to the present, the universal theme has been increased access for the collector. In my opinion, that has been the difference maker. Something happened, within every stage, that made it easier to participate. The increased access to information and the collectibles themselves should continue to move the needle in sports collectibles.