Contributor: John Dudley
Autographs have been popular since at least the 1830s, so it comes as no surprise that they are a large part of the sports card world. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been surprised to see the rise in popularity of aftermarket autograph cards, in particular the certified and graded variety.
Aftermarket autograph cards are cards that have been signed after they’ve been liberated from packs. The big issue with these has long been the prevalence of forgeries. The prosecutor in FBI’s famous Operation Bullpen once estimated that up to 90% of all autographs in the sports market were fake. This is where the certification process has been key in adding legitimacy to the shadiest of markets.
The Sports Cards Nonsense Facebook group is a wonderful source of hobby information and discussion and it’s where I’ve met a true expert in this area. Brian Rice has a certified-auto collection that is close to museum-worthy and regularly offers excellent advice for those looking to jump into this market. We got into a debate about several different facets of aftermarket autos recently and I thought it would be worth revisiting that in a column format. He’s been nice enough to let me pick his brain for this week’s column, so I’ll get out of the way (as much as I can) and let him do the talking.
Let’s get the big one out of the way. I thought this was a settled issue, but I was wrong. Typically signed, certified, and graded cards sell for more than their unsigned and graded counterparts right?
Yes, assuming the cards are of equal condition and the autograph is nice and bold. For example, a Barry Sanders 1989 Score PSA 10 recently sold for $1,100 at auction on 1/6/2023. Compare that to the same card in a PSA 10 with a GEM Mint autograph and it recently sold for $3,700 at auction on 1/4/2023. Besides the appeal of autographed rookie cards, these have significantly lower population numbers. Looking at the same Barry Sanders card, it currently has a PSA Pop of over 2,100 (unsigned) as a PSA 10 and only 97 (autographed) as a PSA DNA 10/10. While the population for this card will continue to grow, it is more likely for the unsigned PSA 10 to grow at a faster rate. There are so many risk factors when getting a card autographed that it would surprise me if the population for the dual 10-graded card even doubles in the next decade. If this holds true, the difference in value will only grow larger for the autographed version. The 2-2.5x multiplier is pretty consistent for athletes that sign regularly like Barry Sanders but for athletes that are harder to find or passed away before autographed rookie cards were popular, that multiplier can be 5-10x.
I do have a few things that have stopped me from jumping into the aftermarket auto game and found some of your answers to these concerns better than any others I’ve seen. One of these is that I’m a little worried that with paid signings being so expensive that this market will often see people pay hundreds of dollars to add tens of dollars of value to their cards. How can people avoid that problem?
Assuming resale value is a high priority, it is important to do your research ahead of time and understand which athletes and which cards are worth paying a premium to get autographed. One way of doing this for retired athletes elected to the HOF is to look at the PSA Registry and determine which card is the “preferred” rookie. There is a large group of collectors that participate in this registry, and they select one card per player that becomes their preferred rookie. For example, Barry Sanders has several cards from his rookie season but the 1989 Score is considered his preferred rookie. There will always be higher demand for preferred rookie cards that are autographed. For current players, I have had success getting low serial numbered or short-printed cards autographed such as Kaboom or team color-matched Prism Silver cards. Unless it is for your personal collection, I would not advise paying to get ultra-modern base cards autographed. Many promoters get hundreds of these autographed for their own inventory and typically you will find them at auction selling for less than the cost of the card and autograph fee. Justin Herbert is a great example of this. He has done 3-4 private signings a year since being drafted and has signed thousands of cards. His autographed base rookie cards typically sell for around $200 which is not profitable when you consider his autograph fee alone is over $200. I also look at the current population of the cards autographed and recent comps before paying for a card to be autographed. I aim to get about a 50% return on my investment and if the math doesn’t work, I don’t participate in the signing. Promoters are aware of this growing segment, and some are charging crazy premiums for rookie cards to be autographed. In some cases, this is helping to keep the current population low, while increasing the value of those cards already signed but does take away the opportunity for future collectors to participate as they are priced out and does open the door for prices to be manipulated. A good example of this is Mike Trout autographed 2011 Topps Update rookie cards. About 5 years ago, the promoter who owns his exclusivity for autograph signings, changed the rules and prevented rookie cards from being sent into private signings. However, the promoter has been getting these cards autographed for their own inventory and has been slowly selling them at a fixed price. Fanatics is doing the same thing with athletes like Tom Brady.
I’m also a bit concerned that the certified autograph market is suddenly trendy after years of being more of a niche form of collecting. Do you think the growth has been organic or is it being driven by hype?
The growth has primarily been organic and for the last 10 years, there has been a very active community and autographed card values have steadily grown. Within the aftermarket autographed community, there are different segments such as collectors trying to get complete sets autographed (Topps Allen & Ginter or Topps Living Sets are very popular), collectors focused on only autographed HOF rookie cards and collectors trying to complete the autographed player era print run for their favorite players. Even athletes are starting to participate. Pat Neshek is a former baseball player that has been working on getting complete Topps sets autographed for years. Recently Mike Trout, spoke about collecting his own cards and autographing them with special inscriptions that he will pass down to his son one day. Then you have players like AJ Dillon who has been getting his teammates and opponents to autograph cards which he has been authenticating and selling. Giannis Antetokounmpo also talked about getting cards autographed. This seems no different than athletes swapping jerseys after a game and I am curious if this becomes more popular amongst athletes.
Autograph certification is a step in the right direction, but I still come back to the 90% number from Operation Bullpen and the fact that the lead FBI expert in the area is concerned that the Covid era has sparked an uptick in fraudulent activities in the hobby. Am I just being paranoid?
If you are participating in a private signing through an established promoter, there is no risk in your autographed card being faked. As added protection, nearly every paid signing allows you to pay $8-10 extra for a PSA, JSA, or Beckett witness sticker to be added to the back of your card. If you choose to do this, the sticker will have no impact on the card’s grade should you later decide to get it slabbed. I have never had an issue. For example, I participated in a private signing with Giannis Antetokounmpo and since his autograph is a little sloppy and can be inconsistent, I paid extra for the JSA witness sticker. I later sent the card to PSA, and it came back as a dual 10 grade for the card and autograph.
Enough of my concerns, outside of buying cards that others have already gotten signed and authenticated, how would a collector get a card signed and authenticated on their own and what types of cards should they use (outside of PC items)?
There are three common ways: 1) participate in a paid signing 2) send fan mail requests and 3) try catching an athlete before or after a game/practice. In addition, there are sometimes opportunities to do paid consignments with in-person autograph chasers, but these are not guaranteed and can have mixed results as they are often trying to get a lot of items autographed at events like golf tournaments or Spring Training. I have had some success using this method with a couple very experienced and trustworthy collectors, but my primary source is paid signings or fan mail. For those interested in paid signings, there are Facebook groups dedicated to this where promoters list their events. For those interested in trying fan mail, there is a website called Sportscollectors.net which has a low yearly membership fee but has addresses for thousands of athletes. It is important to note that there is no guarantee with fan mail requests, but it can be a fun hobby to do, especially with your children.
Fanatics has their fingerprints on every aspect of the hobby. How has their involvement shaped this market and what do you think they have in store for the future?
Fanatics controls the exclusive rights to hundreds of major athletes like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Burrow, Joe Montana and the list goes on across the major sports. They have made three decisions that have been poorly received in the community: 1) for most of their exclusive athletes, they are no longer allowing trading cards to be sent in to be autographed 2) for those athletes where you can send in your own card, they are now charging 2-3x more for a rookie card to be autographed and 3) if you are able to get your card autographed, they are no longer allowing inscriptions. Fanatics has been getting their own inventory autographed and based on recent auctions, the results have been mixed. I think this is for two reasons: 1) they have been getting low-end rookie cards autographed and 2) they have been getting them authenticated and slabbed with Beckett (most aftermarket autographed card collectors prefer PSA because of the Registry). My hope is that eventually Fanatics will realize that it is more profitable for them to allow collectors to get whatever they want autographed but for the time being their current rules are frustrating to collectors.
Do you have any other major piece of advice that didn’t come up in conversation yet?
Have fun! One of the benefits of aftermarket autographed cards is that you can select your favorite card, have it signed with different color pens or add special inscriptions to make your collection unique. In addition, there are opportunities to meet the athletes in-person at events like The National and it is a different feeling seeing your card autographed in front of you vs. pulling a card from a pack that might have an autographed sticker on it.
Thanks, Brian. That’s a ton of good info and some great answers to some tough questions.
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