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Recession has varied effects on baseball collectibles market

Friday, July 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:01 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 10, 2009
Mike French operates Dugout Sports Cards in Columbia, which specializes in lower priced sports memorabilia.

COLUMBIA — For the right price, Dan Imler can sell you Lou Gehrig’s game-worn Yankees cap, Ted Williams’s jersey or a Stan Musial signed baseball. Mike French can’t remember the last time he sold something for over $600, but he has sold numerous $10 Albert Pujols cards.

These men are the dual faces of the baseball memorabilia market, and both are feeling the effects of a bad economy in different ways.

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Imler, director of appraisals for Hunt Auctions from Exton, Pa., made stops in Springfield and Columbia on Thursday with some of baseball’s rarest and most valuable memorabilia. The lot, which included a game-used Ty Cobb bat valued at more than $30,000, will be auctioned at Major League Baseball's All-Star FanFest. The hundreds of items that will be auctioned on Tuesday will be on display over the weekend for baseball fans who visit FanFest at America’s Center in St. Louis. Imler and other appraisers will be available for fans who want to find out the value of their sports memorabilia this weekend in St. Louis.

Imler says he expects Tuesday’s auction to bring in fair value for the items, which are considered amongst the scarcest in the world. High-end baseball memorabilia pieces are maintaining their value, and selling, even in the tough economy.

“The top end of the market, the rarest of the rare, are still fetching record prices,” Imler said. “Sports memorabilia, in comparison to other markets, is doing quite well. While some parts of the sports memorabilia market are down 15 to 25 percent, other non-sports collectibles markets are off 40 to 50 percent.”

Sports cards, despite being the simplest and most accessible form of memorabilia, has been the area hardest hit by the economic downturn. Mike French, who owns Dugout Sports Cards in Columbia, says he has seen business trail off in recent months. Right now, French says he can keep his business open because of a few ardent card collectors.

“Hardcore collectors never cut off, just slow down,” French said. “None of them want to cut back, but some don’t have a choice. If you lose your job, you can’t buy cards.”

French has owned Dugout Sports Cards since February and says he has seen a rise in people coming into the store trying to sell cards to him.

“There’s definitely been an uptick in selling, but most of the cards are not worth having. If I can’t sell it, I can’t buy it,” French said.

Both French and Imler have found the auction Web site eBay to be a hassle when it comes to selling their merchandise.

“It’s (eBay) killing everyone,” French said. “People come in with a preconceived notion on how much something should cost, and I just can’t match that. I have to sell cards at half the reported value, and I have to buy them for less than that.”

Imler says he can see some positives in eBay, noting that the internet makes the sports collectibles market more accessible, but he also feels the lack of proper appraisal on the internet hurts the sports collectibles market.

“With eBay, you don’t know who you are dealing with. It makes it difficult for people to really know if they are getting something authentic,” Imler said.

Baseball’s Steroids Era has also affected the baseball memorabilia market. When Alex Rodriguez admitted in February that he used steroids, Imler says the price of Rodriguez’s memorabilia went down 25 to 40 percent almost immediately. French won’t buy Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez or Mark McGwire cards.

“I can’t sell any cards with guys who got caught up in the steroid mess, so I don’t buy them anymore,” French said.

While Bonds and Rodriguez stay on the shelves, French says he is selling Zack Greinke cards as fast as he can buy them, and that the Cardinals’ players are always strong sellers.

“Columbia’s a bandwagon town, so when the Cardinals are doing good, we do well,” French said. “I make sure we have plenty of Ozzie Smith and Albert Pujols cards and some Greinke cards for the Royals fans.”

Imler has also made sure to have plenty of Cardinals memorabilia for the hometown crowd this weekend.

“Pujols mania is taking over, and I feel people will want to get in because he is having a possible record-setting year,” Imler said. “Interest is at an all-time high, and I think the auction in St. Louis is going to be very successful.”

French isn’t looking for wild success. Just being in business is achievement enough. He's using this lull in the market to better his store.

“It’s a tough market. We’re the only standalone card store left in Columbia,” French said. “But we’re getting by. We’re breaking even, and we expect to get back to normal. I have a saying — when times are tough, get bigger. We’ll see if it works out.”


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