'Til Death do us Part'
By: Kenny A. Lindsay

Uncovering the 'myth of death' in the autograph and collectors market

 

The old adage that 'He bought the farm' also applies to the collectors that fall into the death trap of collecting upon the news of a famous individual's passing. One of the most fatal mistakes that the majority of collectors and dealers make is the assumption when a celebrity passes away it equals pay dirt. However, the fact remains that in most cases, they are dead wrong.

At the announcement of the passing of a popular celebrity, the economic tune is all too familiar and resembles that of a broken record. Collectors flock like migrating birds to stores waiting in long lines to acquire a memento bearing the likeness of the deceased individual. Internet auction sites are overloaded with frantic bidders and dealers are cashing in hand over fist.

As Kenny Rogers hit song 'The Gambler' reads, 'Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run' couldn't be a better lesson to those dealers and collectors alike. The supply and demand factor is the key ingredient to establish any long term value and in today's market, the supply overwhelms the actual demand. I'll talk more about this later.

Take for instance the death of New York Yankees and baseball legend, Mickey Mantle. When it was publicly announced a year prior to his death that he was battling an incurable cancer. Virtually anyone and everyone that had any inventory on the autograph of Mantle was instantly hoarded in anticipation of his inevitable passing. During Mantle's illness the prices on autographed merchandise rose between 50%-100% and his memorabilia also climbed in value. When Mickey Mantle finally slipped away in 1995, instantly the Mantle stock market shot up to unrealistic numbers. Generally signed baseball's commanded a $350.00 price tag but amazingly enough, within hours the price tag dropped to $300 then $250, then $200 and within 48 hours of his passing an autographed baseball could be had at $99.00 - the price range of when Mantle was in good health!

Another all too familiar case is that of Montreal Canadiens hockey Hall of Famer, Maurice 'The Rocket' Richard. For years, Richard also battled deadly cancer which would ultimately claim his life on May 27, 2000. Once again, dealers hoarded autographed Richard memorabilia throughout his deadly illness and it actually came to the point that it was somewhat difficult to locate an autographed item of memorabilia from this hockey legend when previously thousands existed on the marketplace. Prior to Richard's death, an autographed hockey puck or 8x10" photograph retailed in the $35 range. However, at the announcement of Richard's death, those same items commanded prices of $100-$125 but within a few short days the prices began to fall and have finally settled back into the $35-$50 price range. It will be a very long time before an autographed Richard 8x10" picture of souvenir puck will command $125.00 prices.

These scenario's are not just limited to Mantle and Richard as the same fluctuation occurred with the deaths of NASCAR legends, Dale Earnhardt, Davy Allison and Alan Kuwicki. Baseball greats such as Joe DiMaggio, Pee Wee Reese and Eddie Mathews and Hockey greats such as Sid Abel and Harry Lumley.

For many collectors, it is very confusing to them on why prices shoot up to record breaking figures then ultimately settle back into the price range of when the athlete/celebrity was still alive and well. Two major factors contribute to this retail insanity.

1. News Media- The news media actually creates an interest and demand among the general public with the 'news breaking' stories that surround the death of a prominent individual. With no pun intended, this 'news' is short lived. However, during this time, the interest towards the deceased intensifies beyond approach which attracts buyers which normally do not 'collect' on a regular basis. The buyers come out in droves but within a few short days, the sizzle is gone.

2. Supply & Demand: This always plays the primary role in what establishes prices. When the supply out numbers the demand, prices remain low. The insanity kicks in high gear when the demand out numbers the supply but this rarely takes place in today's market for any prolonged period of time. In nearly all cases of the death of a prominent individual (especially in sports) the demand ALWAYS exceeds the supply of merchandise within a 24 hour time period. However, in nearly all cases, within 48 hours the role is reversed and the actual supply triples the demand as frantic dealers are pushing the memorabilia out as quickly as possible.

In today's marketplace, especially in the world of sports. Autographs and merchandising is big business. Sports athletes engage in hundreds of private and public autograph sessions in a lifetime creating hundreds of thousands of original autographs which creates a plentiful supply. To give you a better perspective, many dealers stock hundreds of signed pucks, photographs and baseballs on any given superstar athlete and Hall of Famer. For example, it isn't unusual to find a dealer with a stock of 300 individually autographed pucks on Hall of Famer, Sid Abel or Maurice Richard.

A major rule of thumb to live by is 'never buy when someone dies' as the prices will always settle once the news media changes the topic. If anything, this is the time to sell if you're able to get in on the action within the 24 hour time period. 'Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run' only makes sense.

Some unique situations do exist where the death of a prominent individual have substantially increased the value of their autograph and memorabilia. However, there is no exceptions as their prices also declined shortly afterwards.

One could never forget that horrible January 28, 1986 day in American history when the Space Shuttle Challenger unexpectedly exploded just moments after launching at Cape Canaveral claiming the lives of seven astronauts. With a crew of six males and one female, the public took a special interest in the life of mother and former school teacher, Christa McAuliffe. Prior to take off, Christa was unknown to the general public but at the very moment of the fatal explosion of the space craft, Christa was a national hero. Within days, she graced the cover of virtually every news magazine in the nation while television networks. The gigantic public out cry prompted an overwhelming demand for the unheard of autograph of Christa McAuliffe. Within weeks, McAuliffe autographs began to surface in auction catalogs realizing final bid prices into the tens of thousands of dollars. Fifteen years later, a rare letter written by Christa McAuliffe is valued between $2,000-$3,000. If McAuliffe were alive today, her signature would range in the $150-$300 price range. One must keep in mind that an authentic McAuliffe signature is quite rare and astronaut autograph collectors are numerous whom ultimately create this constant demand for her important signature.

Athletes and prominent individuals that passed away prior to the 'autograph boom' (pre 1980) such as Roberto Clemente, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones along with countless others are signatures that will continue to escalate. For one simple reason, they did not produce hundreds of thousands of signatures unlike those legends that survived and participated in the autograph market.

Misery does not need company so the next time a prominent individual 'buys the farm' don't you kick in and end up buying the horses, boat and trailer. Lay in the hay and when the stampede passes through, make your move.

 

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