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Nostalgia boosts collectibles market

Vintage sports memorabilia is fetching big money as baby boomers who once thought it impractical to spend their money on collectibles now can afford the keepsakes of their youth.

An investment in a Honus Wagner baseball card for $2.8 million last month is the emblem for the trend toward large-money purchases of vintage items versus modern-day memorabilia. Modern-day slugger Barry Bonds, the newly anointed home run king of Major League Baseball, by comparison, saw the ball he hit for the record go for about $750,000.

"We are seeing more of an interest in vintage collectibles because the baby boomers are making more money than they were 20 years ago when they were just starting out," said Doug Allen, president of Mastro Auctions, a sports memorabilia auctioneer in Illinois.

A recent sports auction put on by Mastro earned $6.5 million, half a million dollars more than pre-auction estimates. Mastro, the largest sports auction house in the world, recently sold the baseballs from MickeyMantle's 500th career home run for $144,000 and Barry Bonds' 70th homer of his record-breaking 2001 season for a mere $14,400.

Sports memorabilia is a multimillion-dollar business, but sports scandals involving steroids, tainted referees and dog-fighting circuits have made consumers wary to spend thousands of dollars on sports memorabilia items associated with today's athletes, such as Michael Vick, O.J. Simpson or Bonds.

For example, basketballs that Boston Celtics' guard Bob Cousy dribbled by helpless defenders on his way to NBA championships could sell for as much as $52,000 today, and Phil Rizzuto's 1950 American League Most Valuable Player award fetched $175,000 last year, according to Sports Collectors Digest, an industry trade publication in Cleveland. When it comes to a Vick jersey, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback's involvement in a dog-fighting scandal has halved his memorabilia value.

"Prior to his legal woes this summer, game-used Vick jerseys that could be traced to a given regular-season game were going for $1,800. We haven't seen any Michael Vick jerseys sold since the dog-fighting allegations or charges, but I think it's safe to assume those same jerseys would go for roughly half as much today," said Scott Kelnhofer, an editor with Sports Collectors Digest.

Simpson, whose mostrecent run-in with the law has generated interest in sports memorabilia, would not attract deep pockets for similar reasons. Jeff Rosenberg, president of Tristar Productions, a sports collectibles company in California, said Simpson's market value decreased considerably after his murder trial in 1994.

When it comes to auctioning, documentation can make any item soar in value. At Mastro, the auction house works with sellers to try to document the provenance of a high-end collectible, such as a game-used uniform or bat. A letter from the player, a teammate, or, with older items, the original owner, can enhance the value, Mr. Allen said.

In anticipation of Mr. Bonds'breaking the home-run record, Major League Baseball began using specially markedbaseballs every time he stepped into the batter's box asheapproached the record. The markings ensured the league would be able to authenticate the record-breaking ball.

Another factor contributing to the waning interest in today's athletes' memorabilia is simple supply and demand.

"Sports franchises make more jerseysand equipment than they did in the old days," Mr. Allen said. "Fifty years ago, Ted Williams had a home jersey and an away jersey; today Sammy Sosa has a new jersey for every game. Therefore, when we come across a vintage jersey, it means something."

For some athletes, a sports memorabilia auction is a financial opportunity; for others, it's a way to clean out the garage.

"There's not a hard-and-fast rule as to who is going to sell symbols of their personal achievements," Mr. Rosenberg said. "Some guys, frankly, need the money. Athletes playing in the 1970s didn't make as much as today's pro sports athlete. Other guys just want to get rid of stuff."

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