When someone recently asked basketball great Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player in NBA history, whom he thought was better -- LeBron James or Kobe Bryant -- he blurted out "Kobe." Sports memorabilia collectors would tend to agree.
James's game-used jerseys have sold for between $2,000 and $8,000, according to Antiques Roadshow appraiser Leila Dunbar. A game-used jersey Bryant wore in last year's NBA finals sold for more than $30,000. Though prices may seem high to non-sports fans, they are a relative bargain compared with Jordan memorabilia.
Game-worn jerseys worn by the NBA's five-time Most Valuable Player have sold between $5,000 and $70,000. Prices for other Jordan merchandise such as autographed photographs and basketballs vary widely. The appeal of any athlete is usually measured at the upper end of the market.
The explanation for the disparity is simple: Jordan's stupendous list of accomplishments includes six NBA championships. James, as Cleveland Cavaliers fans are painfully aware, has not won any. Bryant, who like James entered the NBA straight out of high school, has been on teams that have won the NBA championship five times. Given the recent controversy surrounding James' departure from Cleveland to the Miami Heat, the outlook for his memorabilia remains uncertain.
Winning Changes Everything
"I think it's going to take a sharp, disgusting blow," says Mike Guitierrez, consignment director at Heritage Auction Galleries and another Antiques Roadshow appraiser. He added that James departure from Cleveland and his widely panned ESPN TV special "left everyone cold."
Indeed, Nike (NKE) dismantled a 10-foot high mural honoring James in Cleveland. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert blasted James as an ingrate. He also is an investor in the company that makes Fatheads, life-size wall graphics of athletes that usually sell for $99. The James Fathead is on sale for $17.46, not coincidentally, the year infamous Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold was born.
Antiques Roadshow's Dunbar is more circumspect, saying she's taking more of a "wait and see" approach. If James and teammates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh can bring the championship to Miami, then fans may change their tunes and pay up for his memorabilia. Besides, she notes, James remains one of NBA's biggest stars and he's only 25 years old. A Cleveland memorabilia dealer noted that James merchandise continues to sell at steep discounts, even though fans there remain heartbroken.
"What they do with it after it leaves the store remains to be seen," says Nate Cannell, manager of Cardboard Heroes. Some fans in Cleveland have burned James jerseys; others have turned his gear in at local bars offering free drinks in exchange.
Anyone looking to buy sports memorabilia as an investment might want to bypass contemporary players such as James and focus on items from before 1970, which tend to hold their value and steadily increase. That's even true during a recession. The catch is that these items cost big bucks. In 2008, a cap worn by baseball legend Babe Ruth sold for $328,000.
"It's because of rarity and scarcity." Guiterrez says. "Once any of these guys retire, the collectors forget about them."
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