Fans Won't Kill for O.J. Memorabilia

O.J. Simpson might have wanted his sports memorabilia back from where it sat in a Las Vegas hotel room, but few others are vying to scoop up goods associated with the NFL former running back.

Sports memorabilia is a multimillion-dollar business, but the demand for Simpson's items remains relatively small.

"I think the group is so tiny and small for him," said Jeffrey R. Rosenberg, president and CEO of Tristar Productions, who has been in the sports collectibles business since 1987. However, Rosenberg notes, "there is a niche for everything."

Sports goods sales generate big dollars. Over the weekend, Barry Bonds home run balls that tied and broke Hank Aaron's record 755 home runs sold at auction, fetching $186,750 and $752,467, respectively.

But that's modest compared to a Honus Wagner baseball card that sold for $2.8 million earlier this month or the $3 million paid in 1998 for the ball hit by Mark McGwire that broke the home run record for a single season. (McGwire has since come under suspicion of steroid abuse, and the ball's value is believed to have slipped to well below $1 million.)

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So what about Simpson?

Rosenberg said Simpson never really did the memorabilia show circuit, which made his items rare, popular and worth some money. But after his murder trial, interest in his goods waned. Simpson then made a few efforts to sign items at shows. Rosenberg said he and others turned him down.

While Simpson was acquitted of murder charges in the 1994 deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, a civil jury in 1997 found him liable for the deaths and ordered the former football star to pay their families $33.5 million.

The few rare times that Simpson has tried to do signings, Goldman's family got court orders securing any money from the events. One such event was canceled. Another time Simpson said no money exchanged hands because the signing was handled through an out-of-state promoter.

A February 1999 court-ordered auction of Simpson memorabilia did bring in about $430,000 for the civil judgment. The biggest price tag was for Simpson's 1968 Heisman Trophy: $255,000. A pair of football jerseys, one with Simpson's autograph, only fetched $4,750. Most other items sold for just a few thousand dollars.

Rosenberg said those looking for Simpson memorabilia are in two groups. The first are trying to get every Heisman winner to sign a mini-trophy and need Simpson to complete that goal. Others are fascinated by the killings and his celebrity and want his items to be part of that, not because of any of his athletic achievements.

The Million-Dollar Baseball Card

Probably the most famous and one of the most valuable sports collectible items of all time is a rare mint-condition Honus Wagner baseball card.

Earlier this month, the card was sold again for $2.8 million -- a new record for a baseball card.

Wagner's card was among the first of hundreds of cards of Major League players produced by the American Tobacco Co. and included in packages of cigarettes. But quickly after its 1909 release, Wagner protested the card and it was pulled. Some attribute this to Wagner's opposition to cigarettes and others say it is because he wasn't paid enough for his likeness.

Roughly 50 to 60 Wagner cards are believed to exist today, but only one of the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop is in such good condition.

The card, known as the T206 Honus Wagner, has had several owners over the years, including hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.

This month's sale was helped by memorabilia auction company SCP Auctions Inc.

SCP, which specializes in high-end sports memorabilia and cards, and partners with Sotheby's, also sold the Barry Bonds baseballs. It has also sold -- for $1.25 million -- the bat Babe Ruth used in 1923 to hit the first home run, ever, at Yankee Stadium.

Dan Imler, the auction company's managing director said that "sports is such a fabric of our culture" and that people can relate to these items.

He said the biggest segments of the market are vintage cards and that baseball memorabilia far outpaces any other sport.

"Baseball is really the really foundation of the market," Imler said. "Perhaps more than anything the thing we are most nostalgic about is cards."

Vintage Outsells Today's Stars

Richard Russek, president of Grey Flannel Auctions, said that several factors go into an item's value, including condition, rarity and popularity of the sports star.

One of the reasons that old baseball cards are worth so much is that few people have them.

"We all had them but all our mothers threw them out," Russek said.

Now with modern players, collectors hold on to everything assuming it will go up in value.

Russek's company specializes in vintage game-worn basketball jerseys that sell for anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $90,000 and even higher.

A 1970s autographed sneaker from Julius Erving recently sold for $700. But a 1978 game-used all-star jersey worn by Dr. J. sold for $16,000.

Today's players sell jerseys themselves or give them away to charity so that there are plenty on the market. Teams are also finding new avenues to sell their jerseys.

New York-based Steiner Sports, for instance, has deals directly with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Notre Dame to get their used equipment.

There are also plenty of sports stars who cash in on their name at sports memorabilia conventions.

Fans line up and pay for a few seconds in front of a star and a quick scribble of the pen. They can sign 1,000 or more autographs in one day.

Tristar puts on several such shows and also sells all sorts of memorabilia.

The company has a big show planned for Feb. 23 in San Francisco with Deion Sanders, Ryne Sandberg and John Elway.

Want Elway's autograph? It will cost you $175. But that's just for a signature of a photo or some other flat object. If you want that John Hancock on a football, it will cost $200. How about a helmet or jersey? That will cost $225.

How about a photo with Elway? Be prepared to pay $175.

And none of those prices include the $10 admission fee.

Then there are random knickknacks on the Web.

For instance, a ticket stub to Super Bowl XXII is on sale at eBay now for $19.95, a set of four placemats with the 1971 Nebraska football schedule is being offered for $14.99, and somebody is even selling a 1981 O.J. Simpson ad from Penthouse magazine for Dingo Boots for $3. In fact, there were more than 100 postings for Simpson items on eBay today -- several of which made joking references to his legal troubles in Las Vegas.

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