VICE PRESIDENT OF HERITAGE SPORTS TURNED FAN LETTERS INTO AN IMPRESSIVE CAREER IN SPORTS COLLECTIBLES
As a kid growing up on New York’s Long Island in the 1970s, Rob Rosen (top) couldn’t wait to get home after school to check the mail. Who knew what surprises awaited in the mailbox? “I used to send letters to the athletes I saw on television,” Rosen says. “I would send trading cards and they would sign them and send them back. Sometimes, they would include a signed photo. Roger Maris wrote back to me. So did Henry Aaron. I got responses from Gayle Sayers, Dick Butkus, Johnny Unitas. That’s when I first started getting really excited about collecting.”
After earning a degree from Brooklyn Law School, Rosen decided to work in the music business as regional director of promotion and marketing at Atlantic Records. “Our job was to break new artists and get their songs on the radio,” he says. But the calling of his childhood was too strong and in 2006, he launched his own sports collectibles business. “I had been a big collector for so long and had built relationships with all the serious players from the dealers to the auction houses. So, I turned my hobby into a career and opened BabeRuthAutographs.com.”
Today, Rosen is a vice president of the sports collectibles category at Heritage Auctions, where he helps to manage a sports category that’s twice as large as its nearest competitor.
How did you transition from dealer to auction house?
As an adult, I first participated as a bidder with all the major auction houses, and as my collection got larger and I became a dealer, the relationships and dealings with the auction houses got stronger. One of those relationships was with [Heritage Director of Sports Auctions] Chris Ivy, who I did business with as a bidder, consignor and private treaty. As the Heritage sports department grew, Chris and I discussed the possibilities of a more formal business relationship. He may tell a different tale, but he drove pretty hard to the hoop.
As a young collector, you started with autographs. How did you move to general sports memorabilia?
My first non-autograph collectible was a Babe Ruth game-used bat. I bought it in auction. It was a 36-inch, 40-ounce beautiful piece of history that I enjoyed for many years. I no longer own it. I sold it for a nice profit, though.
So what gets you excited about sports memorabilia today?
Working with clients to build collections, whether it’s a game-used bat collection, autograph collection, vintage sports photography, whatever. Also, I still get juiced when a special piece comes in on consignment, one of those pieces either you can’t believe exists or can’t believe it’s in-house.
What’s a recent example of that?
A 1921 Babe Ruth game-used bat attributed to his then-record 59th home run of the season. It also happens to be the heaviest documented Babe Ruth bat, weighing in at 47 ounces. The ultimate Ruthian war club!
That realized $717,000 back in February 2015, right? Was that the top price realized for the year?
No, it came in second. Our highest price realized in the sports department in 2015 was the $956,000 we got for the 1965 Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston fight-worn gloves.
Which lot over the past year was the most surprising as far as collector interest?
A Clemente rookie card graded PSA 9 stunned us and the entire hobby. Several of the vintage high-grade baseball cards from our July Platinum Night Auction did as well, but the Clemente rookie led the way. We were expecting about $150,000, but it realized $310,700.
What category of sports memorabilia collecting – excluding cards – saw the most growth in 2015?
Game used. Game-used bats, game-used jerseys from the iconic players … Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Cobb, Koufax, Clemente.
Is there a category you think is overlooked right now? Something you’d invest in?
Vintage sports photography, especially those by the big-name sports photographers. Charles Conlon, Paul Thompson, George Grantham Bain, George Burke and Louis Van Oeyen. It’s not in the basement anymore, but it is still far from the penthouse. Vintage photos in good condition with relevant subject matter are very rare, very desirable and have the ability to cross over that line to the art world.
What’s one thing you wish more collectors knew?
There are many reputable auction houses, authenticators and dealers in this hobby who handle themselves honorably and have a long-term perspective in dealing with clients. I wish more collectors, specifically the new collectors entering the hobby, knew how to distinguish them from the disreputable ones. I hate to think of how many collectors our hobby has lost because their first encounter was with the latter.
So what are the main things collectors should look for when dealing with an auction house, authenticator or dealer for the first time?
In short, do your due diligence and research on the auction house and the authenticator. If you have friends in the hobby, ask them. Call the auction house and develop a relationship. Reputable auction houses recognize the value of long-term customers and relationships.