Monday, April 27, 2009

Auction House Politics and PSA/DNA

This is a bit old, but still quite relevant...

#######

'Babe' sellers see bad signs
Give authenticators failing grade


By Michael O'Keeffe
NY Daily News
Monday, August 6, 2007


Longtime TV sports journalist Robert Bender left his family with a mountain of medical bills when he died last fall after suffering for years from Alzheimer's disease. But he did leave his survivors with several assets, including a home in Hilton Head, S.C., and his collection of sports memorabilia, most notably a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth.

Bender's family hoped to sell those items to pay off its debts, but the declining real estate market has made it difficult to sell the home in South Carolina. The politics of the sports memorabilia industry, the family says, have set back its efforts to get a fair price for the Ruth ball.

"We were punished," Bender's son Bob Bender says, "because we didn't choose to sell the ball through Mastro Auctions."

In the world of sports memorabilia, authenticators are supposed to be knowledgeable third parties who grade autographed balls, trading cards, jerseys and other collectibles with a cold, objective eye.

But collectors and dealers have complained for years that authentication companies award higher grades for big-volume customers, including Mastro Auctions, sports memorabilia's largest auction house. The story of Robert Bender's Babe Ruth baseball, they say, suggests the relationship between Mastro Auctions and PSA/DNA, the hobby's biggest autograph-authentication service, is too cozy.

"There's no doubt Mastro gets preferential treatment from PSA/DNA," one hobby executive says.

Robert Bender, the longtime sports director at WGY-TV in upstate Schenectady, met and interviewed some of the biggest names in sports history, including Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, according to his son, who now lives in Atlanta. Along the way, Robert Bender picked up some souvenirs, including the ball autographed by the great Ruth. "He probably got it during an interview," Bender says.

His father, Bender adds, must have had a sense that the ball would be worth something some day, because he didn't leave it lying around the house, where his kids might grab it for use in a sandlot game. Instead, he put it in a safe-deposit box with its original carton, where it sat undisturbed for decades.

Shortly after Bender's death, his family decided to consign the Ruth ball and other autographed baseballs to an auction house. After researching various houses, Bob Bender settled on two candidates - Mastro Auctions and Long Island-based Leland's. Both companies, after being provided scans of the ball, said the ball would be a star of any auction because it was in great shape and the autograph was crisp and sharp. According to Bender, both guaranteed at least $75,000 for the ball but said it would probably go for six figures.

"They both led us to believe it was one of the best Ruth balls they had ever seen," said Jean Bender, Bob Bender's wife.

Leland's ultimately got the nod, Bob Bender says, because it seemed more responsive and more personable. When Mastro president Doug Allen was informed about the decision, however, he told Bender his family had made a terrible mistake.

"The reason for my concern is relationships," Allen wrote in a November e-mail to Bob Bender. "The other balls in the collection will take care of themselves. The Ruth ball on the other hand will depend on relationships; a relationship with PSA/DNA and relationship with high-end customers. I already shared the images with PSA/DNA and am convinced we could have maximized the grade on the ball."

In another e-mail, Allen said, "I hate to see you go with a firm that cannot maximize the grade with PSA and ensure you get a world-class price for this ball."

Allen says he was not suggesting Mastro Auctions could pull strings to get a higher grade than Leland's. Instead, he says, his company knows what items should be graded and how to prepare them. "I spend more money for our customers than any other auction house," he says. "We get record prices for our items."

The Bender family, however, was not persuaded to change its mind. The ball was given to Leland's, which then submitted it to PSA/DNA.

PSA/DNA, however, first claimed there was evidence that two other autographs had been removed from the Ruth ball, which would significantly reduce its value. Leland's submitted the ball a second time and was told an inscription had been removed, which would also erode its value.

Leland's finally brought the ball to James Spence Authentication, a Pennsylvania autograph authentication service that ran the ball through its video spectral comparator, a sophisticated machine that uses magnification and different kinds of light to detect erasures and forgeries.

"You can see things you can't with the naked eye," says Spence. "There was no evidence that anything had been removed. There are differences of opinion, but we had six people huddled around it through different cycles. We did our due diligence and we believe nothing had been removed."

PSA/DNA president Joe Orlando did not return a call for comment. PSA/DNA eventually graded the Benders' Ruth ball an eight on a scale of 10, and although it's a high grade, it would not likely bring the six-figure payoff Bender says Leland's and Mastro Auctions had said the ball would fetch.

The whole experience has left Bender with a bad taste, and he says his family will hang on to the ball for now and try to sell it at a later date.

"I wish I knew more about this industry before I started messing with it," Bender says. "We're not sure what to do now."

No comments: