A Picture's Worth 1,000 Words...and $11,000 : The Price of a Babe Ruth Signature
Babe Ruth is the single most sought-after autograph in the history of the hobby. It’s the creme-de-la-creme of sports memorabilia. It’s the Holy Grail of signatures. I mean, they even made a movie about (everyone remembers The Sandlot, right?)! It all makes sense - Babe Ruth is the most recognized ball player that ever walked the earth. However, there are a variety of other factors that play into the rarity of an authentic Ruth autograph.
For one, The Great Bambino is the most frequently presented forgery in the entire collectibles marketplace. Perhaps you are familiar with Operation Bullpen, the biggest forgery scam in American history. The infamous forgery ring cheated buyers for over $100 million in counterfeit autographs before their FBI takedown in 1999. The book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, by Kevin Nelson, details the full affair.
No matter how incredible you are at forgery (and believe me, these guys were unbelievably honed in on their craft), when you are forging something as esteemed as Babe Ruth’s signature, the devil is in the details. Ruth forgers are meticulous, down to every last material used in their fabrications - even how the counterfeit smells! This excerpt from Nelson’s book sheds light on the lengthy process that Bullpen ringleader, Greg Marino, and his con-crew used to create such convincing Ruth forgeries:
"First you get a ball, any old leather baseball," said Little Ricky. "But you have to be sure there are no identifying markings on it, and no label. So we’d go down to Play It Again Sports and look through this basket of old balls they had and find a few that were right for what we needed. Each one cost maybe five bucks. Then we’d bring them back for something more.
That something more was "dipping," a job often done by John Marino, the utility man of the operation. In Ruth’s time people shellacked valuable baseballs as a means of preserving them, mounting them on a trophy-style wooden plaque. The crew did much the same thing, coating the ball, in Greg’s colorful phrase, "like a candy apple." Since dipping could get messy, it was "a garage operation" handled by John at their parents’ house. One technique was to drive a nail or screw into the seams of the ball, careful not to form too large of a hole. Then, holding the ball by the nail, John dipped it into a gallon can of orange-rust shellac similar in color to what the old-timers used. Once the ball was fully coated it was left to hang-dry with the nail still in it. The nail came out after the ball had dried.
Another technique was to use what came to be called "the dipper," more commonly known as vice grips. The vice grips allowed them to immerse the ball in the shellac without using a nail.
Still, even after dipping, something vital about these balls was missing, something that had to be there: the smell of antiquity. Tucked away and forgotten in an attic for generations, only to be uncovered in recent times, baseballs this old must have a certain musty smell attached to them. But these balls didn’t smell like that; all they smelled of was shellac. "They didn’t smell old, and they certainly didn’t smell like they’d been sitting around for seventy years since the time of Babe Ruth," Little Ricky continued. "So we’d buy a big bag of mothballs and stick the mothballs in a plastic trash bag with the baseball. We’d let the ball sit in the bag for a few days or whatever and that would make it smell old."
Another way they duplicated the smell of age was to forego the mothballs altogether and stick the baseball in a bag of dog food. After a day or two in the bag they’d pull it out and let it cure in the sun a while. When the process was over it was hard to say exactly what the ball smelled like except that it fooled people and that was all that mattered.
"People didn’t know what it smelled like, but it smelled old to them," said Mitchell. "It stinks and it smells old, and that convinced them it was legitimate.”
Fascinating, isn't it? Over 350,000 autographs are submitted each year for professional certification, and PSA/DNA [Professiona Sports Authenticators] specialists estimate that over 50% of them are forgeries. The fakes are exponentially more prominent when it comes to legendary names. Mickey Mantle. Ted Williams. Lou Gehrig. And of course - Babe Ruth. With such an astounding number of counterfeits, it comes with no surprise that an authentic signature from this American icon is a true diamond in the rough - and that comes with a hefty price tag.
It today's online marketplace, it is difficult to determine whether your cherished investment is a piece of history - or a piece of junk. While you may think you've gotten a steal of a deal, you may have simply gotten robbed. Therefore, the evaluation from a reputable authenticator such as PSA/DNA or JSA [James Spence Authentication] - that comes at a price too.
When all is said and done, your typical Babe Ruth single-signed baseball typically brings between $5,000 and $10,000. Pricing factors include but aren't limited to the clarity of the signature, the placement on the ball, and the condition of the baseball itself.
Now, an authenticated Babe Ruth autographed photo typically brings $2,000 - $3,000 at auction. This was not the case last Tuesday, March 26th, 2019 at William Bunch Auctions in Chadds Ford, PA. In their Quarterly Fine & Decorative Arts Catalog Auction, lot #6525, a period framed 8x10" of Babe Ruth soared to a nearly record-breaking $11,000. Competition was fierce, with 37 bids on the item. What made this piece such an outlier?
Firstly, the photo of Babe was an uncommon one. Quite a few autographed headshots exist in the marketplace. Full body posed photos or handshake photos with another renowned player are also quite common. Signed action shots of Babe seem to be harder to come by in the auction world. Of the few at-bat auto'd photographs that have been sold at auction, most are images that have been mass produced and seen repetitively thru sale history. Particularly, a waist-up photo of Ruth mid-swing tends to pop up fairly frequently amongst Babe photos at auction. The photograph sold by Bunch had never been seen before; it was an image completely fresh to the market. Furthermore, the photo was in beautiful condition. The signature was flawless, signed "Sincerely/ Babe Ruth" in bright, bold blue ink. Someone went home with a truly phenomenal piece of baseball history.
I'll point to center field and say that Bunch Auctions really knocked this one out of the park.