If you're passionate about collecting sports or entertainment autographs, visiting San Diego's American Icon Autographs (AIA) is like stepping through the looking glass, and entering a magical world of black, blue, silver and gold-inked treasure – a signature Shangri-la if you will.
With a huge inventory of top-quality items, AIA is one of the country's leading in-person signing venues, and eBay's largest provider of PSA/DNA authenticated signed sports and entertainment memorabilia.
"When I was a senior at Rancho Bernardo High School, I really started to get into wrestling," said AIA founder and owner Sean Jacoby. "After I graduated, I enrolled in a professional wrestling school and planned on becoming a professional wrestler – the next Hulk Hogan."
Known as White Trash Flash, Jacoby hit the pro wrestling circuit, where he found some venues weren't too accepting of his character. "I was once wrestling in a match in Pennsylvania and the promoters didn't want me to do the White Trash Flash thing," laughed Jacoby. "They thought it was offensive or something I guess. So, being as they knew I was from California, they renamed me California Chris Christian and wanted me to be a surfer guy – which was fun."
Whether he was known as White Trash Flash or California Chris Christian, Jacoby's career in the professional wrestling ring was pile driven into oblivion by his own doing during his freshman year at San Diego State University. "I had roomed in a dorm, joined a fraternity, and was really enjoying school life," said Jacoby. "I just loved the partying too much to keep up with my wrestling training – so I hung it up. But, I still keep in touch with some of the guys I trained with who went on to be stars like John Cena and Samoa Joe."
WHERE IT BEGAN
Born into a United States Navy family in Idaho Falls, Idaho in 1981, Jacoby's family traveled extensively until finally settling in San Diego. "I was in grade school when we moved to San Diego so, up until that time, I never really had an allegiance to any professional team," said Jacoby. "When I was in fifth grade, that's when I really started to get into professional sports, and started to collect cards. Then, when I was in sixth grade, I started going to Padres games at Jack Murphy Stadium with some of my friends. From the time I was 12, until I was around 16, I would go to anywhere from 25 to 65 Padres games a year. I would hang around the dugout before the games and ask players to sign cards, or photos or magazines."
By the time Jacoby entered high school, his interest in sports had moved from being a spectator and fan, to being an active participant. "In high school, I played football as a defensive end, and basketball as a power forward," Jacoby said. "During that time, I lost interest in collecting. I was just not into autographs and cards anymore, having really gotten into sports. Then, after I graduated from high school, I still didn't have the time for collecting being as that I was seriously involved in wrestling and college."
While Jacoby was off fighting as White Trash Flash, partying with his frat brothers, pursuing the ladies, and hitting the books, his childhood autograph and card collection was securely tucked away in his parent's home. "When I would visit my parents, I would look through all my old stuff and it would bring back a lot of great memories," Jacoby recalled.
A few years later, with his career in the ring over, and college completed, Jacoby found himself without a real focus on where life would lead him. "The way my professional career came about is kind of a funny story," said Jacoby. "After I finished college, I moved back in with my parents. I had no job, and no money, so I started looking through all the stuff I had collected as a kid and thought I could probably make some money by selling some of it."
Jacoby packed up various items from his collection and went to a few local stores and shows where he successfully sold off bits and pieces. "I appreciated the memories the stuff brought me," said Jacoby. "But, I appreciated the money I was making more," he added with a laugh.
Lured in by the prospect of turning his childhood passion into a career, Jacoby continued to attend shows where he learned the ropes of the business side of the hobby. "I began to learn how it all worked, and I even got some of my friends from college who had gone on to play pro ball to come with me to a show to do a signing. They made some money – I made some money – and that's what got me started in the business."
Based out of his parent's house at first, Jacoby moved from San Diego to Long Beach in 2004. "I felt the market would be better in the Long Beach area," Jacoby recalled. "That was when I started setting up regularly at collectible shows at Hollywood Park, Frank and Sons (in the City of Industry), and Jimmy's USA (in Whittier)."
While actively involved in doing shows, both in California and throughout the United States, Jacoby met Guillermo Pinon, who eventually became his business partner. "Guillermo came in with some money to form the partnership," Jacoby explained. "Then he traveled all around the country to shows with me until 2009 when we made the decision to move back to San Diego and open a retail store – that was the real beginning of American Icon Autographs."
When AIA first started, Jacoby said he was doing very limited work on the Internet. "Back then, I was doing a lot of wholesale work, dealing with other vendors – which became a network of vendors. Then we started doing signings – which became a huge part of our business."
With his business rapidly growing, Jacoby soon brought on his first full-time employee – Colin Wilkinson, who is the brother of Kendra Wilkinson of the E! reality show, The Girls Next Door, that documented her life as one of Hugh Hefner's three girlfriends, and led to her own show, Kendra.
"Colin really runs the place for us," said Jacoby. "He handles all of our shipping and online sales. We couldn't do what we do it without him."
CATCHING UP WITH THE MAN BEHIND AIA
"Sports Market Report" recently caught up with Sean Jacoby to pick his brain on the success of AIA, and to get his overall feelings on the current state of the autograph collecting hobby. We began with the most basic of questions – "How's business?"
Sean Jacoby (SJ): Great! This past spring we had some of the best months we've had since 2006. I think that was due to two things – the first is that it does seem that the economy is on a bit of an upswing. The second is that I really worked it hard being that I just bought a home. I'm also getting closer to getting married. My girlfriend, Michelle, and I have been together for about 10 years now so we'll do it sooner or later. For those reasons – I have been really motivated.
Sports Market Report (SMR): What sort of material are you finding to be hot at the moment?
SJ: Well, our specialty is sports and entertainment autographs, and some game-used things. I would say that today, about 70 percent of our business is entertainment, and 30 percent is sports. But by far, for us, the biggest seller we have is Playboy Playmates signed stuff. Playmate autographs are very hot. They are selling better than anything else right now. There are thousands of Playboy collectors out there, and our best selling items are the Playmate's signed official headshots. There is always a big rush for signed stuff as soon as each new issue of "Playboy" magazine comes out.
SMR: Do you handle both vintage and modern material?
SJ: We don't handle vintage material. Our big thing is signings. We do a lot of signings with big names from entertainment, sports, and Playmates, so for us so it's all modern stuff.
SMR: You said you also offer some game-used stuff.
SJ: We do. Game-used stuff is set apart from any other collectible. I mean, there is an abundance of Adrian Gonzalez signed bats out there, but there are not a lot of Gonzalez game-used bats. Game-used stuff is for the advanced collector. It's definitely a step-up to a premium item. I get most of my stuff directly from the players. At the end of last year's season, I called up some of the guys I know with the Padres and arranged to go into their clubhouse after their last game. I went from locker to locker with my checkbook buying all kinds of game-used stuff. I did the same thing with the Chargers last season. It was right after they lost to the Jets in the playoffs so it was kind of a somber atmosphere.
SMR: Who is your typical customer?
SJ: We're pretty much across the board with entertainment and sports autograph collectors. And we are definitely well-known for the Playmate material we offer. I have clients all over the country. No matter where people live, they can check our website to see who we are having in for signings. The site gives them instructions as to how they can get things signed and personalized. We do personalized stuff all the time. I also have a lot of business people who have bought stuff from me to hang in their offices. I think they do that because when someone walks into their office and sees something they relate to, it generates interest and establishes a common ground. You know, if you have a signed Joe Namath poster in your office, and a guy comes in who is a football fan, well right away you have broken the ice.
SMR: Are all of the items you offer authenticated by PSA/DNA?
SJ: Yes. We have used PSA/DNA exclusively since 2005. Every item we sell is authenticated by PSA/DNA. There's a good reason for that – there is just no other third-party authentication service that is in any way comparable. That is because everyone at PSA/DNA, really knows their stuff. They know what they are doing, and people know that they know what they're doing. That's their brand. We once thought of issuing our own certificate of authenticity, but never did it. Having PSA/DNA do our authentication means something to collectors who don't really know us. PSA/DNA has earned the confidence and the trust of people in the hobby. A guy from Florida may not have any idea who we are, but he sees something on our site, wants it, sees that it has been authenticated by PSA/DNA, trusts the brand, and can then deal with us with the highest level of confidence.
SMR: Sean, like so many dealers who have become serious players within the hobby, you started as a collector yourself. Do you still collect anything?
SJ: Nah. I don't collect anything anymore. I have kept a few of the autographs I got as a kid – some of the Padres players from the late-1990s that remind me of the time that I did this purely for fun – but that's it.
SMR: So what are your personal interests outside of work today? What do you do for fun?
SJ: I still like to play basketball now and then. I'm also a big weight lifter. I love going to Padre games – although my days of hanging over the dugout trying to get autographs are long over (laughs). But I really do enjoy going to the games – and I have really gotten spoiled. My work with the team over the years has given us the opportunity to get great seats, field passes, locker room passes – so I'll be the first to admit it – we have gotten totally spoiled.
SMR: What are you goals for the future of American Icon Autographs?
SJ: I hope we can continue to expand. My goal is to open another retail store in about 18 months. And we are also always working a few months in advance in scheduling our signings – we do four or five a month.
SMR: Your signings have really become your signature, if you'll excuse the pun.
SJ: Our signings are a huge part of our business. We are always looking to do the types of signings that no one else has ever done. We try to offer a unique product, and we have established great relationships with the people we do signings with. We work with certain people over and over, and many of them have really become friends.
SMR: Give our readers an idea of who you have recently had in to sign.SJ: Well, as I mentioned, we do a lot with the Playboy Playmates, and a lot of entertainment stuff. We did a signing with Carrie Fisher. We have had Cheech and Chong in. We've had Henry Hill, who Ray Liotta played in "Goodfellas," and Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts who were played by Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in "American Gangster." As for sports – we have done pretty much all the local athletes from the Chargers and the Padres. We recently had Philip Rivers in, and we did the first and only signing with Don Coryell. We've had so many big names – John Wooden, Adrian Gonzalez, Bill Walton, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield, Eugene Amano, Chuck Muncie – the list just goes on and on.
SMR: Anything really big on the horizon as far as your signings?
SJ: Yes! I'm really excited that we have scheduled a signing with Hulk Hogan. He was one of my childhood heroes, and I've never met him, so I'm very excited about that.
SMR: You said you don't collect any more, but will you have Hogan sign something for you?
SJ: (Laughing) Oh yea! I will definitely have him sign a photo – to White Trash Flash!
For more information on upcoming signings at American Icon Autographs visit their Web site at www.americaniconautographs.com. You may also contact them by phone at (562) 787-4266, and if you are in the San Diego area, they are located at: 324 Horton Plaza Unit #31 San Diego, CA 92101-5481.