PSA/DNA Expert Profile
The man with "the eye" on board with the PSA and PSA/DNA All-Stars
As is the case with so many young people, it is in the aftermath of an experience, attendance at an event, or perhaps a chance encounter with someone that such a profound impact can be made it provides the inspiration and desire to pursue a particular hobby, field of interest, or line of work.
That was certainly the case with a young boy from Baltimore, Maryland, by the name of Richard Albersheim who, since he was six years old, had a passion for sports, collecting sports cards, and his beloved Baltimore Orioles.
One day, while at a local department store with his mother, young Albersheim was shocked to learn that one of his heroes, Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey, was in the adjacent mall greeting fans and signing autographs. Quickly making their way over to where Dempsey was appearing, Albersheim got in line and soon found himself face-to-face with the man who was considered to be one of the best defensive catchers of the time.
That chance encounter, which resulted in a lifelong memory and an autograph, inspired Albersheim to view his attendance at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium in a different way. While up to that time his being at the stadium was simply an opportunity to see and cheer on his favorite team, it then became a place for him to carry out a quixotic mission: to obtain as many players' autographs as possible.
Along with beefing up his newfound passion for autographs with in-person acquisitions, Albersheim also began writing to ballplayers and this resulted in personal responses from Hall of Famers Bill Terry, Waite Hoyt, Burleigh Grimes, Joe Sewell, and countless others.
"It was amazing to me, to get letters from them," says Albersheim. "A lot of the players I wrote to had never been big stars during their playing days, and even if they were, they had been somewhat forgotten by fans. So I would get letters from them thanking me for remembering them and taking the time to write."
Enthusiastically embracing the hobby of autograph collecting, Albersheim soon branched out from contacting athletes to pursuing the signatures of actors, television personalities, politicians, astronauts, captains of industry, and other celebrated figures. While the costs associated with Albersheim's new passion - stationery, envelopes, and stamps - were being underwritten by his parents, the time came when it was decided he should pony up to cover some of the expenses. This resulted in Albersheim doing something that was extremely difficult: selling off some of his treasured collection.
In 1985, Albersheim sold his very first autograph: a Muhammad Ali signature for which he received $8. He followed up on that sale by offering a Rock Hudson signed photograph for which he landed the then-staggering sum of $40.
"That was the point where a light bulb clicked on for my parents," says Albersheim. "It was when they first realized there might be something more to their son's autograph fascination other than his spending countless hours in his room or at the library researching famous people, searching for their mailing addresses, and writing letters asking for their signatures."
After graduating from high school and matriculating at the University of Maryland at College Park, Albersheim's buying and selling of autographs and historical memorabilia had transformed from a way to maintain his hobby and into a career. Even as his path took him into the world of acting, working as a recruiter for sports agents and signing NFL prospects to representation contracts, and broadcasting, in which he was an on-air radio personality, Albersheim's constant source of income stemmed from buying, selling, and collecting rare historical artifacts and autographs.
Establishing himself as one of the hobby's most trusted dealers and a foremost authority in autograph authentication, Albersheim expanded his work to consult on legal cases, serve as an expert witness in legal proceedings, and do authentication and grading work for card companies, institutions, auction houses, and numerous celebrities.
Along with doing consulting work on many film productions, Albersheim has also appeared in several episodes of ABC's reality show, Ball Boys, as an autograph expert and has been featured as a sports memorabilia expert on the History Channel's series, Pawn Stars.
Today, widely respected and regarded as one of the leading experts in authenticating historical and sports autographs, dealers and collectors throughout the hobby and business seek out his expert advice. Having worked with countless former athletes and their families in the disposal of their estates, he has become known as the guy who will never tell people what they want to hear, but rather, what they need to know to make the best informed decisions.
It is for that reason that in late 2016, PSA and PSA/DNA Authentication Services President Joe Orlando, who also serves as the Editor-in-Chief for Sports Market Report, tapped Albersheim as a full-time member of the company's prestigious authentication team.
Sports Market Report recently sat down with Albersheim to learn more about him and to get his take on the current state and future of the autograph hobby and business. We began our visit by asking him to reveal what it was about sports and collecting that enamored him at such an early age.
Rich Albersheim (RA): I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Baltimore, which was the heyday for the Orioles. That was a very exciting time. I was like 10 or 11 and the Colts had left for Indianapolis, so the Orioles were the only game in town; and, on top of that, they were also a great team. This was back in the pre-Camden Yards days. We still had Memorial Stadium, which wasn't much of a stadium - nothing fancy at all - but it had that old stadium feel like those built in the 1950s. I would go to the stadium on East 33rd Street in downtown Baltimore with my dad, and then, as I got older, with friends. Tickets were dirt cheap back then. The Orioles used to have these packages in which you could buy 10 games and the adult tickets were like $3.50 and kids' tickets were $2.
Sports Market Report (SMR): What sparked the collecting bug?
RA: I loved cards from the time I was six, and then my interest in autographs was sparked by my meeting with Rick Dempsey. That was so crazy. We were at the mall and he just happened to be there that day. I had no idea he was going to be there. But a lot of Orioles players did signings like that back then, at car dealerships or local department stores. Back in the 1980s, players were so much more accessible than they are today.
I remember meeting Cal Ripken Jr. when he did an appearance at a local video arcade with Eddie Murray. They were actually playing video games with kids. I remember, growing up, seeing guys like Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer at local food stores or at the movies. It was a different time. They would sign autographs for anybody as long as you approached them politely. I remember many times seeing players engaged in conversations with fans - just standing there and talking to them for 10 minutes.
SMR: Do you still have that Dempsey autograph that started it all?
RA: [Laughs] I may have it stashed away somewhere, but you know, the thing that sparked my interest in autographs really came more from meeting him than the autograph itself. It was the opportunity to stand right next to him and have a conversation that had more of an impact. It was, of course, cool to get the autograph, which was a tangible memory of meeting him, but it was the chance to have a personal interaction with someone I greatly admired that was what really meant the most to me.
SMR: Are you still an active autograph collector after all these years?
RA: A little bit, but not really so much. Certainly not like I used to be. I have my collection which I treasure - my NFL Hall of Fame collection and various things that really have meaning to me - but I'm in the business, which means I'm around great material all the time. I haven't asked someone for an autograph in a long time, but thankfully there are people that do, which generates new material for the hobby.
SMR: Over the years, you have carved out a niche as one of the most respected and successful dealers in the hobby. What made you decide, at this point in your life, to leave your company and come on board with PSA?
RA: During last year's National I heard there may be an opening for an authenticator at PSA. It was just something that came to my attention in casual conversation. I had never given any thought at all to doing something like this, but as I began to think about it, I found it to be intriguing. I thought: "If the stars align and something comes of it that works for both sides, I would be very interested." The thing that had the greatest appeal to me about the position was having the opportunity to work for such a great company - the undisputed leader in the industry.
When I first started my company, I was just a kid. My problem back then was that I was a passionate collector who loved everything that came my way. I never wanted to sell anything [laughs], which doesn't do much to move you forward in a successfully way. But, as time went by, that changed and I had an enormously successful run for over 30 years. So why make a change now? I think there are a few reasons.
When you run your own company, every day entails getting up and being on the constant lookout for things to buy and deals to negotiate. You have to talk to a lot of people, on top of doing all the day-to-day work of the company. I'm one of the last of the breed of longtime autograph dealers out there. There are guys like Kevin Keating, Bill Corcoran, and me. We were the guys who had worked very hard to bring our own businesses and reputations in the autograph hobby up to a level where each of us could back up the material we sold with our own names.
We all used third-party collaboration to support what we sold, but the three of us have a clientele in which we developed great trust. There are really no other dealers out there who have that kind of strength by virtue of their own reputation, experience, and years in the hobby. So my feeling is that now that the three of us are on the same team with PSA, we can bring that strength to dealers all over the country and help to strengthen their businesses.
The other thing is that when it comes to authenticating and grading, the PSA team is the equivalent of the Yankees franchise - an All-Star team with no peer and a long tradition of excellence. They have done an unparalleled job with marketing and branding, and they are the undisputed gold standard. So when the opportunity arose to join the team, I thought it may be an opportunity that may not arise again for another 15 years or more.
Here's the bottom line: My company was like running a successful local hardware store, with a great reputation and a loyal clientele who trust you. But then you get a great offer to come work with Home Depot or Lowe's - that's the big time. Like I said, working with PSA is like playing with the greatest Yankees team - the All-Stars. I think it's a good fit for me because I can capitalize on a unique skill I have developed over the past 30-plus years - one that very few other people have.
SMR: Tell us about that unique skill. Your expertise runs both broad and deep, but do you feel you have a higher level of expertise in certain genres?
RA: I know absolutely everything about everything! [Deadpans for reaction and then laughs]. I'm obviously kidding. But between me and my fellow colleagues at PSA/DNA, we really do cover just about everything - certainly all the major sports. I would say my expertise is with baseball, football, and basketball Hall of Famers. I am extremely knowledgeable of vintage players and athletes from all the major sports. I also have a solid expertise in U.S. presidential material and some entertainment and historical stuff.
SMR: For the benefit of our readers, can you elaborate as to what you mean by having "solid expertise"?
RA: It's having the eye, which only comes from years of study. In the very small universe of autograph authenticators, there are only a few guys out there who really have the eye. Because of PSA, there are, of course, many people out there who can be legitimate and trustworthy dealers while they themselves don't have to have the eye, the skill set, the knowledge to be able to do what me and my co-workers at PSA/DNA can do - to not just be an expert on autographs but also on paper and ink from various eras.
In many cases, it's not because some dealers don't have the capacity to develop such a skill, it's just that your typical dealer today is diversified in what they offer - cards, autographs, and all sorts of memorabilia like coins, stamps, comic books, and vintage toys - so they have developed a working level of understanding about a lot of things, but they can't know everything and certainly can't be an expert in everything. No one can do that.
Over the years, I've had clients who have called me to authenticate various things like cards, train sets from the 1950s, or some vintage toy, and I would have no idea where to start because it's not my area of expertise. From the time I was very young I was curious and passionate about autographs. I dedicated my life to studying handwriting and various autographs. I was really into doing research and examining things way deeper than what a causal collector would ever do. When you have done that for well over three decades, that results in having solid expertise.
SMR: You are in one of the most unique positions to answer this question: What is the state of the autograph hobby today and what do you see for the future?
RA: No one has a crystal ball, so who knows what the future holds. But as for today, when it comes to the higher-end stuff, you are seeing more collectors-slash-investors than ever before. That would have never happened if PSA had not come along. PSA not only immensely strengthened and cleaned up the hobby, they made autographs a very viable investment commodity.
There was a time when people were predicting that the sports card market had hit its peak and was dying because so many people were doctoring and trimming cards - all these shenanigans going on. It was the same with autographs. After gaining serious momentum as a hobby and a business, a lot of forgeries surfaced and things looked bleak for the future of autographs. In the past, people in the sports card industry thought cards were dead with the up-and-coming generation because video games were taking over. But kids continued to buy and collect cards.
Then PSA came along, right at the perfect time, not just to save these markets, but to strengthen them far beyond what anyone thought they would ever be. Since PSA came along, we have seen the appreciation of cards go nuts, with people making huge profits buying and selling cards.
As for the future of autographs, I think it's bright. There will always be collectors. I also think we may see more women getting involved in the hobby. There are a lot of young girls today who are huge sports fans. Girls used to want dolls, but now they want sports equipment. You certainly see more young girls at shows and at the National. Women are also collectors by nature, and I really think the future will bring many more female collectors into the autograph hobby.
SMR: Today, collectors can purchase handwritten notes, letters, and signed checks from the past. But nobody writes letters or signs checks anymore. Will this era only provide material that is specifically designed as a collectible per se - the specific request for a player to autograph a helmet or a bat or whatever a collector may ask for at a signing?
RA: I think that is probably going to be true. The material being created today is more contrived as opposed to things we have from the past - signed checks, personal correspondence, notes of some sort - things that were never created with the thought that someday they would become a collectible or an investment commodity. Today, most autographed material comes from signings at shows or through dealers. Still, there will always be a huge desire for the blue chip material: Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, presidential material, historical material - that stuff will always increase in desirability and value.
SMR: Sometimes, at some little antique shop or through a private party, a collector finds an old autographed photo of a beloved movie star or athlete, but it is "raw" - it has never been authenticated. What is your advice to that person as to what they should do?
RA: Well, most readers of SMR are very savvy when it comes to purchasing items that have not been authenticated or graded. But for those who may be new to the hobby and are considering buying something that intrigues them - something signed by a former president or a legendary athlete, actor, or singer - you have to, for your best interest, be wary of anything that is not authenticated by a reputable third-party source. It is also important to know that anyone, and I mean ANYONE, can generate an official-looking certificate of authenticity.
Along with the work PSA has done to clean up the bad stuff, law enforcement has also done a good job at cracking down on these bad people and companies, but they can only do so much in a world where terrorism far overshadows forged autographs. So it is understandable why it's not law enforcement's top priority to bust rings of individuals who are ripping off wealthy or middle class people with discretionary incomes who are buying a non-necessity item. We all get that. But if you are looking into buying anything that is going to cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars, it just makes sense to have someone who is knowledgeable and respected for their knowledge look at it.
If you were buying an expensive, classic car, you wouldn't bring it to your neighborhood mechanic. They can do a good inspection on your Honda Accord, but if you are considering buying a 1959 Corvette, you have to have someone who knows everything there is to know about that car. Remember, in many cases, the seller of anything isn't purposely trying to deceive you. They may have bought it from someone who bought it from someone else and everyone has been duped. So you have to have a reputable third-party point out any concerns or problems. Luckily, PSA and PSA/DNA are there just for that purpose.
SMR: Rich, in the end, we all know that an autograph is simply a squiggle of ink on some sort of material. Tell us, in your opinion, what makes such a thing a treasured and valuable commodity?
RA: It's the capturing of a small moment of someone's life. It represents someone having a few seconds - or if they were lucky, a minute or more - of a prominent or admired person's time. Or, if it's not an in-person situation, it is something that has been created by Babe Ruth's hand, the same hand that gripped a bat and hit a ball after calling a shot. Think of this, the person who has a certain amount of disposable income maybe can't own an original piece of art created by the hand of Picasso, Chagall, or Andy Warhol, but they can afford to purchase their autograph - something created by the same hand that created some of the world's most revered and expensive art. You may not be able to own a Picasso painting that can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, but you can own a letter he wrote to an art dealer.
I remember going into a gallery many years ago and seeing an Abraham Lincoln signed military appointment, a letter from Teddy Roosevelt, and checks signed by each of The Beatles. I recall the dealer telling me that he had clients who had art collections that were worth millions - individual pieces that were valued at over a million dollars - but that they also collected autographs. He also told me that when someone walks into the homes of those collectors and sees the walls of their mansions filled with expensive art by prominent artists along with a George Washington signed document, which sells for a fraction of what expensive art goes for, what do you think people are first drawn to and most fascinated by? It will always be the Washington signed document.
We live in a celebrity-driven, pop culture world, so you could have a very expensive Robert Rauschenberg painting on your wall and that would be very impressive for someone in the art world, but the average person wouldn't give it much of a thought. However, if you have a Tom Brady signed jersey in a showcase next to the Rauschenberg painting, which could be worth millions, people will always be drawn to the Brady jersey.
Even in a very poor condition, a Babe Ruth signed ball garners huge attention, and it always will. You may have a six-figure Mercedes parked in your garage, but it is just like the one hundreds of thousands of other people have and no one is impressed by it except you. But have a person walk into someone's house and see a Babe Ruth signed ball and they won't just be impressed, they will be amazed! Something like that is also a tangible investment for a large number of people, one with a great track record over long periods of time. This is another good indication as to why the future of autographs is bright, and I'm very proud to be a part of the all-star team that will ensure that.
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