PSA/DNA Expert Profile

TJ Kaye

A Gem of a Guy and Authenticator

The "King of Bling" is the go-to guy for sports championship rings, awards, and trophies

They are some of the most coveted pieces of hardware ever designed and crafted: the Academy Award of Merit, better known as the "Oscar;" a golden winged-woman holding an atom that has been dubbed the "Emmy;" little gilded gramophones that have come to be called "Grammys;" and the nickel-plated "Tony" medallion, adorned with the comedy and tragedy masks and presented in honor of Antoinette Perry, an actress, director, producer, and co-founder of the American Theatre Wing.

While these are the "holy grails" for those who toil in the world of cinema, recording, and theatre, athletes also have "brass rings" they dream of grabbing from the moment they first hold the handle of an ash-wood wand or place their fingers over the laces of a pigskin-covered prolate spheroid.  

While these modern day laurel wreaths - tangible accolades that honor athletic excellence - include such treasures as players' Super Bowl and World Series trophies, Major League Baseball's Cy Young and Gold Glove Awards, championship title belts, the cups and platters of Wimbledon, Larry O'Brien Trophies, Claret Jugs, Wanamaker Trophies, and Olympic medals, to name just a few, the most widely desirable of these are Super Bowl and World Series rings.

Kaye

While many of these treasured tokens of distinction are forever kept within an athlete's family or donated to teams, museums, or educational institutions, at times these extremely rare items do become available to those other than the ones who earned them through auctions, estate sales, or private dealers who handle high-end sports memorabilia.

Of the latter, one man has garnered the coveted honor of being recognized as the nation's foremost dealer and authenticator of championship rings, trophies, awards, and jewelry: TJ Kaye.

Born in New York, Kaye is now based in Boca Raton, Florida, where he serves as the founder, president, and CEO of TJ's Memorabilia, Inc., which was established in 1991. A business that stemmed from Kaye's fascination with and passion for collecting championship awards of all kinds, he has become the "go-to" guy for those who collect some of the rarest sports memorabilia in the hobby.

Along with earning a reputation for his professional ethics and expertise, on the personal side Kaye is still very much a collector at heart and maintains his prized collection of the hundreds of championship rings, trophies, and awards he has amassed over the past three decades.

As one of the leading championship trophy, award, and ring experts in the hobby, who is often tapped for his knowledge by media outlets such as ESPN and Forbes, Kaye was the only choice when PSA and PSA/DNA were looking to bring on an authenticator who could certify championship rings, trophies, and awards using a process similar to their other authentication services. Once Kaye deems a piece to be authentic, the company provides the owner of the item with covert synthetic DNA tagging along with a letter of authenticity notating important characteristics, like the award type, the type of metals or precious stones that have been used, the manufacturer, and the athlete, coach, or team executive for whom the award was originally made.

1977 Cowboys

Along with Kaye's business of buying, selling, and authenticating rings and awards, he also specializes in authenticating Mickey Mantle signed material and hosts private signings that, over the years, have included Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Duke Snider, Bob Griese, Brian Griese, Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial, Brooks Robinson, and Warren Spahn.

Sports Market Report recently visited with Kaye, beginning our conversation with the "King of Bling" by asking him how he developed such a strong passion for sports.

TJ Kaye (TJK): I was born in Long Island, New York, and I grew up as one of those kids who was a major fan of all the teams. Most kids who grew up in New York had an allegiance to one team or another; they were either Mets fans or Yankee fans, Jets fans or Giants fans. That wasn't me. I loved them all: Mets, Yankees, Giants, Jets, Knicks, Islanders, Rangers. This was back in the mid-1970s and it was an exciting time to be a fan of New York teams. Every team had legendary players.

Sports Market Report (SMR): Speaking of legendary players, one only need be around you for a few moments to recognize that you are a devout Mickey Mantle fan.

TJK: That's true. My father was a huge Mickey Mantle fan. He just loved him, and I continued in his footsteps, collecting everything I could find that was Mickey Mantle-related.

Kaye

SMR: Did you ever get to meet him?

TJK: I did, which was a huge honor. Mickey was always the guy for me because my dad was such a fan, and so it kind of became a father/son tradition with us.

SMR: Along with collecting Mantle items, what else did you collect as a kid?

TJK: I was a true collector from the time I was very young: baseball cards, football cards, pens, Matchbox cars. Collecting was a part of my nature.

SMR: How and when did you get interested in collecting championship rings and awards?

TJK: I had gone to college, majored in business administration and accounting, and joined my family's real estate business in the late-1980s.  By that time, along with Mickey Mantle memorabilia, I had also started collecting autographs. Then I purchased my first championship ring. That first ring got me hooked and it led me to my current career as the top championship ring dealer in the country.

SMR: What was that first ring?

TJK: It was Gil Hodges' 1969 New York Mets World Series ring - a salesman sample ring.

2006 Cardinals

SMR: What is a salesman sample ring?

TJK: It is a sample ring that is identical in every way to the rings they made for the teams. Most of the major manufacturers used to do this so their sales people could show other teams or colleges what rings they had made. They didn't make a lot of them, so they are quite rare. There was no difference between that first ring I got and the one that was presented to Gil Hodges, except for a cubic zirconia [CZ]. In some instances, salesman sample rings would have actual real diamonds, just like the ones the players got, although they usually substituted the diamonds with CZs.

Most salesman sample rings usually do contain CZs, and sometimes they aren't made of gold or 10-karat gold. But I have seen them with real stones and in 14-karat gold, just like the real ones. How it has been made really depends on who ordered the ring. In some instances, executives from the manufacturing companies ordered them for themselves as keepsakes. But usually the salesman sample ring is of lesser quality.

Today, manufacturers no longer make salesman samples. They stopped making them around the mid-to-late 1990s because both the manufacturers and the teams didn't want World Series and Super Bowl rings getting out to the public.

SMR: Which begs the question: How have they gotten into the open market?

TJK: Championship rings that come up for sale anywhere have never come directly from the manufacturers - ever. Back in the early days, things were different and, usually, the samples were just given to the sales people. However, they would often turn around and sell them or leave them to a family member who would then sell them, sometimes representing them as the real thing. And this is why authentication is vitally important when purchasing these collectibles.

1998 Broncos

SMR: In a way, it's more than amazing that any championship ring or award gets out into the open market, especially when they are offered by an athlete or their family. Why is it that people part with these coveted treasures?

TJK: There are various reasons. Sometimes the money is needed. When it comes to a deceased athlete's family or estate, it depends on who is involved. I would say the majority of family members tend to keep things like championship rings and awards in order to hand them down to the next generation.

But the time comes when there are no longer any family members, or, if there are, they may need the money more than they need a ring sitting in a drawer. I would say, for the most part, you see items start entering the market by the third or fourth generation. They have no use for it, or maybe they have no one to hand it down to.

SMR: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has established very strict rules about what happens to the Oscar when the recipient dies. It can't be sold except back to the academy for a dollar. They have fought tirelessly to keep Oscars from becoming a salable commodity because they believe they should only be owned by someone who has earned them or, if they have passed away, the recipient's family or a museum or educational institution. Why have professional and collegiate sports teams not instituted similar policies?

TJK: I'm not aware of any team or league having rules about selling championship rings or trophies. They are rare, but they do come up at big auctions on a fairly regular basis and can always be found through private dealers. Why no rules on their sales have ever been instituted, I don't know. But being that the ring/trophy was a gift from the team, the recipient should have the right to do as they wish.

Saints

SMR: Of all the great things that have passed through your hands over the years, what has been the most memorable - the most impressive?

TJK: I've handled every Super Bowl ring, except the last winner, and most of the World Series rings to date, including those of some famous players. However, we usually keep the players' names private when we sell these rings. Confidentiality is important out of respect for the players and individuals. That is what we pride ourselves on, and it's a must for us. While other dealers put the players' names out there - and they certainly do when they are sold at auction - we do not because we respect their privacy and their confidence in us to represent the sale of their ring with the utmost professionalism.

SMR: Diamond rings are expensive even if they aren't connected to a famous athlete. Is collecting championship rings only for collectors with deep pockets?

TJK: Actually, you may be surprised, but it's a hobby for collectors of every income level. Now, I'm not saying you're going to get a Hall of Fame player's Super Bowl or World Series ring, but most of the college rings from 2007 up to today are not made of gold because the NCAA prohibits 10-karat gold rings to be made for college athletes. So college championship rings would be an affordable way for someone to start collecting. Granted, they are not going to be the most popular rings to collect, but they are unique, affordable, and can really make for a nice collection. 

SMR: While genuine championship rings from the professionals do go for quite a bit, the market has recently been flooded with replica rings. One would have to believe they are being created on a rogue basis.

TJK: The replica rings are crazy right now - they are all over the place. They are made outside of the U.S. and you see them being sold on eBay. Some are terrible looking and others are actually quite good looking. They are produced without any sort of permission from the teams, the leagues, or the manufacturers. They aren't licensed, but at least, for the most part, they are being sold as "replicas."

The problem that I run into is when someone has purchased or come into possession of one of these replicas and then turns around and tries to sell them as a genuine ring or a salesman sample. Unfortunately, you have people out there who are greedy and will go to great lengths to make rings as close to the real thing as possible, right down to actual copies of the manufacturers' markings inside the ring.

That is where, as with any high-priced collectible, the public is being taken advantage of. Hundreds of dollars, and even thousands of dollars, are being spent on items that are misrepresented and hold very little value. Believe me, I have a lot of enemies in this hobby because I have broken the news that someone has been taken advantage of. I have failed a lot of rings through my work with PSA.

2000 Ravens

SMR: In the collectibles world, condition is vitally important. Is it the same with championship rings?

TJK: It really depends on the individual buyer. For example, the majority of my clients see a ring they want to purchase and it is up to them to decide if they are happy with the condition of the item. We don't grade rings like cards are graded, so the visual appeal of a ring is up to how comfortable the buyer is with it. Some want pristine items and will pass on a ring that shows wear, others don't care.

SMR: How much does an item's value depend on who it was made for and awarded to?

TJK: Obviously a name player's ring is going to have a far greater value than a staff members ring, although, with the exception of the name itself, they are basically the same ring. But as far as collectors go, it is again up to the individual. Some just want a World Series or Super Bowl ring from a certain team or year, and they don't care whose it was. Many teams today are giving out different levels of championship rings to staff, executives, players, etc.

That goes back to the affordability question. It doesn't mean someone on a limited budget can't collect these items; it's just that instead of a player's ring, you may get a ring that was owned by someone from the coaching staff, the front office, or even a grounds crew member.

SMR: In recent years, players and coaches of championship teams have had jewelry created for their family members - mothers, wives, children. Does any of that hold collectible value?

TJK: Again, it all depends. Some of the teams make more options available for family members than others. The players and the staff members can order things for their family or themselves, even custom things. From time to time, some of these things show up on the market, and depending on the team, they can be desirable. But unless it was something extremely unique, from a big name player, they don't have the value of team rings.

2008 Phillies

SMR: As the expert in this field, what do you look for when authenticating a ring?

TJK: Many things, some which I don't talk about publically because it would tip off those who try to replicate championship rings. The thing is that unless you really know what to look for, it can be very tricky. Also, many times there will be variations on the same ring, all of which may be authentic.

As an example, take the 2006 Miami Heat NBA Championship ring. The team had many different ring models made that year for different people within the organization, some with names on them and some without. Then you had the actual players' version. The word has been that Shaquille O'Neal supposedly had his own custom ring made that is a bit different from the rest. So there were many different rings given out that year, and yet, all of them are authentic.

In 2004, the Boston Red Sox did something different with their rings. They came out with an 18-karat and a 14-karat version. This is where knowledge and expertise comes into play. In so many instances, teams have different rings created and, as time goes by, these rings surface. They affect both what we know about them and the pricing.

Also, from both the teams' standpoint as well as the manufacturers', they keep a lot of information away from the public. They keep certain things very hush hush. Another example is the 1996 Yankees World Series ring. They made 10-karat and 14-karat versions that year. The 14-karat versions were given to the players, and they even made two versions of that ring: one with a center stone and another with a "NY" in diamonds.

You were asking about other things besides rings - that year, the Yankees also made pendants, and I've seen four different versions of those. So when a team wins a championship, you have no clue how many versions of the ring or other things they will make. Then it takes years for the rings to surface and for experts like myself to start piecing together how many different styles were made. It's this kind of information and knowledge I am dedicated to learning.

Kaye

SMR: Is there anything in the championship award hobby that is considered the "holy grail"?

TJK: Well, there are plenty of things that may be extremely desirable - things associated with the big names and historically significant games - but they have never surfaced on the market or with a private dealer. Of the items that have surfaced, I would say the 1927 New York Yankees World Series ring is the one piece of memorabilia that really stands out in my mind. And, of course, if Mickey Mantle's World Series rings were ever made available to the public, they would do quite well.  

SMR: Tell us about your own collection.

TJK: I have one of the largest Mickey Mantle autograph collections and quite a number of championship rings and trophies. My 1999 World Series Yankees ring is very special. I also have quite a few championship pocket watches, some of those go back to 1880. I also have some World Series and Super Bowl player trophies and Super Bowl rings. Plus, I also love rock'n'roll, so I even have MTV Moonmen and RIAA awards, etc. 

SMR: As a dealer, you have to operate in a way that is very different than those who deal with other collectibles because of the confidentially factor. How does that work?

TJK: Well, we really pride ourselves in the confidentiality we offer our clients. We will not divulge the name of the person who is selling their ring or trophies. We keep that as private as possible. We also work with our clients to help them obtain the best price.

SMR: What about from the buyer's standpoint?

TJK: I've been collecting, buying, and selling championship rings for close to 30 years. Due to the amount of time I've been in business, I have gotten to know the collectors who want these kind of items. I have also compiled a large wish list from our clients, so I know what they are looking for. So when we get in a ring, or whatever it may be that a client has put on their wish list, which they can do online on our website, we contact them right away. If we don't hear back from them, then we go down the list and offer it to other clients. Because I know what people want, things get sold rather quickly.

1999 Yankees

SMR: I'm sure, along with the actual hardware, you have collected some very interesting stories over the years by doing what you do. Are there any you can share?

TJK: Like I said, we operate with strict confidentiality. That said, here's one story: it wasn't a buy or a sell but just one of my most memorable moments. I can't go into the details, but I was able to get Clete Boyer's 1961 New York Yankees World Series ring back to him. That meant a lot to him and it was greatly satisfying to be instrumental in that transaction. I have a signed photo from him thanking me for getting his ring back. That was as special to me as handling a big sale - certainly more personally meaningful.

SMR: Because of your knowledge in this genre, you were brought on as the lead authenticator of championship jewelry, awards, and trophies for PSA and PSA/DNA. What has the company brought to the table in the buying and selling of these items?

TJK: The same thing they have brought to sports cards, autographs, and other collectibles: peace of mind. When it comes to authentication of rings and trophies, PSA is the most regarded company in existence - respected by buyers and sellers alike. I was chosen by PSA to authenticate championship rings and trophies because I'm someone who has the breadth of knowledge and understanding of rings and trophies. I have worked very hard over the years to establish my reputation and am proud to be a part of the PSA team.

SMR: One last thing - if collectors want to get in touch with you, what is the best way to do so?

TJK: If they have something they need authenticated, they should go through PSA [www.psacard.com/Services/RingAwardTrophyAuthentication]. If they have a question or are looking to buy or sell something, they can call me direct at (561) 756-7500 or email me at [email protected]. I also suggest they check out our website at www.buyandsellchampionshiprings.com.