Collector Profile: The Passionate Investor - An Interview with Collector Justin Cornett

Nov 29, 2018

Collector Profile

The Passionate Investor

While Investment Value Is Paramount for High-End Sports Collector Justin Cornett, His Passion Cannot Be Denied

While many sports collectors amass collections that pertain to specific players or teams they love, others gravitate towards the completion of card sets or genres such as original photographs, game-used equipment, tickets, or balls signed by Hall of Famers.

As is the case with those who have a passion for collecting any type of tangible items, from significant historical artifacts and fine art to the most eclectic of pop culture memorabilia, there is one thought that looms in the back of every sports collector's mind: What is my collection worth, and will it increase in value as the years pass?

Let's be honest, even collectors who own things they are so emotionally attached to that they cannot bear the thought of parting with them still logically know their material treasures will outlast them and hope they may reap future financial reward for their grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

Over the years, Sports Market Report (SMR) has brought you many feature stories on a wide range of collectors who represent every imaginable genre, as well as extremely diverse financial budgets.

If there is one thread of continuity to be found in those collectors, it is that, for the most part, their hearts and heads can sometimes be in conflict when it comes to the outlay of a significant price for any given set or item.

When that occurs - if they can afford what they are looking to purchase - passion, emotion, or the memories associated with the item usually win out over the potential investment value.

That is not the case with Justin Cornett, the rare collector who says that, while he is passionate about the things he owns, his head usually wins out over his heart and the prospect of an item's investment value is paramount.

That, probably, has a lot to do with what Cornett does for a living. After establishing his career in commodity trading, he went on to open his own Houston, Texas-based energy brokerage company.

"I've always loved sports. Growing up in Houston, I was a fan of all the local teams," says Cornett. "Back in the 1980s, I was a big Nolan Ryan fan, and I loved going to Houston Astros, Rockets, and Cougars games with my family. I even went on to attend the University of Houston."

Cornett, who played in organized baseball, football, and basketball leagues as a kid, was also a card collector.

"When I was a kid, I collected whoever was hot at the time: Wade Boggs, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, José Canseco, Mark McGwire. I went to card shows back then and bought and sold a lot of cards - nothing ever monumental, although I did buy a Nolan Ryan rookie card. Back then, I just collected what I loved and didn't give any thought to those things having future value."

Intrigued by two things - the highly-significant items that make up his current collection and his complete openness about being an unabashed investment collector - SMR recently visited with Cornett.

Because he mentioned having bought a 1968 Ryan rookie card before we began our formal interview, we had to start off by asking him if he still has it and its grade.

Justin Cornett (JC): That was the biggest purchase of my childhood card collecting days. It was an ungraded card, so I have no idea what it would have graded or been worth today. I sold my whole collection, including that card, in the late 1980s, before anyone cared about grading. I would love to know what that card would have graded today, but I'll never know.

Sports Market Report (SMR): You say you liquidated your entire collection in the late 1980s. When did you get back into the hobby, and what was the impetus for you to start again?

JC: In 2008-2009, most people with any significant investable assets had a reality check when the stock market crashed. I personally began to re-evaluate how and where I wanted to invest my money.

Searching for a more tangible asset that I could enjoy and also provide some diversification from the financial markets, I remembered how much I had loved collecting cards when I was a kid. As I started to rebound financially, I decided to put some of my assets into purchasing rare and high-end graded examples of classic sports cards. I would say that by 2013, I had reestablished myself as a collector with an eye toward investment.

SMR: While collecting sports memorabilia may not be the first thing a person's financial advisor recommends they get involved with, when you look at how some sports cards and high-end items have dramatically increased in value over the years, there's no denying they can be a wise investment.

JC: I certainly believe that - but ONLY if you're collecting the RIGHT things. For example, think back to 1965. If I were to ask who was the best baseball player that ever lived in 1965, who would most people name?

SMR: The majority of people would probably have said Babe Ruth.

JC: Correct. Now, what was the most valuable company on the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial in 1965?

SMR: This is just a wild guess, maybe IBM or General Motors?

JC: Okay. Now, let's fast forward 50 years to 2015. If you polled those same people and asked them who was the best baseball player of all time, who would they name?

SMR: By then, there would have been many more great players to choose from, but conventional wisdom would say that most people would probably still put Ruth at the top of the list.

JC: Exactly. And what was the most valuable publicly-traded company in 2015?

SMR: No idea. Walmart or Apple maybe?

JC: The fortunes of companies, and their investors, come and go with the whims of Wall Street. However, the great legends of sports are constant. I agree with you. Even today, most people would still name Ruth as the greatest player of all time.

SMR: And, the legend of Babe Ruth will never go out of business.

JC: Right. That's my point. Babe Ruth and his legend will be around forever.  It will always have value. No bad management, no scandal nor any random social or economic trend change can alter the fact that Babe Ruth was and likely will always be the greatest player to ever live. As an investor, I prefer to have a portion of my assets invested in items that are associated with legends that are safe now and in the future.

I compiled a list of whom I felt were the most legendary players - names like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle to name a few - and then made the decision to purchase the rare and high-end graded examples of cards and memorabilia associated with them that I could afford.

I strongly believe that rare and high-end graded examples of cards and memorabilia - bats, gloves, signed balls, game-worn uniforms - associated with the top legends of the game should always be in demand and command top dollar.

SMR: Your collection has branched out beyond cards, correct?

JC: Yes. Cards were what got me back into collecting on the investment level, but my collection has expanded into memorabilia such as game-used bats, gloves, jerseys, and original Type I photographs.

Original photos are extremely rare but can also be displayed and enjoyed at home. It is fun to have people over and show them my collection and tell the stories behind the items.

I have built a remarkable collection of photos - iconic images from the most famous sports photographers and even some photos that were used for cards.

For example, I own the only known Type I example of Charles Conlon's Ty Cobb sliding photo, which many people consider to be the most famous baseball photo ever taken.

So that's what I collect - extremely rare, one-of-kind items that have rock solid provenance and a great story behind them. These are the items I believe will increase in value, and which I can control when I desire to sell them.

SMR: Would it be fair to say you are purely an investment collector? Meaning, you only collect things you believe will increase in value. Or do you also collect things you are passionate about?

JC: I try to buy things I love and things I believe to be underpriced, but, for me, the most important thing is that, down the road, these items will have served as an investment and I will be able to see a substantial return on the money I originally paid for them.

SMR: Many investment collectors aren't huge fans of putting their items on display. They typically opt to keep them safely tucked away. Would that describe you?

JC: No. When you come into my home, you definitely know I'm a sports collector, or at least you will, one day [laughs]. The only reason that is not the case at this moment is that we recently moved, and I just don't have all of my things set up and displayed yet.

But I'll have everything on display soon, including some original paintings by Graig Kreindler that I recently purchased. Graig Kreindler is one of the most prominent baseball artists in the field and a former winner of both the Norman Rockwell Museum Award and the Society of Illustrators' Illustration Academy Award. In addition to his works having been displayed in various galleries and exhibitions, he has also been featured in articles published by both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. I personally think he's the most talented sports artist there is, PERIOD.

SMR: Let's talk about some of those other items in your collection.

JC: We all know vintage cards are great. For instance, when you show someone who isn't into collecting at all a 1909 Ty Cobb card that is the highest-graded example, they'll look at it and think it's cool. Then you tell them that there are only eight of these cards known to exist in the entire world, and they say: "Wow, that's neat."

But if you hand that same person a bat that was actually owned and used by Ty Cobb, they are floored. There is just a totally different reaction. They are in awe. Not many of my friends want to take a picture of themselves holding my rarest card, but they all want a photo of themselves holding Ty Cobb's or Babe Ruth's bat. It is understandable. They want to touch it, hold it, smell it.

So, I love cards, but when I began collecting memorabilia, I learned that cards don't bring about the same visceral feeling as something a legendary player actually used. The personal connection of a bat or a glove is extremely powerful.

SMR: We all love cards, but you're right. When you hold a bat that was swung by The Babe, you can't help but think "Wow, Babe Ruth actually held this!"

JC: He didn't just hold it; he used it to accomplish becoming a legend.

SMR: Putting your investor hat aside for a moment, can you tell us which items in your collection are your favorites?

JC: There's no doubting that my Ty Cobb bat is my favorite. It just exudes Cobb, with the cleat marks, the tape residue on the handle, the heavy use, a little chip out of the knob, and the finishing nails that were used to keep it intact. Back in Cobb's day, players used the same bats for multiple years. They had thick handles and were heavy, so they didn't break as easily as the bats of today do.

Then, on top of all that, Cobb signed it. It was a bat he had given to a famous bat collector of the time named Edward Maier [Maier was a Pacific Coast League team owner and one of the earliest collectors of game-used baseball equipment]. I truly love it.

By the way, I have always been a sports photo junkie, and one day, I was looking at some photos of Ty Cobb online and I noticed that in one of them he was holding a bat that looked a lot like mine. The grain on the wood is like a fingerprint; no two bats are exactly alike. As I started to look at the grain patterns really closely in the photo and compared them to those on my bat, I realized I might have a match. It was a photo of Cobb with Joe Jackson. John Taube, who is PSA's bat authenticator, had already opined that the bat I own was used between 1910 and 1914, and this photo of Cobb and Jackson was taken in 1913 by Louis Van Oeyen.

The more I looked at it, the more I thought I really had something. I know when Taube is authenticating and grading bats, he is looking at records, use profiles, and player characteristics. But no bat from the era of my Cobb bat - prior to 1930 - had ever been photo-matched to the player actually holding it. So, I called Taube and told him what I thought. He told me to send him the photo and the bat immediately.

I overnighted them to him and he called me the next day and said: "Do you realize what you have here?" He said it was a 100-percent perfect match. In my opinion, it is one of the best pieces of baseball memorabilia in existence. It is one of the bats that Cobb - one of the most legendary players of all time - used for multiple years during the prime of his career. How could that not be my favorite?

SMR: It is an amazing piece.

JC: And it gets even better. Shortly after that bat was photo-matched, there was an article written about the find. A few days after that article ran, I got a call at my office from a woman who asked me if I was the Justin Cornett who owned the Ty Cobb bat. I told her I was, and she got all excited that she had been able to reach me.

She then introduced herself to me as Cynthia - Cynthia Cobb - as in Ty Cobb's granddaughter. She had seen the article and wanted me to know she was thrilled that I had it. She also told me that photo, of him and Joe Jackson, was Ty's favorite photo.

SMR: It doesn't get any better than that!

JC: Well, it kind of does. She asked me for my mailing address and said she wanted to send me something. A few days later, I received a book about Ty Cobb and a nice handwritten letter. It was signed "Cindy Cobb" and after her signature she wrote ".367," which was his lifetime batting average.

SMR: What a treasure! Tell us about some of the other treasures in your collection.

JC: I have a Babe Ruth game-used bat that he used from 1920 through 1922. It was a bat he had given to the Yankees to put on display at the Polo Grounds.

I have a great glove that is also one of my favorite items. It's Mike Trout's glove - the one he used during the 2015 season. It was the glove he used when he made "The Catch," when he climbed over the wall at Angel Stadium to catch a ball. It was when the Angels were playing the Mariners, and Trout robbed Jesus Montero of a home run. The glove is signed by him, and that is a really special item.

I also have a Jose Altuve glove that he used in 2015, the year he won the Rawlings Gold Glove, and a Babe Ruth rookie card that graded PSA [EX+] 5.5. From football, my favorite item is a Type I Joe Namath photo that was used for his rookie card. I also have various iconic sports photos including many that were used for cards.

SMR: All of the items in your collection have been authenticated and graded by PSA, correct?

JC: Most of them, yes.

SMR: As someone who collects on your level, and from an investment standpoint, what are your feelings about what PSA has brought to the hobby?

JC: No matter how incredible a game-used bat or glove or jersey may be, no matter how iconic a Type I photograph or card may be, you don't know what you have until it's certified. To the untrained eye, or, in some cases, even with those who know what they are doing, it is a dangerous game to buy an item that has not been authenticated and graded by a third party.

And, of course, in this hobby, PSA is the ultimate authority. They have made the hobby what it is. They have given collectors the confidence that is needed to know the items they are buying or selling truly are what they are represented as being. Sports collections would simply not have the investment value they do without PSA. Without them, we would all just have collections, not investments.

SMR: Most of the items in your collection are museum-grade quality, which means that someday they could very well end up being displayed at the Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian. The items you own will be a part of not just sports, but American history for time eternal. Can you talk about what it is like to be the current guardian of these historic treasures?

JC: It's an honor. You can look at your investment or bank balance, and no matter how much money you have, it will never match holding a Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth bat that you actually own. I own the glove Mike Trout used to make the greatest play of his career and the original photograph of Joe Namath that was used to make the most iconic football card of all time. It is both an honor and a responsibility to own these things, and I don't take that lightly.

SMR: Justin, as a collector who always has their eye on the investment factor, can you take out your crystal ball and give us your thoughts about the future of the sports memorabilia hobby?

JC: The inherent truth is that investment-caliber cards and memorabilia are extremely rare when compared to the general public's enthusiasm for the professional sports that they represent. From an investment perspective, the entire market is poised for a dramatic paradigm shift.

We have an asset class that is arguably the "most popular" single asset class in the country, but most do not classify it as such yet. Once this shift begins to take place, I believe items like my Cobb bat should go from being seven-figure items to eight- to nine-figure items. Fine art has proven that wealth will rise to the occasion. This occasion will be the maturation of our hobby from a simple hobby into a true asset class worthy of investment dollars.

I openly admit that I have built my investment portfolio to capitalize on the shift I believe will happen in the near future.

Let me explain. When you look at it from a global standpoint, there aren't that many people out there who are collecting extremely rare, one-of-a-kind, and historically significant sports items.

Think of a Babe Ruth rookie card. There are not many people - and we're taking in the entire world - who own one of these. Why? Because not enough of them exist. There is very little of this material out there, and people outside of the hobby don't realize that - yet! But down the road - and I don't think it will be that far out into the future - that is going to change, and I am a firm believer that it will really pay off for those who had the foresight to purchase and invest in these items.

I'm very bullish on high-end examples of iconic cards, original sports photographs, and game-used items. If you are buying the right things, the ones associated with the true legends of the game, and then have them properly authenticated and graded, I have to say that, in my opinion, the sports memorabilia hobby is one of the safest things you can put a portion of your investment money into.

I would strongly encourage other investors, who can afford to get involved on the high-end level, to think about that. As I said earlier, the value of any company's stock goes up and goes down, and some of the biggest ones of the past haven't even survived, but that doesn't happen with high-end sports memorabilia. The legend of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb will never go away. And they aren't making any more Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth game-used bats [laughs].

In the history of the world, there will never be another glove that Mike Trout used to climb a wall to make the most spectacular catch of his legendary career. When you buy an item like that, it truly is an investment. You are investing in history and in memories that will last forever. Investing is what I do for a living, and in today's world, I would much rather own a game-used Ty Cobb bat then a few shares of Apple.

SMR: Although investment value may be a huge factor for you as a collector, is there any one thing you own that you are so emotionally attached to you could never part with?

JC: [Very long pause.] I would never part with the letter I received from Ty Cobb's granddaughter.  

Please feel free to contact SMR at [email protected] if you have any questions or comments.