The Hunt for Sports Hardware
TJ Kaye, a leading authority on sports championship rings, awards and trophies, offers up gems of wisdom on collecting these highly desirable treasures
A long with game-used equipment and uniforms, some of the most coveted items in the sports collecting hobby are championship rings, trophies and awards.
That's not surprising in that, just like the equipment and uniforms which were made for and used by players, the hardware they received to honor their greatest achievements was specifically made for them and, likely, displayed in their homes or offices.
Ask any millionaire, professional athlete who has achieved championship status in their sport what their most prized possession is, and the answer will likely be the same: Their Super Bowl or World Series ring, their Cy Young or Gold Glove Award, their championship title belt or the silver platter they earned at Wimbledon.
These tangible items are a physical manifestation that honor both an athlete's natural talent and the years of hard work, practice and sacrifice they put in to reach the pinnacle of their sport. Put yourself in the place of any athlete who has just been presented with a World Series or Super Bowl ring. As they take it into their hand and place it on their finger, it's hard to imagine any one of them thinking or saying anything other than these six words: "This is what it's all about!"
Because these items are so incredibly treasured, it's rare that a player, coach or team staff member parts with any type of championship-related hardware during their lifetime. It's even hard to imagine a child or grandchild of the original recipient ever wanting to relinquish such an incredible heirloom, and yet, from time to time, these highly prized and extremely rare treasures do become available for various reasons through auctions, estate sales or private dealers who handle high-end sports memorabilia.
Of those who deal in this rarified commodity of the collectibles hobby, one man has become widely recognized as a leading authority, dealer and authenticator of championship rings, trophies, awards and jewelry: TJ Kaye.
Kaye, the founder, president and CEO of the Boca Raton, Florida-based TJ's Collectibles, Inc., harbors a fascination and passion for collecting championship awards of all kinds. Since the early 1990s, he has dealt in some of the rarest sports memorabilia to ever come into the marketplace and has earned a reputation for having the highest professional ethics and expertise.
As a renowned championship trophy, award and ring expert in the hobby, who is often tapped for his knowledge by media outlets such as ESPN and Forbes, Kaye was a logical choice when PSA was 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 authentic, the company provides the owner of the item with a covert, synthetic DNA tagging along with a letter of authenticity notating important characteristics such as the award type, the type of metals or precious stones used, the manufacturer and the athlete, coach or team executive for whom the award was originally made.
Sports Market Report (SMR) recently visited with Kaye to ask him about the state of this genre of the sports collecting hobby. We began our conversation by talking about the replica championship rings that have flooded the market.
TJ Kaye (TJK): A far as them being what they are - token souvenirs - I have no problem with replica rings. That is, for the most part, what they are being sold as, and it's all they are and all they ever will be. What I have a problem with are the unscrupulous people out there who are selling these rings and representing them as being genuine. That ranges from someone who is passing off a replica ring you can buy on eBay for $45 as being real, to the more sophisticated thieves who are working with corrupt jewelers to create rings that are, in every way, extremely close to the real deal, right down to the type of gold they are using, genuine diamonds and even duplicating the manufacturer's mark.
Sports Market Report (SMR): That is truly horrific.
TJK: It is, especially because, in many cases, you have someone who has saved their hard-earned money, sees something they love online or through some unscrupulous dealer, and wants to treat themselves to owning something really special, with historical significance, which has the potential to increase in value. Some of these forgery rings are so well made, that even fairly sophisticated collectors are sure they are getting the real deal. They shell out a lot of money and are all excited until they send it in to PSA for authentication and, unfortunately, I must fail it.
This is nothing new, it's been going on for more than 20-plus years, but what is new is that the forgery rings are getting better and better. I would say I have seen some that are close to being 95 percent identical to the real thing. That's scary. But, luckily, there are some very small and nuanced tell-tale signs that only a highly trained professional championship ring authenticator knows about. Because of those clues, no matter how extremely well-made a forged ring may be, I can tell the difference between a replica and the real deal. But, I'm obviously not going to share that information.
SMR: So, how does a collector looking to purchase a championship ring protect himself?
TJK: The good news is that it's really rather easy. The very first indication that something is wrong is simply if the deal sounds too good to be true. These items are rare and they command top dollar. Do some research on pricing, and if you are being offered a ring at a price that is much lower than what you are finding for similar items from respectable dealers and auction houses, that's a big red flag.
Secondly, if a dealer, or anyone, is looking to sell a ring they are representing as being a genuine championship ring and it has not been authenticated by a notable company like PSA, a potential buyer should ask themselves, and the seller, why it has not been authenticated. Any ethical dealer would want to have the ring authenticated before selling it because they could ask a higher price for it.
Thirdly, if you are looking to buy a ring that is not authenticated by PSA, ask the dealer if they would be willing to have it authenticated or, if not, would they offer a full money-back guarantee if the ring is deemed to be a forgery. If what they are selling and representing as real is indeed genuine, why would they have a problem with this arrangement? They wouldn't.
And remember, a dealer's own letter of authenticity, or even one issued by a third-party service that is not widely recognized within the hobby the way PSA is, has little value to the consumer.
SMR: Before buying a championship ring or trophy, wouldn't one expect the dealer or current owner to have strong documented provenance on how they came into possession of the item?
TJK: When you are talking about a ring that was presented to a player, a coach or a team's executive staff, yes, there should be documented evidence that links the item back to the person to whom it was originally presented. But, remember, in some cases you may be dealing with salesman sample rings, which, just like the real deal, are also extremely desirable because they are made by the same manufacturer as the rings the team members receive.
SMR: Before going any further, can you explain what a salesman sample is?
TJK: It is a sample ring that is identical in every way to the rings they made for the teams. All the major manufacturers used to do this so their sales people could show other teams or colleges what rings they had made. They were not abundantly produced, so they are quite rare.
In some instances, salesman sample rings would have genuine diamonds, just like the ones the players received, although they usually substituted the diamonds with cubic zirconia [CZ]. Most salesman sample rings usually do contain CZ, and the majority of salesman sample rings are cast in 10-karat gold or are gold plated. I have also seen them in 14-karat gold.
Today, certain manufacturers still make a few salesman samples, but some have stopped making them completely. That started around the late-1990s because both the manufacturers and the teams were not happy about their World Series and Super Bowl rings getting out to the public.
SMR: So let's get back to why it is difficult to find provenance on salesman sample rings.
TJK: Trying to document any sort of provenance on salesman samples is difficult. One reason for that is the manufacturers are not at all thrilled that their salesman samples got out into the marketplace. I have spoken to quite a few retired ring salesmen who have told me how these samples got out into the marketplace, and that was simply through a salesman selling them.
To stop that practice, the manufacturers started making their sales people check out a salesman sample, and then they would take money from their weekly paycheck to cover the cost of the ring as a deposit. If the ring was not returned to the company, the salesperson would lose that deposit as it would be forfeited to pay for the salesman sample ring. Because of this, very few salesman samples have found their way out into the public marketplace since the late 1990s. Except for a very scarce ring that pops up here and there, you hardly ever see a salesman sample anymore.
As for current salesman samples, they do still make some, but all the manufacturers have really clamped down on them, so it's highly unlikely to see any more come into the marketplace. The market for them has dried up simply because they have become so rare. To take the place of the samples, more and more replica rings are popping up. Some are horrendous, and, as I mentioned before, some are incredibly close to the real thing, using 10- or 14-karat gold and real diamonds.
SMR: What about championship jewelry that is made available through teams for wives and family members? Is that still being done, and is there a market for that material with collectors?
TJK: The answer to both of your questions is yes. Both in Major League Baseball and the National Football League, championship winning teams give their players special, secure access to the ring manufacturer's website where they can order items for family members such as rings, pendants and other types of jewelry, even dog tags. All of that material is sought after by collectors because it's scarce in that only the players themselves can order it.
SMR: Some teams have issued limited edition fan rings. Do those rings have any desirably with collectors?
TJK: Yes, those rings are similar in design to the actual team's ring, but, obviously, have very noticeable differences. The Houston Astros have put out a very limited edition ring for fans. The Chicago Cubs also did a limited edition of 106 fan rings for the number of victories they had during their championship season. Whenever a team has offered these very limited edition fan rings, they have sold out in hours. They will never have the value of the rings the teams received, but they are desirable, and their value will increase because they are scarce.
SMR: The person who collects genuine championship rings is savvy enough to know that the marketplace is now full of replica World Series and Super Bowl rings of the biggest names to ever play their respective sport. These can be found all over the Internet for $50 and even less. For the person who is not that savvy, it is certainly important for them to understand that these replica rings will never have any value as a collectible.
TJK: Correct. They are very easy to find, range greatly in quality, and, for the most part, are very cheap. Still, they are what they are: just a replica, just a souvenir. They can be a fun thing for a fan of a team or player to have, but they are a trinket, not a collectible. They have no meaningful monetary value whatsoever and never will.
Before we go any further, however, I think it's important to make mention that while we may be focusing on some of the negative aspects of collecting championship rings and awards, it is also important to understand that the genuine material that is out there - the authenticated player and coach's rings and salesman samples - are some of the most desirable collectibles in the hobby. They can be a true centerpiece to even the greatest of collections, and they are getting harder and harder to find.
So, I think it's important to point out that if a collector ever has the chance to add an authenticated ring, trophy or award to their collection, they are going to own one of the most desirable items in the sports collecting hobby.
SMR: Why is it that this material is getting harder to find?
TJK: As I mentioned before, the manufacturing companies have really clamped down on the way they make samples available to their sales force. Then, when it comes to genuine World Series and Super Bowl rings, we are seeing far fewer coming into the marketplace. Even after original owners pass away, their families are holding on to them.
When one does become available, it is usually for just one of two reasons. Either the owner of the ring, whether that be the person it was awarded to or the individual who inherited it, is in need of money, or there are no heirs and it has just become a part of the liquidation of the original ring owner's estate. Because of that, when one does become available, I would highly recommend that collectors think seriously about obtaining it.
I can't stress enough that this type of material is extremely rare and highly desirable. It has become a rarity to see new material come into the public marketplace, and I'm expecting that trend to continue. I've seen a big decrease in availability over the past five years or so. That is also true with college championship rings. They are desirable but not that expensive, making them a great way to get into this genre of the hobby for those who are limited in what they can spend on a collectible.
College championship rings are usually hard to come by because, as long as the athlete is in college, the player can't sell their ring through a dealer, auction house or any public offering. That's due to NCAA rules and regulations. And since 2007, championship jewelry manufacturers are not even permitted to produce 10-karat gold rings for players. Today, all the college championship rings are non-gold and they don't use diamonds.
As a result, players can't sell them as a collectible while they're in school. And even if they went to a jeweler to sell it, most jewelers aren't knowledgeable about the sports collecting hobby, so to them the rings don't have any real value from a precious metal or stone content. When you take all those factors into consideration - scarcity and high desirability - that's a winning combination with any collectible.
SMR: Can you talk about how a ring or trophy fluctuates in value based on the recipient of the award?
TJK: Well, obviously, any well-known player's ring is going to have a far greater value and will go for many times the amount of one that is in every way the same ring but was awarded to a team's staff member. But, beyond that, it's kind of hard to say what a ring may fetch at auction. There are just some collectors out there who really want a World Series or Super Bowl ring from a certain team or year and they don't care who it was awarded to. That kind of goes back to what I was saying about how there are ways for people to get into this genre of collecting without having very deep pockets.
To be frank, this really isn't a genre of collecting for those on a limited budget. But if someone really wants to own a genuine championship ring, instead of looking at a professional player's ring, I would suggest they look for a college championship ring or a World Series or Super Bowl ring that was owned by someone on the team's coaching staff or from the front office as a more affordable option. They may still be pricey, but nowhere near what a professional player's ring would sell for, and far less than what a popular player's ring would fetch.
SMR: We've talked a lot about rings. What about trophies? Are they in demand with collectors?
TJK: They are, and always will be. But again, I've been seeing a dramatic decrease in the amount that is coming into the marketplace. We're seeing players hold on to them, their families hold on to them after they are gone, and players are also making provisions for them when they're gone, like donating them to their alma maters, museums or someplace where they can be displayed in perpetuity.
I have seen a big decrease in sales of the MLB Mini World Series 12-inch-high trophies as they have become quite scarce since Tiffany took over making the redesigned World Series trophy in 2000. Just like rings, any major championship trophy or award that has been authenticated is just a great investment. They have everything going for them - rarity and desirability.
We are seeing this sort of material selling for record prices. Here are two examples, both of which were PSA/DNA authenticated: William "The Refrigerator" Perry's Super Bowl ring, which had an estimated value of between $40,000 and $50,000, sold for $203,000. A 1998 New York Yankees Commissioner's Trophy sold for $48,000. So this stuff is really doing well.
SMR: Can you give us an idea of how you go about authenticating this kind of material?
TJK: I can to some extent, but I can't go into too much detail because it would tip off the criminals who are trying to replicate championship rings. You really have to know your stuff when it comes to authenticating rings and trophies, and even for me it can be tricky at times.
One reason for this is that, on occasion, there will be variations on the same ring, all of which may be authentic. I'll give you an example: For the 2006 Miami Heat NBA Championship rings, there were many different ring levels made that year and given out within the organization, some with names on them and some without. Then you had the actual players' version. Then, beyond that, Shaquille O'Neal supposedly had his own custom ring made that is 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 in. In so many instances, teams have different rings created and, as time goes by and these rings surface, they affect both what we know about them and the pricing. Also, from both the team's standpoint as well as the manufacturer's, 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 version was given to certain players, and they even made two versions of that: One with a center diamond on top of the "NY" and another without the center diamond but with the "NY" in diamonds. This is one of the ways the forgers get tripped up. When a team wins a championship, they have no clue of how many versions of the ring have been made. That's where PSA and I come in.
I've been doing this for 30-plus years. I've been dedicated to performing in-depth and diligent research on the subject. It's this kind of information and knowledge you must possess to authenticate this kind of material that has been produced for different teams, by different manufacturers and for many years.
SMR: We talked earlier about how vitally important third-party authentication is when you are buying any high-end collectible. Can you talk a bit about what PSA has brought to the table in the buying and selling of these items?
TJK: Same thing they have brought to trading cards, autographs and other collectibles. When it comes to the authentication of any sports collectible they handle - cards, autographs, professional model bats, etc. - PSA is the most recognized brand in existence. They are respected by buyers and sellers alike.
I was chosen by PSA to authenticate championship rings and trophies because I was someone who had the breadth of knowledge and understanding of rings and trophies. I have worked very hard over the years to learn everything I can about this material and to establish my reputation. I'm proud of that and to be a part of the PSA team.
If you have a ring, award or trophy that requires professional authentication, please visit www.PSAcard.com/services to learn how to submit directly to PSA or visit TJ Kaye's website www.BuyandSellChampionshipRings.com. For any questions about these specific collectibles, please feel free to contact Kaye directly by calling (561) 756-7500 or emailing [email protected].
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