Q&A: A trip down memorabilia lane with Aspen’s Autograph Source
December 4, 2007
Inside Business, a weekly publication in Tuesdays Aspen Times, recently caught up with Rick Schultz, owner of The Autograph Source in Aspen, to find out more about the sports memorabilia business. Here are his answers to our questions:Question: Can you tell us how long you have lived in Aspen and how long you have owned the business?Answer:I moved to Colorado in 1990, and to Aspen in 1991. From 1991 until 1996 I was the manager of Aspen Velo Bike Shop. During that time, we opened one of the first snowboard shops in Aspen. I have been in the memorabilia business since 1996.Q:You just returned from Antarctica. What were doing there? Can you describe the experience for our readers? A: We went to Antarctica on vacation. My wife and I try to take a major trip each offseason and we love to travel to interesting places. She has wanted to go to Antarctica for years, but the timing is really hard for me as the only time to go is during Aspen’s winter. It is a hard place to describe everything is so immense and beautiful. We went on a small ship, the National Geographic Endeavour. Every day was different. Kayaking and taking Zodiac boats among the icebergs, and hiking onshore next to huge glaciers and penguin colonies. The entire continent is still in an ice age everything is pure and clean and beautiful, with almost no human presence.Q:Can you describe what your business is? A: The Autograph Source specializes in selling unique, investment-quality historic documents, rock and roll, sports, and Hollywood memorabilia. Although we maintain a retail presence in Aspen, our clientele is worldwide. Most of our pieces are autographed, but many of the best pieces are not items such as game-used jerseys and helmets, screen-worn clothing, stage-used guitars, and handwritten lyrics. Q: How did you get involved in this industry? A: In 1996, we lost the lease for the snowboard shop and I was brought in to run a high-end memorabilia business located in downtown Aspen. I had collected since I was young, and had majored in business at college, with the intention of owning a small business, so it was a perfect fit for me. I have always read history books and biographies. From there, it just clicked. I loved the business and was good at it. I got to handle amazing pieces of history every day, and we attracted smart and successful people as clients. Q:What’s your most valuable artifact? A: Our best, high-end pieces are always the ones that sell the fastest. It usually takes a while to authenticate and negotiate the big ticket items. Usually by the time the piece gets to the store we have several people who have expressed interest. Most of the time the piece will actually sell before we take delivery of it. It is difficult for us to represent the types of pieces that we sell in the store or on the website (theautographsource.com), because the best pieces disappear so quickly. Recent favorites include a beautiful Benjamin Franklin document, handwritten lyrics from Paul McCartney, and a 1929 Babe Ruth game-used baseball bat.Q: What celebrity and/or athlete do you get the most requests for? A: Right now, that would probably be Tiger Woods. Others that we get many requests for are The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Muhammad Ali, Lebron James, Michael Jordan, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, The Godfather (movie), Eric Clapton, and LaDanian Tomlinson. And the most requested sports team is the New York Yankees.Q: How does your business work? How do you obtain the autographs and other unique items for sale? A: This is an impossible question to answer without lengthy discussion, but I will try. Our items are very different types of pieces, and come from many different places. Over the years we have built strong relationships with other dealers, charities, music and Hollywood executives, agents, lawyers, and relatives of celebrities. We also get pieces from descendants, estates, and individuals offering things to us in the store, or through the website. Modern athletes either have autograph agents that we deal with, or we (or other dealers) do private autograph sessions with them. We use the different experts in the different fields to authenticate the pieces. Whenever possible, we use an independent third-party authenticator, who will issue a Certificate of Authenticity on the piece. This is in addition to the Certificate of Authenticity that The Autograph Source issues, which provides a lifetime guarantee on the authenticity of the piece. We do all of this before we bring anything into the store. If we cant be 100 percent certain that a piece is real, we simply don’t buy it. We aren’t able to buy a lot of pieces that are probably legitimate, but don’t pass our high level of scrutiny. Our consistent due diligence has helped us to earn a strong reputation in our industry.Q: How much of your revenue comes from walk-in customers versus on-line sales? How has that changed over the years? A: Although the online sales continue to increase year after year, the bulk of our business is still done either in the store, or on the phone. We build people’s collections for them, so we will call them when a piece comes in that fits their particular theme. Many people ask us to notify them when we get specific pieces in stock. As a result, a large portion of our items sell before we can put them in the store or post them on the website. It works in reverse from most businesses. Our business is really in the buy, rather than in the sell. There is much more demand for high-end, investment quality product than there is supply. We often have to choose which client is most deserving of a particular piece. We try to base it on whose collection it fits the best, how meaningful the piece will be to them, or how long they have been on the waiting list for it.Q: Your business must rely on people whose discretionary income is large. How does the business/industry ebb and flow with the national economy? A: Yes, our regular clientele has a large discretionary income. Our business seems to be similar to Aspen Real estate. It doesn’t really matter what is going on in the rest of the country, there is always demand for the really high-end pieces, and they continue to appreciate. In the weeks and months after 9-11 we didn’t see as much of the lower-end pieces selling, but we sold a lot of high-end historic documents and memorabilia. People had been burned by the stock market and were looking for investments where the bottom couldn’t fall out of it. The thinking was that a George Washington or Babe Ruth piece would always be worth at least what you paid for it, but had the potential to increase significantly in value. With the reduced value of the dollar, our European clients have been buying a lot more.Q: What’s the ratio of customers who buy items as collectors or as investments? A: I think that almost everyone who buys something from us, even the passionate collectors, view each purchase as an investment. The only exception to that might be purchases as gifts for events such as birthdays or bar mitzvahs. Many of our clients who are purchasing for investment still buy things that they enjoy hanging on their wall while they appreciate. Although many of our clients buy memorabilia as part of their overall investment portfolio, I would say that only 5 or 6 percent treat their purchase purely as an investment, and don’t really care what the piece itself is. We do sell many pieces that stay in the box that they were shipped in, or go straight into people’s safes; not to be seen until they are ready to re-sell the item. We have investment groups purchasing pieces for memorabilia investment funds that they are running. Some of our clients purchase items specifically to leave them to their heirs.Q: Who is the best celebrity and best sports figure to invest in right now? A: I think that rock and roll memorabilia in general still has a lot of upside, but I particularly think that The Rolling Stones will continue to appreciate, and will really jump if something happens to one of the members of the band. The same holds true with Muhammad Ali. He stopped doing any autograph sessions after 2005, and his items have been steadily increasing ever since. I always recommend buying established, blue-chip names rather than speculating on rookies or new bands.Q: What are your thoughts on the sports memorabilia industry in general, especially since the O.J. Simpson case has put a spotlight on it? A: The sports memorabilia industry has problems with too many unqualified people getting into the business. They don’t have the expertise to authenticate the things that they sell, or they just don’t care if they are authentic. Especially most of the ones that are selling on e-Bay. The FBI is working on it, but has trouble with the smaller guys. The legitimate dealers have done a terrific job of getting rid of the fraud. It is much easier for us to know what is legitimate in the industry now. We use independent third-party authenticators, and put numbered holograms that self-destruct if you remove them on the items that we sell. The O.J. thing is ridiculous. To call these guys memorabilia dealers is a farce. O.J. Simpson memorabilia has been unsellable for over a decade. It takes some pretty desperate types to be selling O.J. items in the first place. None of those guys are really involved in our industry, none of us really know them, and I would guess that every party involved has some fault in the situation.Q: As a longtime business owner in Aspen, what are your thoughts on the current state of affairs here? Is it more difficult to do business here? Why or why not? A: Aspen has always been a difficult and unforgiving place to run a retail business, mostly because of high-rents and the off-season. But, if you have a good niche and a solid business plan, it can be a rewarding place to do business. I see more and more extremely high net-worth individuals coming through the store. And, I am seeing more and more traffic in the off-season. Some of that is due to the time-shares in town, which usually include off-season weeks. The store isn’t quite as crazy busy then, so often we can spend more time with potential clients, and as a result do more business. My biggest fear is the situation with the airport. We are targeting higher and higher end clientele, but we are expecting them to arrive in second-rate planes that are always delayed or canceled. It isn’t a pleasant experience getting here. Aspen needs more volume than just the Gulfstream crowd to survive. Generally, it would be easier to run a business in a big city somewhere else, but the whole reason to own a business in Aspen is for the lifestyle that it affords.