Leila Dunbar's cool job: Sports memorabilia appraiser

Leila Dunbar has appeared on "Antiques Roadshow" since the 1990s, appraising some of the most famous pieces of sports memorabilia over the past century. Courtesy of Leila Dunbar

Do you own an old baseball card collection? How about a signed, game-worn Sidney Crosby jersey? Maybe a stack of vintage movie posters? If you have any sports, pop culture or entertainment memorabilia, chances are Leila Dunbar knows how much it's worth.

Dunbar is one of only a handful of full-time sports memorabilia appraisers in the country. She's been independently appraising items and collections for insurance, estates, donations and auctions since 2008. Before that, she was senior vice president and director of the collectibles department at Sotheby's, an internationally renowned auction house, for nine years; and from 1987 to 1999, ran Dunbar's Gallery with her family. Dunbar has also been a part of the PBS television program "Antiques Roadshow" since it first aired in 1997.

"If you'd told me when I was a kid that I'd be doing this, I'd never have believed you," Dunbar says. "I never even thought there was such a thing."

Dunbar graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in journalism, dreaming of becoming the next Tom Brokaw. Instead, she returned to her father's automotive junkyard in Milford, Massachusetts, and bought salvaged cars at auctions from guys named Blonde Bobby, One-Armed Joey and Little Anthony.

Her clients today may not have colorful nicknames, but her career is anything but boring. Dunbar, who lives in Washington D.C. but spends nearly half her time away from home, has appraised Wilt Chamberlain's estate, Thurman Munson's shower shoes and a lock of Katherine Hepburn's baby hair. How did she come in contact with -- and assign a value to -- these one-of-a-kind items?

Here is Dunbar's story, in her words:

Family business

My dad started collecting antique toys and advertising and folk art when I was 10 years old. We started going to Brimfield, a big antiques show that takes place three times a year in Massachusetts, in the '70s. We'd park on the side of Route 20 at 1 in the morning and they'd let us on the field at 6. I'd run around scouting items for my dad. The first thing I ever found for him was a collection of automotive signs and soda signs, which he bought for 50 cents apiece and re-sold for 10 bucks apiece. He was very happy; I got a hot fudge sundae out of the deal.

After I graduated college, I helped my dad at his junkyard and then our family went into the antiques business full-time. We did mail order, kind of a precursor to eBay. We would do shows on the road, and I'd develop client relationships. I'd photograph items and send them out with prices. People would call back and place orders. We started doing auctions for collections.

Taking the show on the road

My big break came in 1996, after we'd been in business for seven, eight years. I got a call from a new program going on PBS called "Antiques Roadshow." They needed appraisers. I got the job and did the very first show in Concord, Massachusetts. They were begging people to come in. We had 700 people -- most of them WGBH station donors -- show up with items. We filmed 13 different venues that year. The next year, we knew we were a hit because the first show, there were 3,000 people waiting in line when we opened the doors.

The show has been a massive success. What I love most is we never know who will show up with what. I've valued items from a few bucks to more than $1 million. The first question I ask is, "How did you get this?" The whole point is education. We want to hear their stories and fill in the blanks on history and valuation. The guests never know what I might tell them; it's true reality TV.

Big Apple, big bucks

I had gotten to know "Roadshow" appraisers who worked at Sotheby's, and in 1999, they needed a new director for their collectibles department. My dad was in his mid-60s, and I knew he wanted to retire. I decided it was time to make a change. I moved to Manhattan and it was like going from Double-A to the big leagues. I'd been handling items that ranged from $5 to maybe $25,000, with most of it several hundred to several thousand. Sotheby's sells $6 billion in art and antiques a year. I had a staff of 15 and was selling items from $2,000 to more than $1 million. I was running the sales for sports, entertainment, animation art, comic art, toys and miscellaneous memorabilia. It was a huge education. I had to step up very quickly.

Within my first six months we sold the Boston Garden parquet floor and briefly held the record for an online sale at $335,000. We sold the Wilt Chamberlain estate. We sold the bat Babe Ruth used to hit the first home run ever at Yankee Stadium for $1.25 million, still an auction record for a bat. We auctioned the estate of Katherine Hepburn, the estate of Johnny and June Carter Cash, a collection from Cher. It was very exciting, but often grueling.

In 2008 Sotheby's closed some of their smaller departments. The best thing that ever happened to me was being hired by Sotheby's. The second best thing was being let go. I was tired of the constant pressure of the auction business. You're only as good as your last -- or next -- auction. What I really wanted was to be a full-time appraiser.

The appraisal process

There is no school you can attend to develop an expertise in pop culture memorabilia. It's really osmosis. You need to work in a gallery with dealers or at an auction business. That's how you gain experience. My clients come primarily from one of several groups: institutions such as museums or halls of fame, insurance companies, lawyers, banks and other financial institutions, collections/estates of athletes and other celebrities, and individual collectors. At least half of the work I do is sports, a quarter is entertainment and the rest is mixed. I can do anything from antique toys to World War I posters to Bakelite radios, and for the past five years I have added wine appraising after collecting for a number of years.

Being a journalist at heart, the process is very similar for appraising: I research the subject, analyze the data and write a story. The only difference is that at the end of my stories, there are numbers -- I give valuations. When I take on an assignment, I estimate the scope of work. How many items are there? Have they already been photographed and cataloged? Have they been authenticated? For on-site visits, I charge between $2,500 and $3,500 per day; for the research and analysis, I charge between $275 and $350 an hour. The exact amounts depend on the complexity of the project. People also contact me seeking an informal opinion of auction estimates for items they want to sell, which I provide gratis.

One of the big things I do when I give talks is demystify the appraisal process. People think it's magic, that we pull numbers out of a hat or use a Ouija board. No. There's a methodology to it, and it's very similar to valuing real estate.

The first thing I do when appraising an item is try to find direct comparable sales. If I have a Babe Ruth signed baseball, I look up other Ruth balls that have sold in the past. I match it as closely as possible with a signature of similar quality on a ball in similar condition. That is apples to apples. Other times, I have to find indirect comparables and make adjustments for various factors.

Take Tom Brady's stolen (and now recovered) Super Bowl jersey. I would look at other Brady jerseys while keeping in mind this came from the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. I'd review sales of jerseys from other milestone events -- Bill Mazeroski's when he hit the walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series; Kirk Gibson's from Game 1 of the '88 Series; Mike Eruzione's from the "Miracle on Ice." Those sold for between $500,000 and $700,000. As far as historical importance and enduring legacy, Brady beats all of them. I would look at some of Ruth's jerseys. The earliest-known Ruth jersey sold for $4.4 million in 2012. His "called shot" jersey sold for $1 million in 2005. As much as I love Brady, Ruth is ahead of him as far as historical importance, desirability and rarity. I would have to slot Brady's jersey somewhere in this hierarchy of value.

The valuation depends on the purpose. An insurance value is the top of the market. If it was for a charitable donation or an estate sale, it is considered "fair market value," near the middle of the market. If the item were up for auction, it would start at a lower number to get bidders interested. For the Brady jersey, I'd put it around $500,000 for auction, $1 million as fair market value and $1.5 million for insurance.

Fighting fakes and forgeries

Provenance is the supporting documentation for an item's chain of ownership. Until the past decade or so, sports memorabilia was the wild Wild West. A letter of authenticity is only as good as the person or entity issuing it. There were a significant number of forgeries, particularly autographs, entering the market. Some, from the seller's perspective, were inadvertent -- clubhouse managers or secretaries used to sign for Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson and others -- and others were deliberate for a profit. In the late '90s, an FBI operation busted a group that had produced $100 million worth of forged memorabilia.

I had a high-profile celebrity who sent me a bunch of Yankees signed memorabilia that he'd taken in a trade from someone who was paying off a debt. It took me less than 30 seconds to see every piece was a complete forgery. It would have been worth several hundred thousand dollars, and instead was worthless. An auction house several years ago sold a piece that was supposed to be a milestone item from a living athlete. That athlete called them up and said, "Excuse me, I have that." They still sold it as if it were legitimate. If that athlete's item comes up for auction, it will make the auction house look really bad. That's where provenance comes into play.

"850! Do I have 865?"

I was an auctioneer while at Sotheby's and am still asked to do it on occasion. A live auction is theater. There is already tension in the room. Every person in the room wants to buy something. They're waiting for those lots. As an auctioneer, you have to be confident. You've got to be able to count in the heat of the moment. No. 2, you want people to feel comfortable with you. Skill comes in when items are not selling like they should, and that's when it pays to know your stuff. Don't just say an item is important; tell them why.

In 2005, when I was with Sotheby's, we auctioned a contract that sold Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees. There were 600 people in the room, plus film crews. I start the bidding at $250,000 and 10 hands shoot up. Next thing I know, we're at $500,000. We are down to two bidders -- one in the room, one on the phone. Typically bids increase by 10 percent, but the person on the phone bids $510,000. If I reject it, they could bid the standard $550,000, but I didn't want to play a game of chicken at that point. I accept it, the person in the room went to $515,000, and we end up going in $10,000 and $15,000 increments up to $700,000. The bidder in the room takes it from there to $850,000. I'm yelling, "That's the way a bid should come in!" All of this took only three minutes. The guy on the phone comes back with $865,000. The guy in the room pushes it to $875,000, and that was it. With the buyer's premium it was $996,000. If I hadn't taken that $510,000 bid, we never would have gotten there. You have to feel the room.

Nose drops, baby hair, shower shoes

Collectors want items that have a connection to the particular athlete or celebrity. The closer the connection, the more value. When I was at Sotheby's, we sold a number of pieces from Cher's collection. My favorite was a pillow, made by a fan. Stitched on the front was, "Q: Name two things that will survive a nuclear war," and, on the back, "A: Cockroaches and Cher." That sold for about $7,000. We sold Katherine Hepburn's estate, which included a lock of her baby hair that went for $6,000. We sold Madonna's barbells, Marilyn Monroe's prescription drug bottles and Elvis' nose drops. A David Ortiz jersey that was excavated from Yankee Stadium sold for $175,000 for charity. We sold Thurman Munson's shower shoes for $1,000. I sold a letter written by Babe Ruth to his mistress for around $75,000.

My all-time favorite item is from Chamberlain's estate. His house was very "shagadelic." Upstairs, near a bookshelf and couch, there was a sign on a stanchion that looked like the "Walk, Don't Walk" street signs. His said "Love, Don't Love." To me, it describes Wilt to a tee. I bought it at auction. It's in my dining room.

The future of collecting

The top items of the pyramid always will have the best possibility of holding or appreciating in value. Ruth is still as sought-after by collectors today as he was 20, 30, 50 years ago. The market for star athletes' memorabilia is paralleling their own salaries: steady, and sometimes spectacular, appreciation. Game-used memorabilia is huge now.

I don't have a crystal ball, but I would look at your contemporary players who will be Hall of Famers, like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols in baseball; Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin in hockey; LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in basketball; Tom Brady in football. Their items continue to appreciate, and I think they will over the next generation.

You have to do your homework and buy what you love. That's my advice to collectors. And buy the best condition you can afford.

Andrew Kahn is freelance writer. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at andrewjkahn@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn