Whenever our hobby is a focal point for mainstream media, I pay attention. How non-collectors or casual ones perceive our hobby can greatly influence its future viability. So it was with much excitement, and some trepidation, that I watched the series premiere of the new reality show, All-Star Dealers. Airing on the Discovery Channel, the program explores the world of sports collectibles, including autographs and game-used items.
Richie Russek of Grey Flannel Auctions is the all-star dealer in the spotlight. A brash New Yorker with a bleepin' mouth, Russek and his two sons run one of the largest and most successful online auction companies in the market. Richie's over-the-top personality and profanity-laced vocabulary were an instant turn-off. It just struck me as odd that in the course of doing business with athletes, agents, colleagues and consignors that he would repeatedly resort to the F-bomb. It certainly wouldn't fly in the conference room of most other companies.
All-Star Dealers portrays Grey Flannel not as a company that exists because of a love and appreciation for the pieces of sports history. Instead it's about the quest for cold, hard cash. It's clear that what motivates Richie is money--not just the having it, but the quest to make more. While the same could be said for any business owner, to a degree, it just seemed a bit over the top and zealous.
The show, appropriately, put a lot of emphasis on the authentication of both game-used material and autographs. The main autograph authenticator for the company is renowned industry expert James “Jimmy" Spence of JSA. The authentication process was put on display for the world to see and Richie asked a well-scripted question certain to raise the eyebrows of some critics.
While authenticating a Dan Marino signature, Spence was asked, “I see you are comparing the jersey signature to a bunch of exemplars you have on file. How do you know they aren't forgeries?"
Not missing a beat, Spence confidently replied that, “When we are on the road we employ the Witness Protection Program, where we sit with athletes while they are signing, from the time they are in college to the time that they die." Take that for what it's worth.
While those of us in the hobby know how the authentication process works and we want to believe in it, we also know that the practice has been ripe with errors, mistakes and fraud. Watching the business dealings of Grey Flannel, Spence and their consignors reeked of the potential for unethical practices. With no third-party oversight to police the industry, I wonder what a non-collector thought of the autograph authentication process.
The process of authenticating potential game-used items was also put under the microscope on All-Star Dealers. Grey Flannel employs Nick Coppola, a collector and self-taught authenticator with 30-years experience. The program showed various steps used in the process, including the detailed examination of a jersey's tagging, numbering, stitching, material composition, and photo-matching technology. I was impressed with the amount of time and attention to detail that was used in trying to authenticate a vintage Naval Academy jersey allegedly worn in a game by legendary Hall of Famer Roger Staubach. To the credit of Grey Flannel, they were able to correctly date the jersey's origin but could not definitively say that it was worn in a game. While still sold as a period piece, it wasn't listed as game-used. The program also showed the importance of managing a consignor's expectations and the consequences of over-inflating an item's value without proper authentication.
So, will I be watching All-Star Dealers again? Absolutely.