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On August 7, Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run, breaking Hank Aaron’s career mark and claiming the most hallowed record in American sports. Almost immediately, people began speculating what the ball – which was caught by a 21-year-old New Yorker named Matt Murphy – would be worth on the memorabilia market.

“I think it’s a half-million-dollar baseball, although it would probably be worth double that if it had been hit by a more likable fellow,” says Mike Heffner. And he should know – Heffner is president of Lelands, a Long Island-based auction house specialising in sports memorabilia.

We will find out what Bonds’ latest record-breaking ball is worth this afternoon, when bidding is scheduled to close. Lelands did not conduct this auction (Sotheby’s is handling it), but they did sell the ball Bonds hit for his 73rd homer of the 2001 season, which stands as the single-season home-run mark.

“That auction was aired live on ESPN,” says Heffner. “It was the first time a sports auction had been broadcast live.”

The ball sold for more than half-a-million dollars.

“In 1993 we sold the ball that went through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series,” says Heffner, ticking off some of the company’s other notable sales. “Charlie Sheen bought that one, for $93,500, which was a lot of money at the time. We’ve sold more Heisman Trophies [for outstanding college football players] than anyone else, including the first one ever awarded – that was Larry Kelly’s, from 1936. It sold for over $300,000.”

Of course, not every item Lelands sells brings such a hefty price. And make no mistake, Lelands sells a lot of items, as one look at Heffner’s office makes clear. Like most of the other rooms in the company’s small headquarters, it is packed with vintage jerseys, trophies, equipment, trading cards and other sports-related ephemera, most of it waiting to be assessed, appraised and entered into one of the company’s monthly internet auctions or biannual catalogue auctions.

All told, Heffner says Lelands sells about 7,000 lots a year, with total realised prices of about $12m. Numbers such as those have helped Lelands emerge as one of America’s leading sports memorabilia auction houses since the company was founded in the mid-1980s.

The rise of Lelands coincides with the explosion of the memorabilia market, which has mushroomed over two decades. But what exactly is the allure of an autograph or a game-used baseball glove? “Most people have fond memories of attending sporting events,” explains Heffner. “They want to relive those memories, and one way to do that is with a signed baseball or a jersey.”

In Heffner’s case, the link between memorabilia and youthful memories is even more acute. An avid baseball card collector as a kid, he put himself through college in the late 1980s by buying sports artifacts at flea markets, yard sales and antique shops (“Back then you could still find decent stuff that way,” he says) and then reselling it to specialty dealers. One of those dealers was Lelands founder Josh Evans, who offered Heffner a job when he finished college. So Heffner put off his plans for a career in criminal justice and instead took a shipping job at Lelands. Soon he had moved into acquisitions and then into taking a stake.

“I’m the first to admit, I’m not a trained businessman,” he says. “But I don’t know how many people in this industry are. It’s very emotion-driven – the normal rules of business don’t always apply here.”

One rule that does seem to apply is that high-valued items tend to be the best investments. A game-used Jackie Robinson jersey that Lelands sold for $80,000 15 years ago, for example, is now worth $250,000.

“I think the limited product – the Babe Ruth uniforms, of which only half a dozen exist, the Jackie Robinson uniforms – I think that stuff’s going to continue to rise,” says Heffner. “But something like a [New York Yankees captain] Derek Jeter baseball, which is already selling for $200, I frankly think that’s ridiculous. He’s going to sign a lot more baseballs in his lifetime. Babe Ruth isn’t going to be signing anything – I think his balls will always increase in value.”

One reason memorabilia values have continued to rise is that the internet has opened up the market to more collectors. Lelands, for example, used to do live auctions, usually in Manhattan. But with rare exceptions, like the auction of the Bonds ball in 2001, the company now conducts its business exclusively via phone and internet bidding.

Personally, I always preferred the live auctions, because there was a lot of energy and excitement in the room,” says Heffner. “But it turns out most of our bidders prefer the phone and internet system, because it’s so much more convenient. It’s made things more accessible.”

If you are a savvy investor – and a big sports fan – and are thinking of spending, say, $20,000 on some memorabilia, what is the best way to go?

“Stick with baseball, because it’s the most widely collected sport,” says Heffner. “Stick with the big names, like Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Cy Young. And get the best example you can find and afford – you want to buy quality, not quantity.” But how does one determine quality? “Ask around, talk to dealers and other collectors – you’ll need to do some homework.”

Or perhaps you will simply get lucky and stumble upon something in your attic. Heffner has a long list of stories like that. “One time we had someone come in with a Babe Ruth pin-back button that he’d found at a flea market for $5, which we eventually sold for $10,000,” he says. “Another time, a garbageman came in with a 1951 game-used Jackie Robinson jersey. He’d literally found it in the trash, but it was still beautiful. I appraised it at $50,000 and tried to get him to consign it with us, but he ended up selling it to a collector himself.”

It is a constant struggle to acquire the best artifacts. The company is competing not only with the other sports memorabilia operations but also with larger auction houses such as Sotheby’s. But Heffner says the rivalries tend to be friendly. “I’m a big fan of Sotheby’s sports sales, because they do quality work,” he says. “But they’re not sports specialists – they’re selling paintings for $40m. So we like to think we have a bit more expertise in our niche. But as long as they’re getting good prices for good items, it’s good for everyone.”

So what does Heffner think of Sotheby’s getting the latest Barry Bonds home-run ball? “I think they’re smart to be selling it right away, because it’s probably going to lose value over time,” he says. “[Yankee] Alex Rodriguez may end up breaking Bonds’ record in a few more years, and Bonds’s status could be affected if he’s indicted in the steroid controversy. He’s a charged figure, so his presence makes the value harder to calculate.”

That unpredictability, of course, is part of what makes the memorabilia scene so interesting. Let the bidding begin.

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