It's a good thing David Pearce knows to seek advice from knowledgeable people in the hobby and belongs to an online community where members look out for each other. If not, he could have been in for a very expensive sports memorabilia buying lesson.
The Illinois collector was browsing eBay on his lunch break last week when he came across a listing for a "Babe Ruth Game Used 1930s H&B Pro-Model Bat". The bat was listed with a "Buy it Now" price of $12,750 but also included a "Best Offer" option that allows bidders to make an offer to buy the item at a price they select. In that scenario, the seller can accept, decline or counteroffer. The asking price was more than reasonable, the listing somewhat convincing and Pearce thought maybe he'd found a bargain that slipped through the cracks.
"The length and weight of the bat looked to be right," Pearce said. "So did the markings. The knob photos looked to be without any inch markings that you would find on retail bats and it was listed as a game-used Ruth bat. I contacted the seller through eBay and left my phone number. About five minutes went by and the phone rang. It was (the seller)."
In the ensuing conversation, Pearce said the seller claimed, among other things, that the bat was consigned to him by a person that had the bat for the past 40 years and had proudly displayed it on his fireplace mantel. They also discussed a potential purchase price. They agreed on a figure of $9,999 as the seller was hoping to avoid additional eBay fees that come with sales of $10,000 or more.
At that point, Pearce said he would wait to confirm the closing of the auction at the agreed-upon price and planned to proceed with the payment after he was finished with his afternoon schedule. However, given a previous bad experience he had gone through with a different Ruth bat, Pearce thought it best to check with some people he trusted in the industry to make sure he wasn't making another mistake.
The collector put in a call to Mike Specht, a seasoned bat expert and authenticator who, in 1995, co-authored one of the industry's most recognized game-used bat resource guides and currently shares his expertise on www.gameuseduniverse.com. Ironically, when Pearce began to discuss the situation with Specht, he noticed he was also receiving email from other members who recognized his eBay handle in relation to the Ruth bat transaction. The messages were alerting him to a "thread" that had been started in the Game Used Universe forum section and warned him NOT to buy the bat (in on-line terminology, a "thread" is a series of posts on a discussion board).
According to Pearce, once he logged onto the site and saw the discussion, he learned this exact bat had been purchased by the seller on eBay about a month earlier for $1400. He also discovered that when the bat was originally purchased by the seller it had a "36" stamped on the knob. Notably, that was not mentioned in the new auction description nor were the numbers evident in the auction photos (the seller later claimed "the flash in the photo somehow blocked [the numbers] out").
In addition, Pearce said he acquired enough information to convince him that the seller of the Ruth bat was, in his opinion, someone who had previously bought a different high profile bat on eBay for a few hundred dollars and resold a nearly identical bat, with a few modifications, a month later for $3500. For Pearce, the red lights were now flashing and the sirens deafening.
He proceeded to contact the seller to confirm his suspicions. Since the seller, in his auction description, "guaranteed" the bat would pass an independent third-party authentication, Pearce requested the seller send the bat directly to the authentication company, volunteering to pay for the bat and the authentication fee when the work was completed. He also asked if the supposed consignor could provide a written history of the bat. When the seller responded by saying it was eBay policy that the bat had to be shipped directly to the buyer, and gave no offer of a letter attesting to the bat's history, Pearce informed the seller that the deal was off. He simply wasn't going to spend that kind of money with so many relevant questions left unanswered.
Later that night, the bat was re-listed on eBay. Pearce, along with a number of other members from the Game Used Universe forum, reported the situation to eBay. Not long after, the seller sent Pearce an email with a different story of it's origin, explaining he had "purchased the bat for what I believed was a steal at around $1500 and looked to profit from that. Clearly I was wrong about the 'deal' I thought I got on the bat." The seller also told Pearce he was planning to leave eBay.
Pearce was disappointed he wasn't adding what he thought might be a legitimate Ruth gamer to his collection but learned a few things too. "I'm glad in the process that I chose to completely take my time with this purchase and talk with people like Mike Specht and Jim Caravello (another bat expert) as well as others who contacted me through the forum."
Eric Stangel, the original creator of the Game Used Forum, whose site merged with Game Used Universe last October, has seen the value of members helping one another. "There is nothing better than seeing people post success stories about how the forum helped them," he said. "Once, I was able to get back $13,000 because people on the forum showed me I had bought bad merchandise from a dealer who was doctoring items," Stangel related. "Others have had similar results."
Game Used Universe CEO Christopher Cavalier has seen the collecting communities provide this type of help before. "Those intimately involved with the hobby know there are still a lot of perils in the marketplace," Cavalier said. "Game Used Universe was created to help the collecting community become more informed. The site has aggregated knowledgeable, well-meaning individuals from all over the hobby who find great satisfaction in simply helping other collectors. The hobby has needed this type of unbiased advocacy for some time. I've done a lot of buying and selling of memorabilia int he past but I wouldn't make any major purchase now without checking it over with some of the people we have on board with us. I have a tremendous amount of respect for their knowledge."
As for Pearce, if anyone has an authentic game-used Ruth bat they're willing to sell for around $10,000....he's still looking.