Rare Sports Autographs: Authentic Finds

Updated October 4, 2021
Soccer player giving an autograph

If you've ever collected memorabilia with signatures of any kind, you know how important it is to make sure that the signatures are authentic. There's nothing that can make or break a collectible's value more than it turning out to be a fake. With sports memorabilia's popularity in particular surging during the 20th century, thousands of promotional items were signed by famous athletes, meaning that you've actually got a pretty high chance of owning some of the rarest sports autographs if you do a little hunting and are willing to pay a pretty penny.

A Look at a Few Rare Autographs of Sports Celebrities

Every so often, incredibly rare autographs bypass private sales and enter the general market. Items with autographs from prominent sports celebrities like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle on them always stir up a lot of buzz with collectors, as fans anticipate how much they'll end up being sold for. Interestingly, long-dead baseball legends provide the largest number of these early pieces of autographed Americana that collectors like to snatch up, though baseball isn't the only sports activity that people like to have pieces from. Here are just some of these rare sports autographs that've recently sold:

  • Babe Ruth - Many would consider Babe Ruth to be the most famous name in baseball history, and his prowess proceeds him. For example, one baseball with his authenticated signature emblazoned in blue ink circa 1947 sold in 2003 for a whopping $50,787.50. Similarly, a copy of Ruth's 1923 New York Yankees contract sold in 2019 for nearly $300,000.
Bullpen-Babe Ruth Baseballs
  • Muhammad Ali - Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee with this boxing glove signed by Muhammad Ali in 1997. Although it sold at auction for an undisclosed amount, similar PSA-certified autographs from Ali sold for nearly $3,000 making this a substantial collectible.
  • Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe - Despite marrying and divorcing in a short period of time, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe's love for each other would extend throughout her tragically short life. Of course, any items authentically connected to Marilyn Monroe are highly collectible, and this 1947 baseball with each of their signatures written on it sold by Sotheby's is estimated to be worth between $300,000-$400,000.
  • Mickey Mantle - A more contemporary baseball celebrating the 500 home run club includes 11 signatures from famous pro-ball players, with Mickey Mantle's signature featured in the sweet spot on the ball. Currently, the momentous ball is up for sale and listed for just over $1,500.
  • Shoeless Joe Jackson - According to the authentication company, PSA, there are only about 12 authenticated signatures out there of baseball player Joe Jackson. His practical illiteracy means that he wasn't penning many autographs while he was alive, making any examples you can find highly valuable. For instance, a photograph with his signature on it was valued at $175,000.
  • Archibald "Moonlight" Graham - An early 20th century baseball player for the Giants, there are only four known autographs of Graham's to have ever surfaced. Despite his incredibly short performance in the big leagues, serious sports collectors will fight to get one of these in their collection.

How to Authenticate Autographs From Home

For an autograph to be considered authentic, it must be signed by the hand of the person named in the signature. An autograph cannot be made by a proxy signer such as a personal manager, assistant or family member. It also cannot be made with a signature stamp, photography equipment, or any machine including:

  • Autopen machines
  • Copy machines
  • Printers
Muhammad Ali signing autographs for Volendam girls

These caveats often make authenticating signatures at home incredibly difficult. However, there are a few things you can rule out on the signatures of your own collectibles to give you an inkling of whether or not you should spend the money to have the pieces professionally authenticated.

Compare to Already Authenticated Signatures

If there's a popular enough figure in the sports world, chances are high that there's an authenticated signature out there of the person whose signature you currently have. This means that you can compare images you find online of those authentic signatures with yours to see how much they seem to match.

Check the Precision

Most autographs are not written 100% symmetrically and evenly dispersed. Look at your signatures and see if there are some darker spots and lighter spots throughout, as these could indicate it was done by a person instead of a stamp or machine.

Look for Aging

Depending on the materials that the autograph was printed on and how old the item is, you might be able to find obvious signs of wear from age. If you see some fading or smudging on the signatures and your artifact is older, this is a great sign that it might be authentic.

When To Seek Professional Autograph Authentication

Unless you have seen the signature being hand signed by the sports celebrity, which is known as self-authentication, having an autograph authenticated by a professional is of paramount importance. The leading sports autograph authentication company is PSADNA, which uses its experts to authenticate nearly every high-ticket sports item that comes to auction. The company pools the top experts in the field of sports autographs, and each autograph that is sent in is authenticated using a strict four step authentication process:

  1. Experts conduct a thorough examination of the autograph involving five sub-steps: medium and ink analysis, autograph structure analysis, object evaluation, comparison to known signatures, and examination with a video spectral comparator.
  2. Tagging, both covert and overt, is applied as a measure against counterfeiting.
  3. A certificate of authenticity is issued.
  4. Documentation of the certification is listed online for reference.

Fraud and Forgeries in Sports Autographs

The sports autograph market is booming, and ESPN reports that many autographs are fetching record-setting prices. Sadly, the FBI estimates that greater than 50 percent of the autographs sold as genuine are actually forgeries. Collectors of sports autographs need to protect themselves from being fooled by unscrupulous criminals that make a living selling forgeries. These scam artists prey on unsuspecting collectors and use various methods to produce and market their goods. The internet has allowed collectors to locate authentic sports autographs that would have been unavailable to them in earlier years. However, in reality, it also makes it easier for many fraudulent transactions to take place.

Therefore, you always want to approach any potential sellers with the utmost scrutiny. If you're not purchasing from an already reputable collector, then make sure you do your research on their background and past sales. It's never a bad idea to check for references and documentation when you're investing in such precious collectibles as autographs.

Rare Sports Autographs and Authentication Online

It can be incredibly difficult to make time in your schedule to visit in-person antique stores or vintage shops, meaning that most people turn to the internet to find the newest pieces to add to their collections. It's also good to know a few good resources for learning more about whether you have an authentic autograph. Here are just a few of the places you can visit:

  • Conway's Vintage Treasures - Conway's Vintage Treasures specializes in rare sports autographs and other autographed items. It's a good place to look for specific autographs for your collection.
  • James Spence - James Spence offers autograph authentication services if you're wondering whether an item is real.
  • Signings Hot Line - Signings Hot Line lists every past and upcoming signing appearance made by present day and retired athletes. With almost 1400 sports figures listed, this is an invaluable resource for autograph collectors, giving them a way to check that a signing actually took place at a specific event. Collectors also can find where there sports idols will be signing in the future.
  • Heritage Auction Galleries - The world's largest collectibles auctioneer, Heritage Auction Galleries, has broken auction price records in sports autographs and memorabilia.
  • Sotheby's and Christie's - These two renowned auction houses often auction off the highest quality and rigorously authenticated memorabilia on the market, so if you're interested in rare or expensive collectibles, you should check them out.

It's Game On With These Collectibles

Whether your favorite sports autographs are from baseball, hockey, football or basketball players, cyclists, or race car drivers, collecting rare sports autographs is an exciting hobby that anyone can jump right into. Unlike other collectibles, you don't have to follow a rhyme or reason to the autographs you want to collect, and autographs from your favorite sports icons might be significantly cheaper than you ever thought. Even if you're not a huge sports fan, these autographs also make for incredible gifts for all of the sports lovers in your life too.

Rare Sports Autographs: Authentic Finds