By Jeanine Heller
New York-based trial attorney Jeffrey Lichtman is best known for representing such high-profile figures as Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mafia scion John Gotti Jr., and rapper Jayceon “The Game” Taylor. Not satisfied with just being one of America’s most celebrated lawyers, the fifty-five-year-old Duke University School of Law graduate has also distinguished himself in another field some might consider out of left field: baseball card collecting.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Lichtman, like generations of other Americans, collected and traded baseball cards as a boy. It was a passion that followed him into adulthood and has resulted in one of the most sophisticated card collections in the world – one estimated to be worth millions.
As has been widely reported, the baseball card industry exploded during the Covid-19 pandemic, driving prices out of the park. For example, in January, a Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card sold for an all-time high of $5.2 million.
With the market showing no signs of slowing down, many people are wondering how to get a legitimate piece of the action. So Ballers Report asked Lichtman, who has worked tirelessly to clean up the fraud-plagued industry, to share his “inside baseball” secrets for hitting a grand slam in the rarified world of card collecting.
How did you start collecting baseball cards, and at what point did collecting turn into more than a passive hobby? Getting into collecting started when I was about four or five years old. There were drugstores back then in suburban New Jersey [that] would sell baseball cards. The packs would be up at the front, and I would constantly be grabbing [at] them and begging my mother to let me buy them. Back then, in the early ’70s, everybody collected. It was just the way it was.
So it’s something that started as a kid and lasted throughout high school. I took a few years off through college and law school. Then, as soon as I became a lawyer and I started having an income, I realized I didn’t have to buy fifty-cent packs at the drugstore but could actually go on eBay and spend a few hundred dollars on a baseball card, which was like being a kid in the candy store [again]. I could buy anything that I wanted, and [so] I started and haven’t stopped for decades.
So it started with ripping the packs with the piece of gum. Exactly.
Did you ever pull any valuable cards back in the ’70s? There were no massively rare cards that existed. The value that they have now is based on their condition. Once you touch a card and a corner gets bent, your mint card is now rendered “very good,” at best. So while there may have been massive value in some of the things that I pulled, they were rendered nothing. In addition, it took me until about 1978, when I was thirteen years old, to realize that buying packs made no sense because you could never complete a set if there were one or two or five cards that you couldn’t get.
I was reading Sporting News, and in the back — and these are really my favorite memories ever — there was an advertisement for a company in Brooklyn, Renata Galasso. They would buy the factory sets, massive amounts of cards, and they would collate them into sets that were numbered chronologically — let’s say, one to 787. Instead of all the time and expense that you’d take in buying the packs, trying to put a set together, you’d send away a few dollars to Renata Galasso in this faraway place in Brooklyn, and six to eight weeks later — I would check the mailbox every single day — I’d get a cardboard box back with all the cards along with the plastic sheets that I ordered (that are horribly damaging for the cards today). I would sort them by teams and then put them in order, inside the plastic sheets. This was like a religious ritual for me every year.
Where are those cards now? Almost forty years later, I still have those original cards. I’ve taken them out of the bad plastic sheets they were in; they were oil-based, and I put them into better pages now. I would say the thirteen dollars that I invested for an entire set in 1978 is probably worth $100, maybe $150 now. Not exactly a great return over the past forty years, but they mean a lot to me emotionally.
How large is your collection today? I don’t even know. I’ve got every Topps set, either raw or graded, from pretty much 1954 on ’til today, and another group of just the boxes of the sets probably from just the ’80s on — not very expensive. Most of them, I haven’t even taken the plastic off. Sometimes I’ll just open them up because I want to look at the new cards, but they’re so boring to me. They all look the same to me every year, so I pretty much stopped even opening up the boxes. If you’re a vintage card collector, it’s very hard to have any interest in the modern cards of today.
Well, your collection looks amazing. Which card is your favorite? I can think of one card that’s probably my all-time favorite. I bought it raw, which was incredibly risky at the time, and I also bought it from an auction house that was well known for selling raw, trimmed cards, and [laughs] it was a card that I had never seen before. Since then, I’ve only seen one other one in existence. It’s a Detroit Free Press Ty Cobb postcard. There are two in existence. I’ve got the only one that’s not badly trimmed. The other one is missing half of the border on the bottom, and it’s an ugly, disgusting mess. Mine is beautiful, and it shows a smiling Ty Cobb, which is a very rare image. He’s usually scowling in baseball cards. The card I bought probably for a little under $9,000 — many years ago. I sent it in to [card-authenticating company] SGC to get graded with another raw Detroit Free Press postcard, also from the Detroit Tigers. They both came back. One came back as trimmed. The Cobb came back as graded, and I would say it’s certainly not the most valuable card in my collection, but it’s the one that I’ll part with last. It means a lot to me. It shows the joy of card collecting in the single card right there. If you look at the image of Ty Cobb, you’ll see it. You’ll see the happiness in his face, and that’s how I feel when I look at it.
What’s the most money you’ve ever paid for a card? In the six figures. I would say [I pay] five figures with regularity — certainly every month, many times, at this point. It’s been a little frustrating of late. Until the last couple of years I was buying solely for my collection, and I’d spend pretty much anything for a card if I wanted it, but I had to really feel it. There were cards that were more expensive that I didn’t feel. There were cards that cost fifteen dollars that I had to have. It was always a place that came from purity for me, and I never bought a card solely because of the ability to make money on it in the future. Not one time for the first million dollars [or] more that I spent on my collection did I ever buy a card based solely on the hopes that I could flip it down the road and make money. The last couple of years, however, there’s been a massive influx of money. Cards have gone up exponentially in value, and I know enough now about cards to be able to see a card that’s undervalued even if I have no interest in it, and I can buy it, and in a year or two it may triple or quadruple or even go up ten times.
Sadly, I bought plenty of cards over the last two years and spent countless amounts of money on cards that I have absolutely no interest in other than the fact that I could flip them. It’s depressing, but when I see an opportunity for easy money, I can’t help but grab it. It’s taken some of the fun out of it. The cards that I care about I have spent six figures on. Any collector understands this. You see a card in an auction, and it’s not going to go off for weeks, perhaps, and you look at that card and you have to have it. You can’t live without it. It’s something that you have to have in your collection.
What’s a recent example of that? I can think of some rare Ty Cobb cards that I was buying that were only rare because of the advertising backs that they had, and I would think that they were worth maybe eight to ten thousand dollars. I had to have each one of them at an auction. The next thing I know, I’m looking down. There’s blood on the floor, and I’ve spent thousands of dollars for each of the cards that I had to have. God help me when I try to sell these cards because there’s not going to be a jackass like me bidding on them, but I had to have them for my collection. I got them. I scanned them. I put them up on my website. I then put them into a 3,000-pound safe, and they’re going to be locked in there probably forever. Now they’ll probably find them after I’m dead.
So I like to not spend money just as an investment. Many people do, but this is the way the world is, I suppose. I don’t want to make it my life in the sense that it becomes a moneymaking venture, because this is something that means so much to me emotionally. I don’t want to ruin it. Once you throw money into a situation, it takes away a lot of the love. I don’t care what anybody says. It’s the truth.
What are the best resources for someone just getting into, or even getting back into, card collecting? To actually find the cards to buy, I would look on eBay first. There are still a lot of cards there. There’re very few actual auctions that go on, and oftentimes the auctions are rigged. There’s shill bidding that goes on where people are bidding on their own cards, so you need to be careful, but you can look on eBay — they’re categorized in a somewhat sane fashion — to at least see what’s out there.
Most auctions are rigged? The honest ones are ones like RobertEdwardAuctions.com. You can go through his archives. That [site] was started by a fellow named Rob Lifson, who has now sold the company to another honest guy. Heritage sells many different things — coins, antique posters, real estate — and they sell cards. They have an archive history [where] you can see cards with an easy search function.
So it’s imperative that one does their homework before spending any real money on collecting? I would because there is so much fraud. Many, many intelligent people who are well steeped in this hobby — [including] a guy like Keith Olbermann, who was the ESPN sports head — have been ripped off countless times. The owners of various baseball teams collect cards. They have been ripped off countless times. People out there tell you that they’re all about honesty in the hobby; they’re criminals themselves that will rip you off. So you have to be so careful. You have to get so educated. You have to find people that you can trust to guide you through it until you can get the education, because you will be ripped off.
Have you ever been ripped off? Every single person in this hobby has been ripped off to some degree. Educate yourself — and it’s not a five-minute education; it takes years to figure out all the ins and the outs of this hobby. I’ve been involved in it for decades, and I’ve been involved in the slabbing, the grading process, as well for decades, and I represent one of the companies right now. It’s the one that is more likely to get your cards done correctly, get the grades done and spot alterations, although they’re certainly not infallible, and that’s Sportscard Guaranty (SGC).
Where does one go to get educated? In terms of knowledge, I would start with OldCardboard.com. There are many resources that are linked from that website that will teach you about the different issues and will help you understand. VintageCardPrices.com will help you with valuations to give you an idea of roughly how much you should spend. Those two resources and probably 10,000 hours of time will at least give you an opportunity to get into the game intelligently. There’s a library of books out there [too].
Also, buy cards that you love, because if you don’t love this hobby, if you don’t love the people that you’re collecting, you’re not going to have the same interest. If you love the vintage sports — the vintage baseball, vintage basketball, vintage football — you’re going to spend more time. You’re going to absorb more information, and you’ll understand it better.
What’s the best way to store your cards? It depends on the value. If they’re not expensive, I would say put them in plastic sheets. Be careful how you get them into the sheets and put them in a binder and lay them flat if you can. Obviously, keep cards out of direct sunlight even if they’re in plastic. You’d be crazy to put a slabbed card out in the open and allow all sorts of harmful rays from the sun, UV lights or fluorescent lights to fade them. Same thing, obviously, with autographed baseballs.
In terms of slabbing them, yes, if the card has any value at all, you’re going to get it slabbed by a third-party grader and you’re going to try to increase the value that way. But the truth is, if you’re buying cards that have any value at all, they’re coming in the plastic holders already. Some people crack them out and try to get higher grades by resubmitting to the companies. Certainly, the companies encourage that.
That’s crazy. I’ve done it very, very few times, only if I thought the grade was ridiculous after I submitted it, and I’ve submitted it back and gotten a higher grade.
Oftentimes the card alterers will crack the cards out if they see fat borders. Not every card, every issue has identical dimensions. Certainly with regard to vintage cards, they varied with some irregularity. So you’ll have criminals take the cards out of the holders. They’ll trim them carefully to make all the corners look sharp, then submit them back to the rating companies, and a rate of a five can become a nine. The difference in value is exponential. A five may be worth $200; a nine could be worth $200,000. That’s what the fraudsters have done for years, and there are some pretty well-known card doctors around that have been under investigation. There aren’t a lot of resources spent cleaning up the hobby by the government because they’re just viewed as baseball cards.
But this is now a multibillion-dollar industry. [Exactly.] There really needs to be more oversight. It can’t just be a couple of agents involved throughout the country. There need to be significant assets, just as there are toward the art world, because the fraud is off the charts.
How does the authentication process work? For instance, how can a buyer tell if a card is true to a seller’s claims? Well, if you have a brain in your head, you try not to buy a card raw. If you buy a card raw, you’d better hope that it’s in lousy shape because most likely it’s been altered if it’s got four sharp corners and the card is 100 years old. In addition, if anybody was really serious about selling a valuable card, they’re going to get it authenticated by one of the third-party graders, like SGC or PSA in California.
Send that card in to maximize the value because anybody’s who looking to spend five figures, four figures, even three figures on a card wants it entombed in plastic and graded by one of these companies because it also provides some guarantee that the card has not been altered. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case. Most of the sharp-cornered vintage cards that you find in the plastic holders have been altered and have gotten past the third-party graders, but it’s at least some comfort, some guarantee, and most importantly it increases the value of them to see them entombed in the plastic and getting the third-party grader blessing.
Vintagecardprices.com will show you the history of sales of these cards in the various grades, and you’ll get an idea whether they’ve gone up or down. You’ll see trends. Again, there is so much fraud in this hobby that oftentimes card prices that seem to be realized are not. They’re fake. They’re bought by the consignor. They’re pumped up to ridiculous values in order to increase the value of the next card with the same grade that’s been auctioned. It’s an unregulated industry, and you have to be really smart. You have to be really educated in order to avoid being ripped off.
You’ve done a lot to clear up the fraud over the years. Tell us more about your involvement in the PWCC Marketplace and Mastro investigations. I represented PWCC, and I’ve represented all sorts of victims and co-conspirators throughout the years in the Mastro investigation and ultimately indictment and conviction of the principals of Mastronet Auctions out of Chicago. It’s always been under the guise of trying to clean up the mess of the hobby.
This is not exactly the biggest section of my practice, representing auction houses or witnesses in baseball card fraud. But because of my knowledge of it and the fact that I am a criminal defense lawyer of some note, people have gravitated toward me when there have been investigations because they know I understand the issues, and this is not the kind of thing that you can really walk into a lawyer’s office [with], even a criminal lawyer who’s been doing this for decades, and expect them to understand the real ins and outs of all of the fraud.
So I’ve been involved in helping the government go after Mastro. I represented co-conspirators who flipped against Bill Mastro and Doug Allen, the two principals. I’ve sued Mastro in court and won. I’ve been involved in every aspect of the litigation. This hobby is filled with people that talk a big game: “We’re going to do this. We’re going to do that. This isn’t right. That isn’t right.” Ninety-five percent of them are fraudsters themselves, and everybody has an opinion, and it’s usually tied down to how they’re making money, and the hobby influences their positions on it … I’ve been an outspoken critic of companies and individuals who have been involved in fraud, but it’s a tough situation because most of the people in the hobby are engaged in some sort of fraud if you’re selling cards for a living.
When I came out against Mastro, it had to be fifteen years ago, I came out publicly on a chat board and said I have no doubt these guys are engaged in shill bidding. I got shouted down and abused like you can’t imagine.
Why? As I said it correctly then, the people that are shouting me down are either co-conspirators of the Mastro fraud or otherwise making money by consigning items to Mastro Auctions and allowing Mastro to shill bid them up and make them money. I’ve represented the heads of nearly every family in the Mafia in New York. I can tell you that the dishonesty in the Mafia world pales in comparison to the dishonesty in collecting sports cards.
Would you say it was your outspokenness that helped establish you as an expert within the community? Yes, that’s the case. I came at it. I’m a collector first. I’m not an investor. I have a collection that’s worth a lot of money now, but through no fault of my own. I didn’t set out to do that. I started collecting. I was addicted. I started spending a decent amount of money and then a larger amount of money, and then it became out-of-control amounts of money because I could convince myself that it was an investment as well, and that allowed me to buy cards for huge amounts of money. But yes, I came out, and I was completely uninfluenced by outside sources. I called the fraud that I saw. I wasn’t afraid of the loudmouths in the hobby that would try to shout me down because frankly I don’t care. In real life, I deal with much more aggressive situations than some jerk-off on a baseball card board, sitting behind his computer.
What impact have you had on curbing the amount of fraud in the industry overall? As I said, I’ve sued Mastro before. I went after him legally other times and wrangled settlements out of co-conspirators. I’ve gone after many fraudsters. I’ve also worked with the FBI for the U.S. Attorney’s office on many of these investigations by representing co-conspirators and seeking leniency for them as long as they told the government all they knew about all the people that were committing fraud. So I’ve helped clean up some of the fraud but it comes up the next day. You knock one down, and another four come up. But I’d rather be doing something other than nothing for a hobby that really is beloved to me. It’s one of the things that give me happiness. So you can be sure that I’m going to make every effort I can to go after the bad guys.
What is the hype around rookie cards? Well, you’re talking about two different eras. Back to vintage era — and I’m talking, let’s say, even back from the 1950s down, which isn’t exactly vintage, it’s more postwar — the rookie cards are very important because it’s the first year that the player made it into the major leagues, into the professional ranks. There’s a bigger value because that’s the first. When you have years two through, let’s say, seventeen, they don’t seem to be quite as important because it’s not the first card of that player.
With regard to the modern rookie cards, the problem is that the card companies have recognized the desire for the rookie card. In the old days, there was just Topps that existed. It wasn’t until Donruss and Fleer came back — in 1981, I believe — that there was more than one company that was even making the cards from the ’70s on. Now there are dozens of companies. They’ll have dozens of rookies for each card, and the reason is obvious: they want people to try to buy all of the rookies.
I find that to be frustrating, and it takes some of the fun out of the collecting, but I’m like one of those guys sitting on his lawn, yelling at kids to get off. That’s sort of my mentality when it comes to card collecting. I’m not as into the modern game, but I recognize that there is a huge amount of money involved, and understanding that game is important as well if you’re looking to do this in any kind of real intelligent sense.
Speaking of the modern game, the sports memorabilia industry is evolving. Apps such as Collectible, which offer the opportunity of fractional ownership of blue chip cards, have certainly opened the door for those who don’t have deep enough pockets to buy a card outright. How has this changed the market, if at all? It gives people a feeling of ownership even though they’ll never actually touch the card. These fractional ownership apps are good for the owners of the app and the owners of the cards listed therein.
NBA Top Shot recently had a hugely successful NFT launch. Do you see that happening in the future with MLB? What’s your take on the sports NFT space? It’s hard for me to get excited about a snippet of video that can be found on YouTube and then turned into your own personalized card, but it does make some sense because kids today are playing these video games. They’re spending real money to buy a skin for a video game for their character, and it’s not minor money. There’s a huge amount of money involved.
In addition, when you get your valuable vintage baseball card, the first thing you do is you scan it. I scan my cards into my collection, which can be found on Flickr — you’ll see most of my collection, at least anything that’s valuable. You only really look at the cards virtually. I’ve got the cards in safe deposit boxes, locked up, and the amount of time I actually spend looking at them physically is very little.
So it’s not so surprising that Topps and other companies are getting involved in selling these little snippets of video and reducing them to a certain number — a limited run, sometimes. Sometimes they’re one of a kind. Sometimes there’re 10,000 of them, and they’re numbered, and they’re treated like a collectible. It’s really no different from a baseball card, other than the fact that you can’t physically touch it. But, as I said, a lot of times you’re not physically touching these expensive cards.
When I was a kid, my memories are of touching the cards, of going through a stack of cards. So it’s a little frustrating to see that this thing is taking over the industry to some extent. But, listen, if you don’t roll with the changes in this hobby, you’re going to quickly become clueless; you’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunities, at least financially. There is certainly a future in that. That’s why the Topps stock that’s being sold through MUDS [Mudrick Capital Acquisition Corp.] on the stock exchange has flown up in value just over the last few weeks. There is a lot of money in this hobby. So the NFTs, absolutely they’re here to stay. I don’t think they’re just a passing fancy.
What do you think about the outrageous prices these NFTs have fetched recently? Utterly bonkers, and I would certainly be careful and use caution when buying these things, but there’s a lot of money to be made in that sector as well.
It seems like blockchain technology and transaction records would help phase out any issues concerning fraud. But, as you said, it diminishes that nostalgic aspect of card collecting, like tearing the packs as a kid. There’s always been an advance from the beginning to reduce the nostalgia and focus on the income. It’s not just the baseball cards. Look at baseball games. When we were kids, up through the ’70s and ’80s, you could actually go to a double-header. You’d watch a game. You’d have a ticket for two games. You’d stay, and maybe a few minutes later the second game would start. That’s been eliminated. They have day and night double-headers now where they can get everybody out after the first game and then retake tickets for the second game so they can sell two games instead of selling one. The standard, traditional double-header is gone because of that, and it’s the same thing with baseball cards.