Image is everything: Game-worn memorabilia captures moment for many collectors

With photo-matching easing their concerns, buyers are spending top dollar on high-end, game-used memorabilia

Cover Image for Image is everything: Game-worn memorabilia captures moment for many collectors
Photo-matching a game-worn item to a specific game can cause it to skyrocket in value.

Over the past few years, the market for high-end, game-worn memorabilia has boomed.

A Michael Jordan jersey from the 1998 NBA Finals sold for more than $10 million.

A set of six Lionel Messi jerseys from the 2022 World Cup went for $7.8 million.

A 1958 Mickey Mantle jersey garnered $4.68 million.

Just to name a few.

Of the current top 10 most expensive sales of game-worn jerseys, nine have come since 2019.

The number of game-worn sales topping $1 million has nearly doubled from seven in 2021 to 13 in 2023, according to Russell Lieberman, founder of Altan Insights.

Behind these seven- and eight-figure sales is a group of super-fans, forever chasing the high of a connection with their favorite athletes.

This tight-knit group of collectors barely number in the dozens — at least, in terms of the most dedicated and obsessive hobbyists.

A group with a wide range of collecting interests, all united by nostalgia and the sheer joy of owning a piece of history — only fueled by the now-ubiquitous NBA highlights machine that is social media, which many believe can elevate a game-worn jersey or sneaker by virtue of association.

Despite this romanticism, the game-worn community is not exactly welcoming of newcomers.

The best collectors play it close to the vest. Forging relationships is key. Befriending the right ball boy can unlock an entire season’s worth of jerseys, sneakers, and sweatbands. But as that circle grows wider, collectors worry about their sources being swept up by a competitor.

This discretion carries through to the inner sanctum of the community, where collectors tend to keep their treasures to themselves — a near-solitary pursuit, in many cases, secrets kept even from their closest friends and families.

Notoriety is starting to come, however, thanks in part to the community’s embrace of social media, its newly found place among legacy auction houses such as Sotheby’s, and, perhaps most importantly, the mass-adoption of an authentication process known as photo-matching.

The ties between a game-worn jersey and meaningful imagery have always been the primary appeal for collectors, but the ubiquity of the NBA on social media, as well as the ever-growing community of fans, has supercharged the significance of these on-court moments (and, therefore, the game-worn apparel).

“You sort of have this virality element where you can own the things from the moment,” Sotheby’s head of modern collectibles Brahm Wachter explains. “As the social presence for the NBA has grown ... I think that's partially what makes these NBA jerseys so desirable. It's like you can own that moment that you see on social.”

This emphasis on imagery has naturally led to the adoption of photo-matching, which has become non-negotiable for many game-worn enthusiasts.

What is photo-matching?

In its simplest form, photo-matching describes the process by which a third-party authentication service compares unique features, imperfections, and myriad other factors present in game-worn memorabilia to high-quality images to establish a conclusive opinion that ties the item to a specific game (or games).

Examples might include unique stitching, minute details found in the jersey’s imperfections, and more hyper-specific clues often visible only thanks to analysis of high-resolution photography.

What impact has photo-matching had on the game-worn market?

Whereas the market for game-worn jerseys has long been reliant upon the evaluation of perceived game-wear, chain-of-provenance and letters of opinion, the mass adoption of conclusive photo-matching has allowed for newfound confidence in the minds of buyers — now armed with the knowledge of the specific game or event tied to their purchase.

Goldin Auctions, one of the premier auction houses for sports memorabilia, has been utilizing photo-matching since its first auction in 2012.

At first, the process was rudimentary. But the growth of trusted third-party authenticators has transformed the category.

“It is a game-changer,” explains Ken Goldin, Founder and CEO of Goldin Auctions. He compares it to the magnitude of influence that companies such as PSA had on cards when they first became popular.

“A ‘game-used Jordan’ with a Bulls letter was the gold standard, and those would sell for maybe $50K,” Goldin estimated. “But that same jersey photo-matched to a game is $750,000.”

Goldin Auctions have since sold more than $250 million in game-used memorabilia (combined photo-matched and non-matched). There is no longer a question as to whether photo-matching material is worth it, both to sellers and buyers.

According to Lieberman, a review of the top 25 game-worn items sold in 2021 revealed just 44 percent were advertised as photo-matched. That number hit 76 percent in 2022, followed by 92 percent of the top 25 sales in 2023.

How has photo-matching been reflected in the value of game-worn memorabilia?

Across the board, a conclusive photo-match — particularly one conducted by leading authenticator MeiGray — has provided a palpable boost in valuation for items previously lacking in such specificity.

MeiGray President Barry Meisel has been a believer in the power of photo-matching since 1997, when MeiGray first came onto the scene. His believed in the scalability of photo-matching across all sports, which bucked the prevailing trend at the time. As MeiGray’s reputation grew, along with its partnerships with leagues such as the NFL, NBA and NHL, the company became a trusted source for collectors and provided an element of authentication capable of elevating the value of an item to new heights.

A game-worn Mickey Mantle jersey soared in value when it was photo-matched to the 1968 season. (Photo credit: Heritage Auctions)
A game-worn Mickey Mantle jersey soared in value when it was photo-matched to the 1968 season. (Photo credit: Heritage Auctions)

A perfect example is a 1968 Mickey Mantle jersey, which first sold at Heritage in 2017 for $486,000 without a photo-match. Three years later, an additional piece of documentation from Resolution Photomatching “noting probable matches to other games” was added to the item’s lot description. While falling short of conclusive, the added detail bolstered the credibility of the jersey’s authenticity — ultimately driving the final price to $850,000 (an ROI of nearly 75 percent in less than four years).

By the time Heritage offered the same item again in 2023, the jersey’s pedigree had attained new heights. Multiple conclusive photo matches tied it to at least seven images from the 1958 season, making it the earliest all-original pinstriped Mantle jersey in existence.

This newly uncovered information drove the jersey’s value to $4,680,000 — a boost of 450.6 percent (over 862 percent since the 2017 sale).

It’s no wonder Heritage Auctions sends nearly all of its game-worn material out to be photo-matched.

“There's such a price difference between a jersey that is photo matched versus not photo-matched,” Heritage Auctions consignment director Jason Simmons said

For some of the most detail-oriented collectors, photo-matching can be the source of incredible arbitrage. In the case of one industry expert, outworking the auction house is part of the game.

During one December 2020 auction at Goldin, a 2002-03 Michael Jordan game-worn Wizards warm-up shirt was lacking a photo-match. With only a letter of authenticity, there was no way for the casual observer to notice anything out of the ordinary — besides, of course, a piece from Jordan’s final season.

Blowing past the opening bid of $1,500, one collector went to the mat, driving the price to $91,200. Certainly, an overpay based on everything known about the shirt at that moment, but his decade-plus of experience studying Getty images gave him an advantage. He knew it wasn’t merely a shirt from Jordan’s last season.

It was the shooting shirt from his last game.

Less than two years later, he sold the newly-pedigreed piece of Jordan history for $900,000.

Picasso & Jordan

It doesn’t take long while listening to game-worn proponents wax poetic about their beloved hobby before the comparison to fine art is inevitably breached. To many, especially the Gen X cohorts who came of age in the '90s, collecting Michael Jordan is no different than Andy Warhol. And, crucially, they believe a Jordan Finals jersey deserves to be treated as fine art.

Though we might be a ways off from true parity in that regard, Sotheby’s has given its full stamp of approval — building a robust sports department and brokering private and public sales with the same expertise they bring to their traditional categories.

A November 2023 announcement of a partnership with the NBA, making Sotheby’s the league’s official game-worn source, has bolstered the auction house's ability to source and authenticate items directly from the league.

Due to the nature of this partnership, which assures provenance and chain-of-custody to the highest standard, Wachter has a unique view on the evolution of authentication. Not only will photo-matching continue to play an important role, but Wachter has faith in the power of provenance moving forward — becoming a crucial element of the type of storytelling that can drive accelerated interest among buyers.

More than 50 percent of bidders in Sotheby’s streetwear and modern collectibles auctions were new to the auction house, with 46 percent coming from the Millennial and Gen-Z generations.

The combination of cultural caché, the mainstream acceptance of authentication methods such as photo-matching, and establishment players such as Sotheby’s embracing the sports memorabilia category, has driven the game-used trend to record heights.

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct. You can follow him on X at @Will__Stern.