Game 7 of the 2019 World Series is about to start, and Michael Russek is glued to his television.
As the average baseball fan sits down to take in the biggest game of the season, Russek’s view is a little different than most. He’s paying closer attention to the smaller intricacies of the game: the threads the players are wearing, along with their batting gloves and bats.
“You run patterns in your mind and we’re always sitting there like, ‘Oh, look at that dirt stain.’ Or, ‘Look, he’s missing his button.’ We’re always picking those out,” Russek said.
As a founding partner and senior authenticator at Photo-Match.com, Russek is always fixated on what most consider minor details, but they are of utmost importance for his job. Russek knows an item prominently used in a game he’s watching could be on his office desk the following week.
Lo and behold, a jersey of Houston Astros star Jose Altuve was submitted to Photo-Match.com not long after the Astros won the World Series.
“For big events, with all of the camera angles and all of the photographers there, there’s an abundance of available imagery,” Russek said. “So, when you’re watching the game in 4K these days on the big screen, you can see these loose threads and the way the mesh orients or the way the twill stitch may be somewhat asymmetrical on a jersey.”
Russek and his team at Photo-Match.com are one of just a few companies in the third-party photo-matching industry. Becoming a hot area of the sports memorabilia business, photo matching is authenticating and placing game-used items based on photographic examples.
According to Russek, who helped start up Photo-Match.com in Scottsdale, Ariz., in mid-2018, photo matching had been around for about a decade.
“In the last four or so years, it’s really become the mainstream go-to,” Russek said. “New questions, even for new collectors is, ‘Is it photo-matched?’”
John Robinson founded Resolution Photomatching in July 2016 and has witnessed the industry’s boom from the latest authentication measure for game-used items.
“Before Resolution, grading was the most commonly used system for grading game-used items,” said Robinson, who has worked in the hobby since 2008. “Grading can be valuable, especially when an item is submitted for photo matching and conclusive photo match cannot be made. But grading is largely based on opinion, while photo matching is based on definitive photographic evidence.”
Russek said there was definitely a need for photo matching in the industry, and it is taking off.
“Game-used jerseys have been around for a while. They command a tremendous price and with that there are jerseys that are misreported and misrepresented,” said Russek, whose company signed its 1,250letter of authenticity in October. “That formal third-party certification is an important part of our hobby in general. It’s been around forever with cards; it’s been around with autographs for a long time. It’s time someone stepped up and did it formally for game-used jerseys.”
Adding photo matching to the hobby has been a gamechanger. Having the certainty that a jersey or other game-used items were spotted in a specific game or during a specific season drives up the price of that item. It makes it a 1/1 of piece, which in the sports memorabilia field is an extremely desired number.
The highest-priced game-used items on the market are the ones that have been photo-matched, noted Russek.
“With a Resolution Photomatch, we frequently see items double in value or more as compared to when they’ve sold previously without a Resolution Photomatch,” said Robinson, who has photo-matched over 1,000 items as of mid-November.
Russek said about half the material that comes into Photo-Match.com is submitted by auction houses and the other half by individual collectors. It also receives items directly from the Major League Baseball website or National Football League Auctions site. Recently, Photo-Match.com received a jersey of Houston Rockets star Russell Westbrook. The guys at Photo-Match.com knew the game Westbrook had worn the threads, wearing one jersey in the opening half and a different one in the second half.
“It was nice we were able to conclusively put it on his back for the second half when he did nail that triple-double,” Russek said.
The individual collector who submits an item to Photo-Match.com is either looking to purchase something and want to make sure it’s authentic or looking to add value to something they’ve had in their collection for a long time.
“The part of the beauty is you may have had a jersey in your collection for 15 years, you submit it to us and we run it through the process and we get a conclusive match -- now that same jersey which you had that hasn’t changed is now worth double or triple,” Russek said. “Really what photo matching is is not only the fact that it’s authentic, if we can tie to a certain event, maybe a milestone home run or a team winning a World Series or an event within the history of the organization, that’s really when the value starts multiplying.”
Robinson figures 35-40 percent of the items he authenticates are submitted by auction houses. The rest are by individual collectors.
It’s an intricate process
Photo-Match.com primarily focuses on photo matching jerseys, but will do game-used equipment: balls, bats, gloves, helmets, football helmets and basketball sneakers. It has also dabbled in matching Hollywood memorabilia. Recently, it matched Eddie Murphy’s Detroit Lions bomber jacket from Beverly Hills Cop.
Resolution Photomatching works with items from all major professional sports, with the most popular being baseball, basketball, football and hockey. The most common items Robinson photo matches are jerseys, bats, helmets, shoes/cleats, hats and gloves.
Both companies strive for the same result -- making a conclusive match -- but the two get there through different processes.
Photo-Match.com has two levels of service for items. The first is a quick match, where the item doesn’t need to be submitted to the company. Photo-Match.com can get the image and verify at least placement of an item and conclude that all points match. However, false positives might not be able to be detected since the sports memorabilia hobby has so many fake items floating around these days. Without shipping the item and having it in hand, Photo-Match.com won’t guarantee a photo match. The full-service option through Photo-Match.com requires the item be sent in to get a conclusive match.
Resolution Photomatching, which has a three-person team conducting its photo matching, never requires that an item be sent in. The photo-matching process is done by having the owner of the piece send specific photos of all areas of the item, including any manufacturing tagging.
“This allows us to see everything we would be able to see if we had the item in-person, but makes things a lot easier for our clients,” Robinson said. “That’s another part of our service that our clients really appreciate.”
Photo-Match.com uses its panel of 10 industry-experienced authenticators who specialize in certain areas of the hobby. By using a panel, it is able to cast a wide net and generally come back with plenty of examples to be able torank and weight them, noted Russek.
“There is a comfort level in understanding the jerseys themselves before we even start the process,” said Russek, who specializes in game-used jerseys. “Then when we narrow down a year range, then it’s about going and matching it up to our databases that we have of available images, pulling the high-resolution images in their best quality and being able to zoom in and pick out these unique oddities that would quote unquote, make a conclusive match.
"A lot of it is, you need the right photo at the right angle.”
Collectors can submit items to Resolution Photomatching through its website or via email. Once Robinson receives photos and any pertinent information about the item, he’ll give a price quote based on a formula. Once the quote is accepted, Resolution Photomatching researches the history of the item and potential characteristics for photo matching.
“From there we begin our image research process,” Robinson said. “We have the most thorough research process in the industry, using 20-plus photo and video sources on each search. If a matching image is in existence, we will find it. We also have licensing contracts with our sources, so we can use the images legally and view them at maximum image clarity. After we complete our image research, we go through our comparison analysis process, which is perhaps the most important part of our overall process. If the item passes our comparison analysis, we are able to make the determination of a conclusive photo match. We make our letter of photo match and photo match graphics for the item. And then those documents are sent out to the collector.”
Photo-Match.com also has the capability to put together an animated video for each item it conclusively photo matches. The video highlights and walks through all the match points in what helped determine the item was legit.
“I think animating your match is a really big piece of the puzzle that we are on the forefront of,” Russek said. “That’s putting it into a video clip and showing movement and animation. I don’t think anyone else in the industry is doing it, and I’m really excited about that. We have this technology that we can offer to our clients.”
Photo matching historic pieces
One of the most interesting animation videos Photo-Match.com has put together to date is on a red mesh jersey worn by Michael Jordan in the 1984 Olympics. The Photo-Match.com team conclusively matched the jersey through a series of photos taken during pre-trials in Los Angeles.
“We went directly to the photographer that was there and got some images that he did not post online that were in his private archives,” Russek said. “So, going back and forward with him and really doing the legwork and him digging out photos that he never knew he had. He found a shot of Jordan on the bench sitting next to (Patrick) Ewing that we were able to make a conclusive match on, it’s truly amazing. It’s the earliest photo match Jordan jersey in the hobby and the only photo match USA Olympic jersey of Jordan’s, period.”
It also became the most expensive basketball jersey ever sold. In June 2017, it went at auction for a record $273,904.
Another cool piece – and its earliest piece that it has ever definitively matched -- that Photo-Match.com was able to authenticate and match was a 1905 Princeton University football jersey. Someone purchased the jersey at a flea market and sent it to Photo-Match.com. By using a team photo of the 1905 Tigers that showed a slight tear on the left elbow along with other evidence, it was discovered the sweater belonged to All-American Norm Tooker. That jersey later sold at auction for $52,417.
A few other pieces Photo-Match.com has matched include four of five jerseys of New York Yankees great Mickey Mantle, including a 1953 game-worn road flannel that is autographed; a jersey game-used and autographed from the 1960 season of Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas; and a unique jersey of Julius Erving’s from 1975-76 when he was in the ABA with the New York Nets.
Resolution Photomatching has also had its fair share of epic pieces it has been able to photo match. At the top of the list for Robinson is a 1932 jersey that New York Yankees legend Babe Ruth wore during the Games 1 and 2 of the World Series that season as well as opening day when he stroked a home run.
“I think most would agree with me that with the conclusive photo matches, it is the most significant item in the hobby,” Robinson said.
Resolution Photomatching has also matched a bat used by Hall of Fame baseball player Ty Cobb during his final two seasons in the big leagues. The company has matched a bunch of Jordan jerseys, too.
“We also photo-matched our first basketball recently from a Golden State Warriors game that I thought was really cool,” Robinson said.
With photo matching still in its infancy, there is quite a bit of room to grow. Both Robinson and Russek agree that this area of the hobby is just going to continue to grow.
“I think we’ve gotten to the point where a majority of collectors in the hobby have realized the importance of photo matching,” Robinson said. “But in the coming years I think we’ll continue to get more of the old-school collectors who still don’t have a complete understanding of it yet.”
Said Russek: “I think this industry is as strong as it’s ever been, sports memorabilia in general. I believe we’re poised to do more in the next 10 years, and it’s going to go to art market prices. Photo matching’s going to be a big portion of that.”