Harlan J. Werner attended his first sports card show when he was 13 years old.
That show just happened to be the very first National Sports Collectors Convention in Los Angeles in 1980.
“I was mesmerized,” Werner said. “I got hooked and really it’s been a love affair off and on for four decades.”
Werner was so enthralled with sports collectibles that he soon dove head-first into the hobby, buying and selling cards at local shops and shows. At age 17, he promoted his first card show. A year later, he opened his own card shop and hobby store.
One of his first big shows was a 1986 charity auction he ran for Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson that raised nearly $200,000 for two Detroit hospitals. After the show, Anderson became a role model and mentor to Werner, often referring to him as “my boy.”
Two years later, at age 21, Werner promoted one of the largest shows in the country, attracting such sports legends as Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Sandy Koufax, Pete Rose, Don Drysdale, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali to sign autographs at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.
As a young sports entrepreneur, Werner was so good at engaging and schmoozing with high-profile athletes that The LA Times once called him the “Heavyweight of Hustle.” Noted sports fan and former President George W. Bush knows him simply as “card boy.”
For more than 40 years, Werner has been a collector, dealer and show promoter as well as the president and CEO of Sports Placement Service, Inc., a sports licensing and marketing company that represents retired athletes. He has worked with such legendary athletes as Jim Brown, Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale and Mike Tyson, and represented Muhammad Ali and his family for more than 20 years. He currently represents such icons as Koufax, Joe Namath, John Riggins, Fernando Valenzuela and Clayton Kershaw, and has worked recently with such Hollywood celebrities as Sylvester Stallone, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner.
His latest project is The Memorabilia Network, an auction house/financial services/consulting firm that specializes in sports, entertainment and music memorabilia. The focus of the new company is not only selling memorabilia, but telling the stories of collectors and collections on a platform where “the collectors are the stars.”
Werner’s idea for the new company stems, in part, from years of frustration and disappointment with the evolution of the sports collectible industry. He has watched the hobby evolve into a cut-throat, billion-dollar industry he barely recognizes. And he believes there are better ways to market collectibles and service the needs of collectors.
The hobby, he says, has been “very friendly” to buyers and sellers in the industry, “but not really toward the consumer.”
“That’s kind of tilted a little bit the last few years in the consumer’s favor with all the different selling platforms and the daily auctions and the competition, but for a long time it really wasn’t all that favorable,” he said. “… Our industry has had a reputation for a long time of kind of doing what was best for the industry but not really what was best for the consumer.”
Werner says the hobby has suffered over the years from “decades of incompetence and arrogance,” and he sees the same thing happening now in what has quickly become a booming industry fueled by big companies and wealthy investors.
“When you and I were collecting cards, we were nerds, we were geeks, we were the outcasts, and now card dealers are being featured in TV shows and magazines and radio and they are celebrities and people are getting full of themselves,” he said. “The reality of it is, we sell cardboard, we sell memorabilia. We are not curing cancer, we are not saving the world. … If you look at every time there has been a problem in the hobby, it all comes down to the same thing.”
Werner offers two recent examples that soured him on the current industry.
Having represented Ali for years, he has owned some of the largest Ali collections in the hobby.
Two years ago, he sent some signed Ali items to one of the hobby’s largest grading companies to have the autographs authenticated. The pieces were rejected, he said, because the authenticator did not recognize the signature.
“I was shocked and dumbfounded because I was an honorary pallbearer at his memorial, I worked for him for 20 years, I traveled with him all over the world, he stayed at my house,” Werner said. “You would think that a guy who worked for Ali for 20 years and conducted a majority of the signings and traveled with him to all the shows, I would have some acknowledge about Muhammad Ali [and his signature]. But they were like, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t know this signature.’”
Werner said the rejection felt like a slap in the face and made him highly suspicious of the grading and authentication side of the hobby.
“I felt my entire life before me was being taken away, that my story was being taken away by people who render opinions,” he said. “In the beginning, it was only supposed to be opinions, but opinions have now become factual. People are paying millions of dollars for autographs, but you get people who are being paid $50 to render an opinion.”
In another instance, Werner says he represented a family whose grandfather once worked on a movie set with Babe Ruth. The family had a collection of memorabilia signed by Ruth, including photos of Ruth with the family and personal letters from the Babe. When told they would have to spend several thousand dollars to have the items authenticated, the family was astonished and decided not to sell.
“When I said to him this stuff is incredible, but you are going to have to get it authenticated and it’s probably going to be about $5,000-$6,000, he stopped and said, ‘What the f--- are you telling me?’” Werner said. “He said, ‘Harlan, look at these items, they are signed to my parents, here are my parents standing with Babe Ruth in front of Paramount Studios. How and why would I have to get this stuff authenticated?’
“And I said, ‘Well, the nature of the business is, they have convinced people that if it is not authenticated, it is not real.’ And he said, ‘I’m not interested in selling my items, I can’t do that.’”
Werner says the incident was another shocking revelation about the hobby.
“I realized that he and I were in the same boat,” he said. “I have worked with several iconic celebrities and athletes and I have people telling me that my stuff needs to be authenticated. I said, ‘OK, there has got to be another option.”
A NEW VENTURE
Werner’s latest venture will market sports and entertainment memorabilia by telling the stories of collectors and their collections and “giving people a voice and a platform to tell their stories.” The Memorabilia Network has a production studio in Burbank, Calif. that it will use to produce videos for its website and other platforms.
Werner, who has worked on several movie productions, including the 2009 documentary “Tyson” and the 30 for 30 "One Night in Vegas," believes a collector’s story should be enough to guarantee the authenticity of a collection or piece of memorabilia.
“I love stories and I always like to hear from collectors and I like to know why they bought something and where it came from,” he said. “So, I’m empowering collectors and fans who have sports, music and Hollywood memorabilia to share their stories and create a platform where I am giving people that I vet out the ability to put them in a studio and put them online and let them share their stories.
“I am going to try and give people a different way and a different platform to market their stuff.”
Werner, the president and CEO of the company, has assembled an impressive roster of experts in the sports and entertainment memorabilia industries, including COO Dan Nelles, a former sports specialist at Julien’s; Mike Gutierrez, the former on-air appraiser for “Antiques Roadshow” and a former consignment director at Heritage Auctions; and David Elkouby, a Hollywood memorabilia expert who owns The Hollywood Show pop culture convention. The company’s board of directors includes former Baseball Hall of Fame President Tim Mead; noted sports agent Dennis Gilbert; Dan Romanelli, the founder of Warner Brothers Consumer Products and Warner Brothers Studio Stores; and well-known tour manager Marty Hom, who has managed such musical acts as Beyonce, Barbara Streisand, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones.
The Memorabilia Network will conduct a handful of memorabilia auctions each year, but also work with collectors on appraising their items and deciding how best to market and sell them.
The company will focus on rare, unique items that he says might not get much attention or promotion at larger auction houses.
“Everybody has heard about the $12 million card and the Wagner card, but for everybody who has heard about that, they have not heard about the backup singer from a band that has a bunch of stuff and they haven’t heard about the grip on a TV show that has some great stuff,” he said. “ The [big auction houses] don’t have interest in that and a lot of people would not have interest in it because it’s not worth enough for their time. But, for me, there are great stories behind that.”
THE INAUGURAL TMN AUCTION
The Memorabilia Network’s first auction, which runs from Oct. 24 through Nov. 6, features more than 250 Ali collectibles Werner has acquired over the years, including such rare items as prayer beads, religious and spiritual writings, hand-written notes, artwork created by Ali, and assorted toys and trinkets he used to perform magic tricks.
The collection also includes such high-end items as:
• A series of Ali portraits painted by pop artist Andy Warhol and signed by both Ali and Warhol.
• A signed passport presented to Ali during his 1978 trip to Bangladesh, including a photo of the signing by famed photographer Howard Bingham.
• A white robe Ali wore while training for his 1975 “Thrilla in Manilla” fight against Joe Frazier.
Other intriguing sports memorabilia in the auction include:
• High school yearbooks signed multiple times by student and star athlete Jackie Robinson.
• A Cy Young-signed baseball.
• A signed ticket from Sandy Koufax’s 1965 perfect game.
• More than 2,000 signed magazines from the 1950s and ’60s, including a 1956 Sports Illustrated signed by cover boy Mickey Mantle.
• A Jack Nicklaus-signed and worn golf glove.
• A 1991-92 game-worn LSU Tigers jersey signed and inscribed by Shaquille O’Neal.
• A complete set of 1952 Topps Baseball cards graded by PSA, with the ’52 Mantle carrying a grade of 2.5.
• A signed, game-worn Clayton Kershaw jersey from career win No. 99.
• Game-worn and signed Magic Johnson shoes from the 1980s.
• A San Francisco 49ers helmet signed by Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, John Taylor and Vin Scully, and featuring a diagram of the play that led to “The Catch.”
Entertainment memorabilia includes:
• A black Remo tambourine used on stage by Prince in the 1990s.
• A Bill Whitten-designed glove worn on stage by Michael Jackson during his 1980s “Bad” tour.
• A three-piece suit worn by Gene Hackman as Lex Luther in “Superman II.”
“For a first auction, for a launch, there is some really cool stuff and there is something for everybody,” Werner says.
Though the auctions will feature both authenticated and unauthenticated memorabilia, the people and stories behind those items are just as important, Werner said.
“Our company is just giving people an option and it’s really about the story and it’s really about how you got it, it’s really about the living provenance,” he said. “So many great items in our business have been sold over the years and the people who own them don’t know anything about them.
“I am interested to hear how someone acquired a Mickey Mantle item or a baseball or a bat or a jersey, or how this Babe Ruth item was in your family for 100 years. That will be part of the provenance.”
Werner believes The Memorabilia Network will be an attractive option for collectors because of he and his team’s experience and track record, but also because he has no investors and “zero conflicts of interest” in the industry, which he says will allow him to work with grading and authentication companies and even other auction houses.
“It’s a passion project for me and I think that the industry needs a little bit of humbling,” he said. “I am not going to get somebody giving me their million-dollar cards. I am not going to get those deals, but I am going to get once or twice a year someone giving me a big collection, whether it’s an entertainer or an athlete or just a private investor.
“I’m just trying to give people an alternative.”