Michael Jordan Jersey Authentication Story: 90% of Value Vanishes

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged Uncategorized

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At least it wasn’t 100%, but that’s a small consolation. Most problem jerseys are a total loss. This one is not.

The following is the catalog description for a 1992 Michael Jordan Olympic Jersey that will appear in the spring 2008 REA auction. It’s a valuable jersey, with an apparently ideal provenance, and would be a fine addition to many collections. But to our great disappointment, and the even greater disappointment of our consignor (and that would be an understatement), the jersey was not exactly what it was thought to be when it was purchased in the past, or accepted for consignment. The authentication process yielded results that unfortunately will have a tremendous negative impact on value. We think it’s an interesting story, and worth calling special attention to here on the REA blog.

1992 Michael Jordan Game-Issued Olympic “Dream Team” Jersey

Offered here is one of the most important items in this catalog, but not for the reasons one might imagine. Its significance lies not in what it is, but in what it is not, and the story behind it, as well as the lessons that can be learned from it, should prove to be invaluable to collectors of game-used jerseys and equipment. The tale also calls attention to the perceived notion of provenance and the valuable role MEARS plays in the authentication process.

The garment in question is a white mesh basketball jersey purported to have been worn by Michael Jordan during the 1992 Olympics. At first glance, the jersey seems to have an impeccable pedigree. This jersey was sold in 1997 by Christie’s. The catalog description noted that it had been been personally donated by Michael Jordan to a Ronald McDonald charity auction in 1993, where it sold for $19,500. The Ronald McDonald House was a favorite charity of Michael Jordan and he was always very generous to their efforts with his time and support. The jersey is accompanied by a letter from Ronald McDonald Children’s Charity of North Carolina, dated August 3, 1993 and provided at the time of its initial purchase, which states: “To Whom It May Concern: This letter is to verify that Ronald McDonald Children’s Charity of North Carolina, did, in fact, receive a Michael Jordan Authentic White 1992 Summer Olympics Game used Jersey. The jersey was purchased from us by Ron Marth for $19,500.” Ronald Marth did purchase a 1992 Michael Jordan Olympic jersey in 1993. Two 1993 newspaper articles located by REA report the details of the charity auction, both of which also identify Ron Marth as the buyer. While we don’t know if the jersey changed hands over the next four years, its next public appearance was in a Christie’s sports auction held on September 20, 1997 in New York City, where it was featured as Lot 170. It sold for $60,000. The purchaser of the jersey at that event then later sold it privately to our consignor. It has remained in his sole possession for years since this purchase.

This is a very famous Jordan jersey. It is extremely well known among Jordan collectors, and due to its well documented provenance has always held the status of being one of the true “Holy Grails” of all Jordan items. Due to the reverence accorded the legendary 1992 Men’s Basketball Olympic “Dream Team” and the fact that Jordan is widely regarded as the greatest player in NBA history, this particular jersey has universally been recognized as one of the most highly prized basketball jerseys in the entire collecting world. Its high-profile status was further enhanced when it was very prominently displayed at a special exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in 2001. 

Our consignor originally wanted to consign this jersey to our April 2007 auction, but at the time, incredible as it seemed, we already had a Michael Jordan 1992 Olympic Jersey consigned to the sale. It was the only other known example. Obviously, we couldn’t offer two such jerseys at the same time, thus it was agreed that Robert Edward Auctions would feature this jersey the following year, in our 2008 auction. When we sent the jersey to MEARS for authentication and grading (as we do with all jerseys, bats and equipment) we assumed that it was simply a formality. How in the world could the jersey not be authentic, given the provenance, documentation, and former sales history that accompanied it? Well, you can imagine the shock on our part when MEARS called to tell us the bad news: this jersey was never worn by Michael Jordan in the 1992 Olympics. It was a real team-issue shirt that could not have been purchased by the public, and was made strictly for use by Jordan at the 1992 Olympics, but absolutely never saw game use. That definitive determination was made by exhaustive research and empirical means. The 1992 Men’s Olympic Basketball Team wore this white mesh jersey style in games against Argentina, Lithuania, and Canada, and in the Gold Medal game against Croatia. MEARS examined in great detail films and game photos of Jordan from each of those four contests, and in every case the font of the letters on the jersey in the photo did not match the font displayed on the offered jersey.

What to make of this jersey then? Except for the font, it was exactly the same as the jerseys that Jordan did wear in the 1992 Olympics. The answer, it appears, is that this was an extra that Jordan simply did not wear in games. It is, of course,  possible that the jersey was used in practice, but this is speculation. All we can be certain of is that the letter implies that Jordan personally gave this very jersey to the Ronald McDonald’s Childrens Charity of North Carolina and that he did not wear this particular jersey in the Olympic games. We can also be certain that this was the very jersey sold in 1997 by Christies, described as game-worn and identified as the very jersey purchased at the 1993 charity auction, as we have the catalog and can easily match the jersey with the catalog illustrations. We can also be certain that Ron Marth did indeed purchase a 1992 Olympic Jersey for $19,500 from the Ronald McDonald charity auction, both from the accompanying letter, and also confirmed by 1993 newspaper articles we have located about the auction. In retrospect, it is possible that the jersey being offered is not the very jersey that was purchased at the charity auction, even though it has always subsequently (until now) been identified as such. The Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities letter is authentic and it is also factually accurate, but the letter does not in any way specifically link to this particular jersey. The letter only confirms that Ron Marth purchased what was identified by the charity as a “Michael Jordan Authentic White 1992 Summer Olympics Game Used Jersey.” Anything additional implied by the presence of the letter requires a leap of faith that is not justified. It is not a certainty that this is the jersey that is being referred to by letter. It could just as easily be the case that the letter was sent to the original buyer, and at a later date the letter was switched to accompany a different jersey. We will never know for sure.

There is no doubt that this jersey was manufactured expressly for Jordan. It was not available in retail stores. Given its provenance, no one previously ever thought to question its “game-used” status, and no one but MEARS thought (or went to the trouble) to check and see if the jersey matches the photographic record. In hindsight, it seems both an obvious and simple part of the verification process: check the photos. Unfortunately, it was a process that was always overlooked in the past by all interested parties. If not for MEARS’ thoroughness and due diligence, this fact would probably never have come to light. Most collectors  probably would have never even thought of sending this jersey out for authentication to MEARS, and would probably have thought the entire process to be a waste of time and money given the jersey’s accompanying provenance. There is definitely a lesson to be learned from this jersey.

The white mesh jersey is lettered “USA Basketball” on the front and “Jordan” on the reverse. The number “9″ appears on both the front and reverse. All letters and numbers have been applied by means of a heat-transfer process. The design of the front lettering is done in red and navy blue, while the name on the reverse is in solid red. All numerals are appliquéd in two-tone red on navy blue. A “Champion 46″ label is situated on the left front tail, adjacent to which is a special Champion “USA Basketball” label that reads “Designed and Tailored Exclusively for 1992 Summer Olympic Games.” An interior tag, located along the left side seam, denotes a “3 inch Extra Body Length.” Jordan has signed the jersey in black marker (”7″) along the area of the upper right chest and on the reverse. The jersey is all original, with no alterations, and displays light wear throughout.

Another “problem” with this jersey relates to the signatures. The black-marker signatures on the front and reverse of the jersey have been presented to, but not authenticated by, James Spence/JSA because the experts there were not sufficiently comfortable with them. Michael Jordan, along with a few other world-renown stars (such as Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali), is one of the most forged of all modern signatures and poses special challenges for authenticators, especially on unusual items such as jerseys. In the interest of full disclosure we feel it is important to state that we are presenting the signatures as not authenticated, but at the same time our common sense tells us that it is unlikely that a jersey personally donated by Jordan would bear a secretarial or fake signature. Of course, it is possible that Jordan did not sign the jersey at the time of its donation, but that supposition runs counter to the information at hand. In the course of our own research we contacted the current treasurer of Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Carolina and he took the time to write us a letter (included with the jersey) detailing his remembrances regarding Michael Jordan’s personal appearance at certain charity events. He writes that “In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Michael Jordan hosted the Michael Jordan Celebrity Golf Classic in Greenville, North Carolina each year.” He goes on to recount his personal remembrances of the tournament, which he attended twice during those years. “At the live auction I attended, an autographed jersey of Michael Jordan’s was auctioned off to raise money for the Ronald McDonald Houses. He was present and signed the jersey during the auction.”

It should be noted that our consignor, after receiving all of the above information, was given the option by REA of having the jersey returned to him. We also gave him the option of auctioning the jersey properly described. To his credit, he accepted all of the above facts stoically and insisted that we sell the jersey properly described, even though he realizes that it will now sell for a small fraction of what he paid for it. We believe that some unscrupulous individuals would have taken the jersey back and sold it privately, without mentioning the MEARS report. Our consignor chose the high road. Also, it should be noted that he did not approach Christies asking them to rectify the matter, both because so many years had passed and because he was not the original buyer at the Christies auction. In addition, we wish to acknowledge that we are confident that neither Christies nor their jersey experts for the sale had any knowledge that the jersey was anything other than was it was supposed to be, and the error was no doubt simply an honest mistake. The authentication process for uniforms and equipment from all sports is infinitely more thorough and sophisticated today than in years past. This Michael Jordan jersey is a prime example of this progress.

The jersey is accompanied by the following five items: 1) September 20, 1997 Christies catalog picturing the jersey front and back; 2) The original Christie’s auction tags; 3) The original Ronald McDonald Children’s Charity letter dated August 3, 1993 verifying the purchase of the jersey for $19,500. 4) The original authentication document that accompanied the jersey when purchased in 1993. 5) The letter from the Ronald McDonald House Charities dated May 21, 2007. Graded A5 by MEARS. LOA from Dave Bushing & Troy Kinunen/MEARS.  Reserve $1,000. Estimate $2,000/$4,000.

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