O.J. Simpson: Inside the Memorabilia Trade

The Juice is loose no more. Orenthal James Simpson was found guilty late Friday for his participation last year in a bizarre armed robbery and kidnapping incident in Las Vegas. Simpson was convicted on 12 counts for leading five associates on a raid of a guest room at the Palace Station Hotel-Casino and making off with hundreds of gewgaws related to his career. To get a sense of the multi-million dollar sports memorabilia trade's shadier side, NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker spoke with Bill Huggins, who owns the House of Cards memorabilia shop in Silver Spring, Md., and runs one of the larger online memorabilia auctions. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You may have heard that O.J. was convicted.
Bill Huggins:
I watched the whole thing last night! Thomas Riccio [who set up the meeting between Simpson and the memorabilia dealers], I've known him for years. He's always been a little on the shady side. When I heard his name was involved in this thing, I knew something mysterious was going on. I don't know who the legal owner of this stuff is.

Is there a very shady element to the sports memorabilia trading business?
In relation to autographs and or counterfeit or reproduction cards being passed off as originals, absolutely.

How much of your job involves sussing out what's real and what isn't?
We're a big auction company and all of our autographs and cards go through major third-party authentication before they reach our catalogue. It's hard to tell some guy that, gosh, he has had this card in his family for 40 years and the story that dad and grandpa have been telling him just isn't right. It's tough sometimes.

How much sports memorabilia is owned by the players themselves typically?
It's up to them, how much they keep and how much they sell. Back when O.J. was playing, they weren't changing uniforms every 10 minutes—or every inning in baseball or every timeout in basketball—so they would be truly "game used."

Do they do that? Change uniforms a lot so they can sell them?
Cal Ripken, when he was doing the streak, was changing jerseys every inning. Changing socks, changing bats, changing hats. They literally had a wardrobe ready for him so they could say, "Hey this jersey was worn by Cal Ripken in a major league game when he was approaching the end of the streak." A lot of it comes down to meeting demand. A lot of guys have this phobia where they don't want to sign, they don't want their stuff out there. If there's no supply and big demand, guess what: somebody's going to fill that supply with bogus stuff.

What's the demand for O.J. memorabilia today?
Very little.

What's a rookie card worth?
Book value, it would probably list for $75 or $100. I don't know anybody who's collecting O.J. memorabilia right now. If they're buying an O.J. Simpson card, it's to fill a set and he is classified as "another card I need," rather than the "O.J. rookie card that I need."

So why would he go to such lengths to get his stuff back?
If you ask me: bad advice, or he made a horribly bad decision. How dumb can he be? I just don't get it. Especially with his past, you would think this guy would be squeaky clean for the rest of his life. Go get a U.S. Marshal if you have the rights to this stuff. Go get the state police.

You go to a lot of trade shows. Have you seen him make an appearance?
We were at the national convention in Chicago two years ago. All of a sudden there was a buzz: O.J. Simpson was in the room. From what I understand he walked in with his little entourage, set up at a table, and they were signing autographs and taking money! The show promoter found out about it, got some security and ordered him out of the building. All he did was walk across the street to the Embassy Suites hotel where I was staying. And they set him up in there and there was a line there for a couple of hours—people paying money to get his autograph.

All under the table?
I didn't see any tax collectors.

I thought there wasn't a demand for his stuff. How much was he collecting per signature?
A hundred bucks, in that area. The only guys I know who would want his autograph are guys who are collecting Heisman trophy winners on a football helmet. Guys who collect Hall of Famers. They haven't thrown him out of the Hall of Fame. Yet.