Is This Michael Jordan Game-Used Jersey Worth $1M or $26K? A Debate That Could Alter the Future of an Industry

Is This Michael Jordan Game-Used Jersey Worth $1M or $26K? A Debate That Could Alter the Future of an Industry article feature image

Picture by Getty Images.

The hottest growing segment of the sports collectibles space is game-used gear. But it comes with a catch: The items that are the most valuable must be photomatched.

Photomatching is the practice of taking a high resolution photo, looking at a uniform or pair of sneakers, and matching the photo to the item — most of the time by spotting some esoteric feature like a hanging thread or, better put, something that isn’t perfect.

Earlier this month presented perhaps the hobby’s most interesting case yet — and one that could alter the future of the sports collectibles industry.

A jersey, represented by Grey Flannel Auctions as game used by Michael Jordan, sold for only $26,000. For reference, Jordan's game-used jersey from Game 1 of the 1998 NBA Finals sold for $10.9 million last year.

The reason for the incredibly low sale price? No one had photomatched it to any specific games.

The buyer, still unknown, sent it to MeiGray, universally thought of as the best photomatching company and an NBA licensed authenticator. MeiGray came back with two games that Jordan wore the jersey — Games 3 and 4 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic.

Game-used Jordan jerseys can be found, but playoff jerseys are very rare. With the match, the value of the jersey might have become a $1 million shirt. This jersey would have been the only photomatched jersey that has surfaced from the Bulls' historic 72-10 season.

Michael Russek, who runs Grey Flannel, said he was surprised by the match.

“Our consignor told us he sent it to MeiGray and they came back with no match,” Russek said. “We offered to do other photomatching, but he didn’t want to waste his money.”

A MeiGray official said he couldn’t immediately figure out if that was the case, but if it was, it wouldn’t necessarily mean there was malfeasance.

Photomatching has a lot to do with what photos are available at the time. While one jersey is being photomatched, some game-used collectors may try digging for other, non-public photographs in order to make a photomatch and win the arbitrage game.

This goes as far as contacting retired NBA photographers. In some cases, non-photomatched jerseys that were bought and then photomatched have sold for more than 100 times the price at which they were bought.

Now to the controversy. When the MeiGray match was announced, collectors pointed out that two pictures of Jordan from the games in which the jersey allegedly was from did not appear to match.

One is Jordan getting interviewed by Dr. Jack Ramsay and Getty Images attributes it to Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The other photo MeiGray said was mislabeled by Getty and was likely from a regular season game against the Magic in Orlando.

“I do agree that if you look at the area near the top of the front ‘2’ the mesh holes look off,” wrote MeiGray Authenticated VP Jim Montague in a statement that the company made after being publicly challenged. “When viewing this shot as a whole, the jersey is bunched up as Jordan has his hands on his sides. Notice the ‘S’ sitting tight to the second ‘L’ and the undulation on the bottom of both of the ‘L’s. With the jersey pinched or bunched up, the mesh holes are viewed differently than if the jersey was flat.”

In the statement, MeiGray said they obtained two photos from the estate of Tony Ranze, whose photos were dated to the Eastern Conference Finals games, and those matched the jersey in question. Ranze passed away in 2006.

MeiGray added that the images were provided to them earlier this month and that they independently confirmed with the Ranze Foundation as to the authenticity of the photographs. If no one had previously seen them before, how does one know if it's an original or if it was doctored by the buyer then sent off to MeiGray?

The Ranze Foundation said in a statement that the photos sent to MeiGray are authentic and dated correctly.

MeiGray further said that Phil Jackson’s suit matched the suit he wore in Game 3 and Dennis Rodman’s hair matched the hair color he had in game 4 (blonde). The latter isn’t necessarily a good match, as Rodman changed his hair color frequently.

MeiGray’s statement didn’t allay concerns. A collector from China posted to YouTube a critique showing video clips from Game 3 and Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He said in the videos the “2” is slightly higher than the “3” on the front of MJ’s jersey, which is not the case for the photomatched jersey.

He also says that Jordan’s name on the back seen in the video during Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals has a higher arch than the photomatched jersey.

MeiGray’s two images that they looked at do appear to match. The question is: are Ranze’s photos labeled with the correct dates?

Why didn’t these photos appear anywhere else on the Internet? And if MeiGray was presented with the photos what are the odds that only the winner of the jersey had or knew about the photos?

And then there’s a question about the authenticity of the photos themselves.

For years, game-used jersey collectors have waited for a big pop in overall value. In the last two years, photomatching has led to that exponential rise.

But photomatching isn’t an exact science. This has also led to more eyeballs on those matches and more scrutiny on the matching companies, especially MeiGray, who charges the most in the industry and has the most pedigree.

It also has led to potentially nefarious opportunities. Are images being altered by opportunists? Are investors taking images and non-photomatched jerseys and altering them to create the appearance of a photomatch?

Will MeiGray’s match hold up here? Will MeiGray continue to stand by its opinion?

The collecting market will decide when and if the jersey goes up for auction next.

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