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Business Observer Thursday, Apr. 2, 2009 10 years ago

The Collector

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John Osterweil has turned a childhood passion for memorabilia into a successful enterprise that helps charities.

John Osterweil has turned a childhood passion for memorabilia into a successful enterprise that helps charities.


The passion for John Osterweil started in 1955, when he was a boy in Savannah, Ga. He loved acquiring, trading and selling old coins, pictures or baseballs signed by pro players.

As he grew up, he pursued other things, including attending school for five years to become a rabbi. In Israel, his Talmud professor, after listening to Osterweil talk about his mission of buying as many ancient coins as he could there, had a suggestion.

“He said you should think of becoming a capitalist,” says Osterweil, founder and chief executive officer of Memorabilia Magic, a Tampa memorabilia company. “I took his advice. I made the right decision. I have enjoyed a wonderful business life.”

Osterweil, who majored in psychology in college, came to Tampa in 1972 and worked as a city planner in the Model Cities program, helping minorities and lower-income people become more involved in economic development.

Later he owned and was president of Securex, a Tampa security guard company that employed about 1,000 people. But he eventually returned to the thing he loved: Collecting memorabilia.

“I've been collecting things for 50 years,” Osterweil says.

In 1998, he sold Securex. After having lunch with his wife Leslie on Davis Islands, playing tennis and golfing, with her polite encouragement, Osterweil formed Memorabilia Magic, which collects sports and entertainment memorabilia and sells it to charities for their live and silent auction fundraisers.

The business has grown so much that it is one of the largest of its kind in the country and serves hundreds of charity events a year throughout the United States. It often goes to the events to help with setup and takedown.

“We are having a lot of fun,” says Osterweil, 66, who describes himself as CEO, founder, president and head cheerleader. “It's a neat thing to try to do.”

The charities and non-profits it helps include Ronald McDonald House Charities, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, All-Children's Hospital and the Canterbury School. The people that attend the fundraisers for these groups have a different mindset then consumers in a store, Osterweil says.

“They want to make a contribution,” he says. “They have a good heart. Their heart dictates what they do. It's not like buying a new dress or a car. People believe in the cause.”

Early lessons
Osterweil's parents owned a toy store in Savannah and let him put some of his collectables in the store when he was a boy. Even as a child, Osterweil started selling autographed items there.

In 1958, he came back from Atlanta one day to tell his mother that he made $1,500 from selling memorabilia.

But his mom asked him what he paid to get to Atlanta, how much the hotel cost and how much his meals and other expenses were. He realized he made quite a bit less.

“My parents taught me what costs were,” Osterweil says.

That's why Osterweil reins in his business costs at Memorabilia Magic. Rather than hire dozens of full-time people, he hires vendors to do some tasks, such as getting the memorabilia to the auctions.

When Osterweil started Memorabilia Magic, he began by looking at periodicals and researching charity events in the Tampa Bay area that did fundraisers. Then he searched nationally.

“There are 500,000 charity events in the United States every year,” he recalls. “It's limitless.”

A lot of charities want items donated and Memorabilia does that sometimes. But its main business is selling memorabilia on consignment. That means that it sells an item, like a signed baseball, at cost plus overhead. The charity then auctions that item and keeps the difference.

Sometimes that difference can be significant.

For example, Memorabilia Magic acquired a signed Lance Armstrong racing jersey for $2,500. The charity that bought it in California auctioned it for $25,000.

A shadowbox signed by President Barack Obama, which Memorabilia Magic sold to the charity for $2,500 brought $7,500 at the charity's auction in Boston.

A Miley Cyrus autographed guitar, sold for $1,500 and attracted $6,000 at auction.

“We are trying to offer value-added items for these events,” Osterweil says.

However, the more common scenario is that an item Memorabilia Magic sells for $100 brings $150 to $250 at an auction. There are no written contracts, but the company provides the cost, a suggested minimum bid, a projected sales range and a lifetime guarantee of authenticity for every autograph. The charities get an invoice at the end of the auction and only pay for the items that are sold.

“They usually sell at 50 to 150% more than what the charity pays,” Osterweil says.
The categories of items include baseball, football, golf, hockey, auto racing, basketball, entertainment, event tickets, historical, tennis, boxing, horse racing and cycling.

Authenticity matters
The key in this industry is authenticity. Many individuals and companies have sullied the business with phony signatures.

“It is a huge problem,” Osterweil says. “That's why organizations come to us. We have a high degree of authenticity.”

Memorabilia Magic secures that by knowing who it is dealing with. It directly gets the memorabilia from athletes or it buys it from reputable companies that document the authenticity.

The companies arrange for athletes to do a number of signings and pay them. The companies then resell the signed items to companies like Memorabilia Magic.

While Osterweil is making a profit, has seen revenues rise every year and wants to continue that pace, he says his main motivation is helping the charities and non-profits.

“I sold a company, so I'm not doing this to eat,” he says. “We're making sure needs are being met. We would love to find a cure for cancer, a treatment for spinal cord injuries. That's what motivates us as a company.”

Osterweil and his small staff have to keep up with what is popular so the company can get charities the items that will bring the highest auction sales.

What is hot now, Osterweil says, includes current and former athletes and entertainers such as Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and Jimmy Buffett.

Memorabilia Magic secured a certificate for a one-on-one live golf lesson with Tiger Woods and even tickets for a trip to Scotland.

Looking to the future, Osterweil wants to keep growing the company, reaching more oranizations.

Osterweil's son, who earned an MBA, helps him with planning.

“I'm more of a seat-of-the-pants guy,” Osterweil admits.

Part of what motivates him in business is the powerful rush he gets from accomplishment and enjoying the daily journey of building the company.

“Every day, if you feel like you can do something worthwhile, it makes you feel pretty damn good,” Osterweil says. “You try to do the best you can every day. The first 100 years are the hardest.”

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