When I was in junior high school, Enron collapsed — and I followed the coverage daily, transfixed by the blend of brilliance and incredible stupidity. When Enron memorabilia started popping up on eBay as former employees looked to rebuild their lives, I was a buyer: Enron pens, an Enron lunchbox, Enron stationery, Enron mousepads, and my personal favorite: an Enron Code of Ethics. I probably spent less than $200 on the whole collection and it gives me great pleasure — and serves as a reminder of the dangers of hubris (and off-balance sheet accounting).
My fascination struck me as a little morbid, but it’s got nothing on this: While Jerry Sandusky’s athletic and moral reputation collapsed in the wake of his conviction on 45 counts of child molestation, the market for his signature has positively boomed. A used Penn State hat signed by Sandusky sold for $255, and signed copies of his memoir Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story have sold for anywhere from $50 to $200. One entrepreneur made $80 marketing his combination of a vintage Penn State jacket, a Sandusky Football Camp t-shirt, and a coach’s whistle as a “tasteless Halloween costume.”
Most creepy of all, a Penn State mini-helmet signed by Sandusky recently sold on eBay for $202.50 with seventeen bids–perhaps bolstered by what came with it: the program from a 2003 gala for The Second Mile, the foundation Sandusky founded to groom victims for his sex crimes. The Pennsylvania sports memorabilia dealer who sold it (he declined to be named) was at the 2003 fundraiser where Sandusky signed the helmet — and was puzzled by the interest when he listed it on a whim. He does remember a phone call with the buyer: “He was so excited to get this. I didn’t really delve into it. He was like ‘I can’t wait.’ I just kinda left it at that.” The buyer also, he says, wanted to know whether he had shaken hands with Sandusky.
Far from killing the value of his signature, Sandusky’s crimes have given owners of his autograph some of the best rates of return on collectibles anywhere; he’s gone from also-ran assistant coach to among the most valued signatures in the world of living sports coaches. By comparison, a book signed by Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s legendary basketball coach, can be had for less than $10 and a book signed by Joe Paterno recently sold for just $30.95.
Collector fascination with objects related to infamous criminals is nothing new; Andy Kahan, director of the Houston Police Department’s Crime Victims Office, coined the term Murderabilia to describe objects related to prominent killers, and eBay has gotten press for pulling auctions that violate its policy against offering such items–but the Sandusky pieces generating bids don’t violate that rule because they’re not related to murders.
Kahan predicts that once Sandusky is “settled into prison,” he may begin corresponding with people who send him letters offering sympathy. Some will come from people who identify with him, and others will come from dealers hoping to score a Sandusky prison letter they can list on eBay.
“This is probably just the beginning of the merchandising and marketing of Sandusky as a convicted pedophile,” he says.
As for the helmet’s buyer? He also declined to be named but said he bought it as a $200 gag gift for a sports-themed Yankee Swap; “Everybody will, I hope, laugh,” he said. He added that his wife wasn’t so sure about that.