Tips of the Trade
Collecting Japanese Memorabilia
Simeon Lipman shows his Japanese memorabilia collection.
Menko cards are synonymous with color.
Japanese bromides consist of photos, not drawings.
Menko cards sometimes feature American cultural heroes.
Signatures from players such as Saduraho Oh and Ichiro Suzuki are worth about $200.
His love for American baseball is what first led Simeon Lipman, a dealer at "Gotta Have It! Collectibles" in New York City, to Japanese baseball memorabilia.
Catch it while you can! Relatively new to the American market, this field currently offers great deals for the savvy collector
He explains: "My parents collected Japanese art and furniture. One day they were at a gallery in Manhattan and they saw a desk and one of the drawers was full of dozens of these Japanese baseball cards. They knew I loved baseball cards so they made a deal and brought them home and gave them to me for my 15th birthday. I'd never seen anything like them."
Simeon followed up the gift with some research and discovered that his birthday cards were called menko cards, a game that's been played in Japan for at least a hundred years. It looks like a relative to the game Pogs, and it features cards with colorful images, such as baseball players, statesmen, and even American cartoon figures like Batman and Robin. Soon, Simeon learned of other kinds of Japanese memorabilia, such as shikishi, cards with large calligraphic autographs and bromides that children purchase to put on notebooks or in scrapbooks.
While these collectibles also feature images and signatures of political figures, sumo wrestlers and others, the ones with baseball players are the most popular. We asked Simeon to tell us about these budding international collectibles and here's what he said.
While these pieces of memorabilia are foreign, Simeon reassures potential collectors that the rules for collecting them are familiar. "Value depends on the rarity, the player featured, and the condition," Simeon says. "It's similar to collecting American baseball cards in that regard."
In general, collectors will have a harder time finding Japanese paper collectibles made in the pre-World War II era than ones made in the last half of the 20th century. "These types of items are the first things to go in a society where space is at such a premium," Simeon explains, also noting that many small piles of these objects were dumped from desk drawers during the Japanese paper drives of World War II.
While today Simeon is fond of all kinds of Japanese antiques and collectibles, the younger Simeon focused primarily on Japanese baseball collectibles. In researching the field he learned that baseball might also be described as Japan's national pastime. It was first played on the island in 1860, following the American version of the game by only a few years.
"I found that Japanese baseball has as rich and interesting a history as American baseball," Simeon says. "Just like our game, it has great characters and stories. If baseball is as American as apple pie then the sport is also as Japanese as sushi."
Simeon's first suggestion to potential collectors of Japanese baseball memorabilia is to educate yourself about their sport. He recommends You've Gotta Have Wa, by Robert Whiting ("wa" is the Japanese word for harmony), a popular book about Japanese baseball for American fans of the game and those interested in the island nation. To learn more about Japanese baseball collectibles, read The Japanese Baseball Card Checklist and Price Guide, put out by Prestige Collectibles, a Japanese baseball memorabilia company.
When you're ready to buy, an Internet search for "Japanese baseball collectibles" will bring up the few dealers who trade these items. Traders of Japanese memorabilia also congregate at eBay. Sports auction houses, such as MastroNet Inc., have been dealing Japanese baseball memorabilia ever since the first Japanese players entered the American major leagues in the 1960s. With the major league success of Japanese players such as pitcher Hideo Nomo and 2001 MVP outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, even major auction houses are selling Japanese baseball memorabilia.
Perhaps the most popular of the Japanese baseball collectibles are the colorful menko cards. Manufacturers release them with images of baseball players, but also with images of other things children are interested in: dinosaurs, monsters, sumo wrestlers and cartoon characters. "Anything and everything has been depicted on these cards," Simeon says. Menko is a game as much as a collectible, played by tossing cards. If you turn over your opponent's cards you win them. The back sides of the cards also feature games, such as card images (jack of spades, for example) or the images for the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
Still, menko cards have never become as hot a collectible as baseball cards are in this country. "When you look at them in comparison to American baseball cards, and when you consider their relative rarity and their graphical beauty, they're a bargain," says Simeon, noting that most but the premier menko cards can be had for under $100. He does expect, though, that they will rise steadily in value as more Americans discover them.
Autographs as Art
The shikishi autographs are more an adult collectible than the bromides and the menko cards. "Calligraphy in Japan has always been an important art form," Simeon says. That's why these Japanese autographs, which double as art, are larger than the typical American signatures. When players from an entire team sign the cards, they sign them in a pattern similar to the rays of the sun, imitating the sun pattern on the Japanese flag. "Athletes and statesmen sign them and they're cherished as mementos," Simeon says.
When Simeon started collecting Japanese baseball memorabilia in the 1980s it was more of a novelty than a collectible. Then, there were only a few of American servicemen in Japan who would send material to American collectors. "One of the most fascinating aspects of collectibles is their growing international appeal," Simeon says. "These Japanese items are brand-new collectibles. I think we'll be seeing more of them."
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Sports Memorabilia category:
The Original Dream Team (Tucson, 2007)
The Mystery of the Baseball Cufflink (Omaha, 2005)
Winter Olympic Memorabilia
Baseball Collectibles: Hitting a Home Run
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.