The Curious Case Of Kobe Bryant’s Memorabilia: Will He Get It Back?

According to legal documents, for over fifteen years, Kobe Bryant’s mother, Pamela, held onto many of the mementos documenting her son’s illustrious basketball career.  Like many mothers before her, Pamela alleges that she asked Kobe if he wanted the items back.  Like many children before him, Kobe allegedly retorted that he did not.  Needing space in her home to create a playroom for her grandchildren, Pamela says that she placed a variety of Kobe’s basketball mementos into a storage facility, which cost her $1,500 monthly.  

While the course Pamela took in storing her son’s mementos is something many mothers before her have done before, the next move she made is one few have ever taken.  On December 27, 2012, Pamela allegedly contacted Goldin Auctions, offering a variety of Kobe’s items she was holding in storage for sale.  On January 2, 2013, Pamela signed a consignment agreement with Goldin Auctions.  In the agreement, she guaranteed that she was the sole owner of the consigned items and that she had full and clear title to the items.  She also agreed to be charged a commission rate of 20 percent from the items’ final bid prices, meaning that she would reap 80 percent of the price that they were sold for.  Upon signing the agreement, she was wired an advance of $450,000 on January 3, 2013.

Pamela did the foregoing without Kobe Bryant’s knowledge.  In fact, he remained oblivious to the above for over three months.  During that time, his mother allegedly took the $450,000 transferred to her by Goldin Auctions and put a down payment on a home in Nevada.  Goldin Auctions began preparing to sell the memorabilia Pamela had given it.  Part of that preparation included publicizing the auction.  It was only through those publicity efforts, which culminated in an April 30 press release picked up by national media outlets, that Kobe got wind of his mother’s intent to auction off many of his basketball mementos.

A story line like this has only one reasonable finishing place:  court.  Upon seeing the press release, Kobe Bryant hired law firm Loeb & Loeb LLP to issue a cease and desist letter to Goldin Auctions, demanding that it return the items to Kobe and forego the auction.  Then, Kobe sought a temporary restraining order in Orange County, CA in an effort to stall the auction’s June 2013 date.  This order was granted.  Subsequently, Goldin Auctions filed a lawsuit against Kobe in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.  Days later, Kobe filed a lawsuit against Goldin Auctions in California state court.  Goldin Auctions’ New Jersey lawsuit has been set for trial, which is to begin on June 17.  It is likely that Kobe’s lawsuit will be transferred to that court and the actions will be consolidated.

The question remains, though, as to whether or not Kobe will get the items he claims are his back from Goldin Auctions.  In his lawsuit, Kobe alleges causes of action for conversion and declaratory relief.  The conversion cause of action alleges that at all times, Kobe was lawfully entitled to possession of the items Goldin Auctions received from his mother and planned sell.  The declaratory relief cause of action asks the court to determine that Kobe had the right to possess the property exclusive of all others and that Goldin Auctions must return the property to him.  

In its lawsuit, Goldin Auctions seeks temporary and permanent injunctive relief, preventing Kobe from regaining the property.  Goldin Auctions also seeks delcaratory judgment that it is the legal owner of the memorabilia Pamela Bryant consigned to it.

The crux of both cases boils down to whether Kobe Bryant actually granted ownership of the items to his mother, or if she constructively owned them.  Goldin Auctions’ lawsuit includes allegations that Kobe and his wife, Vanessa, told Pamela that they did not want the items and that he said, “here mom, these are for you.”  On the contrary, Kobe’s lawsuit alleges that he has asked his mother for the items back repeatedly to no avail and that he would have never given her permanent ownership of them, as he plans to pass them on to his daughters.  Furthermore, he alleges that he believes some of the items were not in Pamela’s possession prior to being given to Goldin Auctions, but rather, in his home.

Given the differing accounts regarding the ownership of the memorabilia, is is plausible that these cases will see trial.  This is because it is unlikely that the parties will be able to reach a consensus during a pre-trial mediation as to who the owner of the property is.  To further complicate matters, Pamela Bryant is reportedly in Thailand, and thus, unlikely to be available for any pre-trial mediation.  Thus, one glaring issue likely facing a judge or jury’s decision, is who actually owned the memorabilia:  Kobe or Pamela Bryant?  As such, it will be important for both sides’ lawyers to fully construct a timeline of events related to each piece of property given to Goldin Auctions and what conversations were held or actions were taken regarding the ownership of those pieces of property between Kobe and Pamela.

While ownership of the items is the biggest issue facing each party, another hurdle stands in the way of Goldin Auctions’ claim.  In its cause of action seeking temporary and permanent injunctive relief, Goldin Auctions alleges that it will be irreparably harmed if it is not allowed to go forward with the auction.  As its basis for this allegation, Goldin Auctions alleges that it has already advanced $450,000 to Pamela Bryant and “. . . the sports memorabilia are one of a kind unique items that cannot be replaced and [Goldin Auctions] will lose all profits it rightfully expected from the auction.”  

The issue with this allegation, is that Goldin Auctions will not be irreparably harmed if it is unable to auction the items Pamela Bryant consigned to it.  As noted above, Pamela signed a consignment agreement with Goldin Auctions, whereby she warranted that she was the owner of the items.  If it turns out that Kobe was the owner of the items, Pamela breached the terms of the contract she signed with Goldin Auctions, since she was not the owner.  As such, Goldin Auctions could subsequently file a breach of contract lawsuit against her.  In this lawsuit, Goldin Auctions could remedy its harm, by  seeking as damages the $450,000 it advanced to Pamela.  Thus, it is on this argument that Goldin Auctions’ lawsuit against Kobe might fail, and thus, that Kobe may prevail in his attempt to block the auction.

Given the above, why then is Goldin Auctions moving forward with litigation against Kobe?  In all reality, it most likely boils down to money.  Obviously, Goldin Auctions sees the possibility of turning a huge profit by selling the Kobe memorabilia.  However, it also probably realizes that if it is unable to sell the memorabilia, it is unlikely to recoup the $450,000 it advanced to Pamela Bryant.  This is due to the fact that she has reportedly already spent all of it to put the down payment on the Nevada home.  From their perspective, the thought is probably that if she had to sell her son’s mementos to afford the down payment, it’s unlikely that she’ll be able to come up with another $450,000 to repay them the advancement.  Who, then, has deep enough pockets for Goldin Auctions to recuperate this loss from?  The obvious answer is Kobe.  

The outcome of this case will likely provide guidance for athletes in how they store their memorabilia going forward.  As a result, some may choose to draft written agreements with their parents fully setting out who owns any property that is stored at the parents’ homes.  The sad truth demonstrated by this situation, though, is that nothing really comes easy for athletes.  For years, grown children have stored their mementos at their parents homes without the interference of legal action.  Yet, as it oftentimes does with professional athletes and celebrities, even this simple task appears to have been complicated in this case.  

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