The auction market for sports collectibles is soft
November 12, 1990

And now for the latest market quotes: $16,093 for Jackie Robinson's 1950 Dodger home jersey; $3,250 for Bob Cousy's Holy Cross uniform; $4,500 for a Muhammad Ali fight robe.

The above are just some of the recent prices realized by such New York auction houses as Lelands, Guernsey's and Christie's East. But a note of warning to any fan lusting after emotional fulfillment and a quick financial killing. Unlike antique furniture and fine art, sports memorabilia do not have a price base that dates back more than a few years, and the market is very speculative; some might even term it capricious.

As befits the national pastime, baseball leads all sports in the prices its trappings command. And as founder Joshua Leland Evans of Lelands notes, trade is largely sectional. "The largest number of baseball collectors is in the New York metropolitan area," Evans says. "The Giants-Dodgers-Yankees rivalry created this passion. After New York, it's California. Third is New England, then the Midwest—Chicago in particular. The Japanese are starting to buy in a very small way. They're buying the Big Six: Mantle, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson."

Evans named his June 29 sale "The Boys of Summer Auction" because it was devoted to baseball and featured a number of Brooklyn Dodger pieces. The auction was a telephone sale, with bidders able to call in from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. the next day. An individual could bid as many times as he liked, but his bid had to top the standing price by at least 10%. Hence, the odd prices—such as the $16,093 paid for Robinson's jersey, tops among Lelands' 556 lots. The jersey came with a notarized letter that authenticated it from former minor league player James Wooton, who got it as a hand-me-down while playing for the Shawnee (Okla.) Dodgers in 1954. Back then the frugal Brooklyn front office passed old uniforms down through the farm system.

A baseball autographed for a serviceman by Babe Ruth during World War II sold for $9,983. A copy of the 1948 Yale yearbook, with a picture of captain-elect George Bush in uniform, brought $1,044. In encrusted Yale tradition, "Poppy" is shown leaning against the Fence, the traditional pose for Eli captains-elect. (The auction catalog called it simply "a fence," which should bring moans and groans from the Oval Office.)

Items from Ebbets Field had the Dodger faithful dialing in. A pair of seats went for $3,630; a light bulb from the park, shaped and painted like a baseball, for $375. Indeed, Evans recently paid $500 for a tube of dirt from Ebbets Field for his personal collection. Asked if he could afford to let his emotions get in the way of business, Evans said, "Yes, I can. It's my business." Upon such fervor is the sports collectible market based.

Last spring, Guernsey's held a sports auction on a 900-foot pier extending into the Hudson River. Almost as long was the $25 catalog, which listed 1,781 lots dealing with baseball, boxing, football, hockey, golf, basketball and art. Many lots were marked with a black dot, indicating that the item had a reserve price (a minimum selling price not known to bidders). Tradition sets the reserve at two thirds of the low estimate for an item, but that was not necessarily the case at this auction. For instance, Gehrig's retired number 4 on a square of cloth cut from one of his uniforms was estimated to go for from $48,000 to $55,000. But it was marked with a black dot, and when the bidding stopped at $36,000, it was not sold (passed in auction jargon). There were exclamations of displeasure from the crowd, which had expected any bid over $31,500 to take the piece of cloth.

A collection of 211 pins—one of which dated back to 1911—that were distributed to members of the press for such special events as All-Star and World Series games had the highest estimate of all, $400,000 to $500,000. Bidding began at $200,000 but rose only to $240,000. Guernsey's president, Arlan Ettinger, pleaded with the final bidder to raise his price. With an edge to his voice, the bidder insisted that he had not come to bid against himself. "Unfortunately, I'm unable to sell it at that price," said Ettinger. "Passed."

Within minutes, Joshua Evans bought the collection outright from its owner, Chicago-based dealer and collector Bill Mastro, for $275,000.

The next lot, 54 sepia photograph pins of players circa 1896 that were issued with Cameo Pepsin Gum, was overestimated at $75,000 to $100,000. The top bid was $20,800 and it, too, was passed, even though no reserve was indicated.

"Guernsey's was testing the air, and that's unfortunate," says Ronald DeSilva, former head of Sotheby's and Christie's Americana sales. "The stuff is there to be sold, and a good auctioneer already has the action going before the sale even starts. Screw around and the audience feels it. As an auctioneer, I set as low a reserve as possible. When you underestimate, you have 12 potential bidders, but give a high estimate and you're down to, maybe, two. If one of them doesn't show up, you're in trouble."

On the positive side, a bat used and inscribed by Gehrig and estimated to go for $15,000 to $20,000, sold for $26,000 to applause from the crowd. The consignor, a man identified only as Jerry, was 11 years old when he was given the bat by Gehrig. Jerry had accompanied his father to Gehrig's apartment, where the slugger removed the bat from a closet and wrote, "To Jerry, May you use this to better advantage than I did—Lou Gehrig." The year Jerry received the bat was 1938, only the second season as a Yankee regular during which Gehrig hit below .300. It was to be his last full season before amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—which later became known as "Lou Gehrig's disease"—forced him from the game and caused his death on June 2, 1941.

Boxing could be the coming sport for collectors, especially items associated with heavyweight champions. Some Muhammad Ali prices: two pairs of boxing trunks, $2,750 and $3,500; a pair of high-top white ring shoes worn in a fight, $1,100. Joe Louis items: four pairs of trunks, $2,250 to $5,500 each; three pairs of boxing gloves, $1,400 to $3,750 a pair.

Pro football, despite some famous names on the block, has yet to attract heavy-spending collector-investors. For the record, a Joe Namath Jet jersey sold for $4,000, an autographed Roger Staubach jersey for $1,800 and a Terry Bradshaw Steeler jersey for $1,700. A Dan Fouts San Diego jersey went for $475.

And despite the traditional throwing-out of first balls and the congratulatory phone calls to winning locker rooms, the mixture of politics and sports does not always go down well with collectors. Sales of NBA basketballs autographed by presidents of the United States put Bush on top at $450, Ronald Reagan next at $425, Richard Nixon at $300 and Gerald Ford at $225. But those prices looked terrific compared with the way two governors fared. A single lot of two NBA balls—one signed by New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the other by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis—brought a measly 50 bucks.

Are there any good buys for the average fan over the long term? "Wrestling," says Evans.


"Yes. Kids are absolutely wild about it, and they're the collectors of the future. That's the way it always is."

If nothing else convinces people that the memorabilia craze is in large part fueled by hype and the possibility of a quick buck, the sight of bidders clamoring for one of the Hulkster's ripped T-shirts might finally do it.

PHOTOCOURTESY OF GUERNSEY'SAppraisers' estimates at auction sales have tended to be very optimistic of late, but there have been eye-popping exceptions.
Estimated: $75,000-$100,000 SOLD FOR: $38,000
Estimated: $48,000-$55,000 DID NOT Sell
Estimated: $15,000-$20,000 SOLD FOR: $26,000
PHOTOCOURTESY OF GUERNSEY'SAli's gloves went for less than the estimate, but a monogram tried pair of Louis's trunks sold for far more than was anticipated.
Estimated: $5,000-$7,000 SOLD FOR: $1,800
Estimated: $3,000-$4,000 SOLD FOR: $5,500