The Origins of Sports Memorabilia
Now a multi-billion dollar industry the current craze for sports memorabilia shows no sign of abating. There is actually no real measure of just how big the market is, because no one has taken the time to measure it. Fuelled by the sports card collecting trend in the US, which were issued by tobacco companies in the early part of the twentieth century , the sports collecting trend has been gathering pace over the last one hundred years. If you thought that Babe Ruth was most popular baseball player, take a look at Honor Wagner’s AMT baseball card from the 1909-1911 season, valued at over $2.7mn (£2mn)! It’s not just American tobacco cards that command huge sums either. The trend has extended to pretty much all competitive sports, from the earliest re-boot of the Olympics in 1896, right up the present day, with the World Cup in 2022 being the next major event to generate sports memorabilia.
There seems to be no limit to the variety of items on offer. Anything that can be signed, is! From rare vintage golf and tennis balls to golf clubs and football shirts. Any item of sports equipment that is capable of carrying a signature has sold at one sports collectibles auction or another. When we reach back to the earliest pieces from the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was enough just to have the piece. A rare silver Olympic medal sold for $180,111 in 2021 according to a Boston based auction house. There were no gold medals back then, although the IOC has reclassified the wins as ‘gold’. Silver medals were awarded to the winners, with copper medals given to the runners-up, and no prizes were awarded to those who came in third place in any events! Popular with numismatists (coin collectors), these medals were one offs, with the only factor being the number issued at the time of the games; which in this case was forty-three, so you can imagine that few of them have ever come on to the open market.
What’s The Most Expensive Piece of Sports Memorabilia?
The world of collecting was rocked recently when a rare 1952 Micky Mantle baseball card went for $12.6m at auction! Just 4 months previously a shirt worn by legendary Argentinian football star Diego Maradona sold for $9.3m in May 2022. The shirt was worn during the infamous ‘hand of god’ match against England in 1986.
Moving backwards in time the baseball that Mark McGwire hit in for his 70th home run in the 1998 season went for $3m (£2.25mn), but even that pales against the aforementioned babe Ruth’s 1920 season baseball jersey, which went for a staggering $4.5m (£3.4m) in 2012.
Signed sports memorabilia tends to go for more than non-autographed pieces, which has led to the incredible surge in modern collectables. If the sports star is available, and of course, willing to sign an item, then that piece can command huge sums. Collectors often look out for the certificate of authenticity (COA) as their assurance that the item is genuine. The modern practice of hologram COA’s ensures that the item perfectly matches the hologram and adds another layer of security, especially when the shop, auction house or retailer offers a lifetime, money back guarantee. As always, the price of any piece of memorabilia will depend on the profile of the player, team member or athlete who signed it. If a sports star passes away then their items can suddenly shoot up in value, in the way that the pop singers or actors’ items do; for example, when David Bowie died in 2016, there was a ‘commercial frenzy’ for anything signed by him according to The Times newspaper.
The Trend for Signatures
in 1975 Leeds United became the first club in the UK to design shirts which could be sold to their fans in the form of replicas. Other teams quickly followed, leading to a nascent industry in jersey collecting. The practice of getting these items signed by players, usually after the matches outside the games in in the car parks, led to an explosion in sports memorabilia collecting. A signature would add a huge cachet to rarity and therefore the price, especially if it was a high profile player. From this came the trend for hanging framed memorabilia on walls. It became the height of serious fandom to have a shirt or even a golf club set in a frame on the wall. Once the trend had started there was no stopping it, with memorabilia turning up in specialist auctions up and down the country, and internationally, with items from major sports stars such as Pele and George Best fetching huge sums.
Sport Memorabilia Collecting
The ultimate prize is a game-worn item, such as the Ben Stokes match worn shirt available on this site. Other match worn items can include football boots, pants, caps, helmets, gloves, or anything else that the player used, even towels, captain armbands and sunglasses. Whatever your sport, your team or your favourite player, the market is so huge now that you are bound to find an auction house or online store selling sports memorabilia with an item for you. As inflation gathers pace around the world, money loses its value and the prices of the rarest signed memorabilia rise, offering a real store of value during turbulent times. It looks like the trend will continue as there is no sign whatsoever of it abating, with the prices continuing to rise. The difficult period of 2020/21 with autographs hard to come by has put a floor under prices. The rarest epehmera will always command the highest sums, but previously mediocre items are starting to command higher prices as well. Our mantra has never changed; buy something you really love, want to hold and treasure, and you will never be disappointed! Also, the longer you can hold it for, the higher (hopefully) could be the eventual value. Collecting sporting memorabilia can sometimes feel like prospecting for gold, or metal detecting. Imagine stumbling over one of those Olympic silver medals in a charity shop? Now there’s a thought!