Collecting sporting memorabilia is a popular pastime that provides great pleasure for many people. There is the fun of searching for and finding a new artifact, the pride of possession associated with owning something unique, a genuine admiration for the beauty and craftsmanship of an item, a vicarious connection with a favorite athlete or sports team, a real desire to have ties with the past, and the related feelings of nostalgia for sport in another time and place; or more pragmatically, the personal satisfaction of knowing that what one has acquired is a good financial investment. But pleasure aside, collecting sporting memorabilia is a sporting pastime that is old, social, diverse, and consequential.
Collecting sport memorabilia is likely as old as sport itself. However, acquiring sporting memorabilia for personal pleasure was initiated in earnest by sporting gentlemen of Victorian and Edwardian England. The majority of our modern sports were formally developed in England during the nineteenth century, and it was during the Victorian and Edwardian periods when now-famous artists produced what have become classic sporting drawings, paintings, prints, and watercolors; when many of the first sporting books were written, especially those about boxing, field sports, fishing, golf, and horse racing; and when new sporting technology such as cricket bats, golf clubs, fishing rods and reels, tennis racquets, sporting firearms, and new types of sportswear were introduced.
In the world of buying and selling collectibles, it is recognized that what is old is not necessarily an antique; that what is an antique is not necessarily valuable; and that a modern collectible may be worth more than an antique. Among collectors and as legally defined by the U.S. government, an "antique" is any object at least 100 years old. Accordingly, given the historical development of modern sport, most antique sporting memorabilia are from the nineteenth century. To be valuable, an antique collectible—in addition to being at least 100 years old—must be unique, of limited quantity, in mint condition, and of fine quality and craftsmanship.
The twenty-third annual National Sports Collectors Convention held in Rosemont, Illinois, in August 2002 had 900 dealer booths and attracted 40,000 collectors and perfectly illustrates the social nature of collecting sporting memorabilia. Individuals interested in sporting collections are attracted to art galleries, museums, and sporting halls of fame. Those especially keen on acquiring sporting artifacts are drawn to auctions, estate sales, flea markets, and major sporting events where memorabilia are sold. There are collector clubs for one and all, whether collectors of duck decoys or sport stamps. In addition, one can actively interact with fellow sport collectors via the Internet, or vicariously identify with fellow sport collectors while watching television shows like the Antiques Roadshow (both American and British versions), Attic Finds, and The Incurable Collector.
There is great diversity in specialization among sporting collectors. For example, some collect only one kind of sporting object, others collect a variety of items related to a single sport, still others collect only memorabilia related to a specific sports team, while yet others collect only memorabilia related to a particular athlete. The following broad categories of sporting memorabilia give an indication of the marked diversity of objects sought by sporting collectors:
- Sports awards. For example: cups, medals, plaques, plates, ribbons, and trophies.
- Sporting art and literature. For example: books, catalogs, etchings, paintings, prints, periodicals, photographs, and sculptures; plus related artistic sporting artifacts such as porcelain and silver stirrup cups, duck and fish decoys, and taxidermy displays of a sporting nature.
- Sporting equipment and technology. For example: bats, clubs, racquets, rods, reels, fishing flies and lures, hunting knives, and sporting firearms; as well as specialized sportswear such as cycling costumes, motoring caps and helmets, sports uniforms, and athletic shoes.
- Sport stamps. For example: federal and state duck stamp prints, and sporting postage stamps from countries around the world. In terms of the latter, an individual can specialize by country, period, sport, or sporting event (like the Olympic Games).
- Sporting cards. For example: Victorian playing cards with sporting themes, Edwardian sporting cigarette cards, and contemporary sports cards for American professional basketball, baseball, football, and ice hockey players.
One might also add a category for "worst sports memorabilia." For example, during 2002, the University of Georgia auctioned off 125 old wooden football lockers for $87,730; a Wisconsin man paid $10,000 for a wad of chewing gum discarded by Arizona Diamondbacks professional baseball player Luis Gonzalez; another individual bid $23,600 on eBay for three bone chips removed from the elbow of Seattle Mariners professional baseball pitcher Jeff Nelson. However, these worst-case scenarios shouldn't lessen the consequential nature of sport collecting.
The consequential nature of collecting sporting memorabilia is reflected in the ever growing number of sport collectors across all age, ethnic, and gender groups; the exponential growth of sporting halls of fame; the development of new sporting archives and sporting art galleries; and the enormous prices paid for sporting memorabilia.
Examples of the economic value of sporting memorabilia are given in two articles in the 9 December 2002 issue of Forbes magazine. One article notes that Marshall Fogel, a Denver attorney, possesses a sporting collection worth $12 million, including Ty Cobb's passport, costing $16,000, and a baseball signed by Lou Gehrig, costing $40,000. Another article reports that Christie's auction house produced a 150-page catalog of Gary Player's collection of personal golf memorabilia, which was to be auctioned off through a private sale that mandated a minimum bid of $5 million and required that the buyer must buy the entire collection and maintain it intact.
Perhaps the most popular sports collectibles in America are baseball cards. A card from Mickey Mantle's rookie season with the New York Yankees that sold for $1,250 in 1984 was worth $6,000 in 1988. A Ted Williams card made in 1954 sold at a Mastronet sports card and memorabilia auction in January 2003 for $95,338. And the most famous card of all, that of Pittsburgh Pirates star Honus Wagner, was once owned by former hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky and last sold for $1.2 million.
Farnham, Alan. "Going Private." Forbes (9 December 2002): 222–226.
Hall, Dorothea, ed. Collecting for Pleasure: Sporting Pastimes. London: Bracken Books, 1992.
Liu, Allan J. The American Sporting Collector's Handbook. New York: Winchester Press, 1976.
Slater, J. Herbert. Illustrated Sporting Books: A Descriptive Survey of a Collection of English Illustrated Works of a Sporting and Racy Character, with an Appendix of Prints Relating to Sports of the Field. London: L. Upcott Gill, 1899.
Sullivan, Missy. "Revenge of the Pipsqueaks." Forbes (9 December 2002): 228.
Watson, J. N. P., ed. Collecting Sporting Art. London: Sportsmen Press, 1988.
John W. Loy