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UCLA Basketball Court Center Circle
Under legendary head coach John Wooden, University of California, Los Angeles captured 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. The team won most of their games during that heady era at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. When the arena’s original center-court jump circle was replaced in 1982, the hardwood was signed by former stars, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. At a recent auction, the one-of-a-kind piece sold for a stunning $325,085 – much to the chagrin of UCLA’s Athletic Director, who wanted it brought back to the university.
“It’s something that’s certainly not for everybody, given the logistical constraints of owning such a piece,” Imler says. “We’ve sold baseball cards for hundreds of thousands of dollars that you can put in your back pocket, but sometimes it’s huge center-court sections of basketball courts.”
Muhammad Ali's Gloves
Landmarks in Muhammad Ali’s career have led to major sales for SCP Auctions. The Kentucky native won his first heavyweight championship on February 25, 1964, when he was still fighting as Cassius Clay. On March 8, 1971, Ali fought Joe Frazier for the first time in what was billed as The Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden. Ali lost the second fight, but the gloves he wore while fighting Smokin’ Joe and the gloves he wore during his first championship match both sold in 2012 for $385,848, a nifty payday that didn’t ultimately belong to the fighter. The seller? The estate of Angelo Dundee, Ali’s longtime trainer.
“The provenance of those gloves was absolutely ideal,” Imler says.
Julius Erving's ABA Championship Ring
The original American Basketball Association may have disappeared, but ABA fans haven’t. “There’s a lot of people that are very – how would I say it – feverish about going after any significant pieces within that league,” Kohler says. Julius Erving‘s 1974 New York Nets ABA Championship ring was perhaps the most significant of the lot. Largely because of Dr. J’s enduring appeal, the piece sold for $460,741 in 2011 at an auction of Erving memorabilia that netted roughly $3.5 million. The ring features the ABA’s signature red, white, and blue basketball with a diamond in the center, making it one of the few pieces of expensive memorabilia that would be extremely valuable without a backstory.
Ozzie Smith's 13 Gold Gloves
Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith won the Gold Glove 13 consecutive years from 1980 to 1992. The feat, which is unlikely to be repeated, was unprecedented and sparked an unprecedented sale. The trophies went for $519,203 when “The Wizard” put them up for auction in 2012. “The hallmark of his career was his defense,” Imler says. “That run of Gold Gloves is really kind of an ultimate symbol.” The fact that the 15-time All-Star won a World Series with the Cardinals in 1982 made the haul significantly more valuable, according to Imler.
“Cardinals fans are very passionate, and Cardinals collectors are very passionate,” he says. “So there was a lot of competition for those.”
Barry Bonds' 756th Home-Run Ball
Barry Bonds’s 756th home-run ball was purchased for almost $756,000 in 2007 by the designer Marc Ecko, who branded it with an asterisk. The astronomical price was fairly surprising, given that Bonds’s steroid regimen and criminal behavior didn’t increase his stock with baseball fans. “With the environment or climate today, that probably would not bring that kind of money,” Kohler says. Still, the 756th home run – which pushed Bonds past Hank Aaron, making him the all-time leader – holds significance for some fans, even if it is an artifact of a complicated era. That’s why the ball is on exhibit at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
“It still goes back to the history of the game,” Kohler says. “Records, stats. They’re a big part of baseball.”
Babe Ruth and David Wells's Game-Worn Cap
This game-worn cap holds the distinction of having been worn by two Yankee greats. Babe Ruth wore the cap in the 1930s and David Wells, an avid collector of baseball memorabilia, wore it while pitching against the Cleveland Indians in 1997. “It had a backstory,” Kohler says. “That added a lot to this piece.” Former Yankees manager Joe Torre made Wells revert to his uniform cap after getting three outs with the hat on, and SCP later approached Wells about giving up Ruth’s cap for good. It sold for $537,278 in 2012.
Mark McGwire's 70th Home-Run Ball
During the 1998 Major League Baseball season, back when home runs elicited more enthusiasm than suspicion, Mark McGwire hit 70 homers. At the time, it was massive news and a single-season record. Predictably, that 70th home-run ball went to auction, where it fetched $3 million in 1999. SCP Auctions did not handle the sale, but Imler would have loved the chance. He says baseball memorabilia (tainted by revelations of steroid use or not) tends to retain its value because of the sport’s singular fan base.
“People are just very emotionally connected to the game of baseball,” Imler says. “There’s so many different categories of items, different things that can be collected from the game of baseball, and it’s just a very, very broad and deep market.”
1909 T206 Honus Wagner Card
Don’t stick this card in your bicycle spokes. A mint-condition 1909 Honus Wagner T206 card sold in 2007 for $2.8 million, a record price for a baseball card. Legend has it that the card was always rare because Wagner forced the American Tobacco Company to halt its production so that children would not buy cigarettes to get it – a noble thought. Unfortunately, the owners of the vaunted card haven’t always been as upstanding as Wagner himself. After the card’s condition was questioned for decades, sports memorabilia dealer and auctioneer Bill Mastro admitted publicly this year to trimming the card in the eighties so it would have sharper edges.
“There are certainly other baseball cards that are far more rare,” Imler says. “But the [Wagner] card has a mystique.”
Babe Ruth's Yankee Contract
The contract that sent Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees was a big deal – and not just because of the money. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 so he could finance several Broadway productions, but the deal ended up costing the Red Sox dearly. Thanks to “the curse of the Bambino,” the Sox didn’t win a championship until 2004. Predictably, the contract that launched the drought attracted a lot of attention when it went up for auction in 2006. The legal agreement sold for $996,000, which Imler says is fitting for “one of the most significant sports documents.”
Babe Ruth's Bat
During the first game played at Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth became the first hitter to knock a ball out of it. He later autographed the bat used in that 1923 Opening Day plate appearance. In 2007, that bat sold for $1.265 million. The astronomical figure would be shocking if Ruth memorabilia didn’t consistently sell for more than almost every other type of athletic artifact. But there was always something magical about “The Babe.”
“We had a feeling it could be a million-dollar-plus bat,” Kohler says. “That’s a very special piece.”
The Naismith Rules of Basketball
Imagine auctioning off the Constitution. That’s what it felt like in 2010 when when James Naismith’s Rules of Basket Ball went under the gavel and were sold for $4.3 million. The papers, which lay out the original rules of one of the country’s most popular sports, also have handwritten annotations from the sport’s founder. The rules went to billionaire David Booth, who sent them to the University of Kansas to inspire the college team. The university is constructing a building where the document will be displayed.
SCP Auctions didn’t handle the sale, but it enjoyed the outcome. “Any time a piece of historical sports memorabilia hits a level like that, it’s obvious, it shows strength in the marketplace,” Imler says. “There was just no precedent for a price at that level.”
Babe Ruth's Jersey
Kohler describes Babe Ruth as “the king of sports memorabilia.” The record-breaking sale of this game-worn 1920 Yankees road jersey cemented that status. The jersey is the earliest-known Ruth uniform in existence, a fact that – given its excellent condition and the scarcity of game-worn Ruth apparel – made it extremely attractive to the most competitive baseball collectors. The shirt went for $4.4 million in 2012, becoming the most expensive piece of sports memorabilia ever sold.
What could possibly eclipse its price in the future? “Some people have often wondered if a jersey exists from his years playing with the Red Sox,” Imler says. “Certainly something that would have potential would be his rookie jersey from 1915.”
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