Pete Siegel of Gotta Have It is used to finding himself in the spotlight when Yankees memorabilia turns up at auction, so it was hardly a surprise when he ponied up $120,000 for a stunning Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig signed photo (this week's SCD cover) at the June 5 Sotheby's/SCP auction in New York City. The man who is also on track to open a baseball memorabilia museum picked up several cool items at a live auction that topped $4.7 million on only 365 items. That comes out to a not-too-shabby per-lot average of almost $14,000.
"We are very pleased with the results and it's been a very long day. That means a lot of bids," said SCP President David Kohler. "Obviously, the tour of Japan stuff did great, and the Stengel memorabilia was off the chart for the most part, including the World Series ring and the cuff links."
With almost four dozen lots from the Casey Stengel Collection, the record-setting World Series ring from 1951 raced to $180,000 from a phone bidder. Sotheby's auctioneer Leila Dunbar noted that the ring opened with three $50,000 absentee bids, clearly a harbinger of good things to come. That came early in the afternoon session on June 5, following an equally impressive morning session that featured remarkable tour of Japan material and the lion's share of a NBA jersey collection that ranks as one of the great groupings of its kind in recent memory.
"All the basketball jerseys were from one collector, who put that together over all these years," Kohler continued. "Everything except the Maravich jersey. And there will be about 50 more coming in September in our Internet sale. The Oscar Robertson was a record at $66,000; the Willis Reed jersey at $90,000.
"It was kind of interesting to see the different levels with the jersey. One that you thought might bring $5,000 comes in at $8,000, and vice versa. It just depends who shows up."
Kohler explained that the situation with memorabilia and equipment differs from the now mature card arena. "It's not like the cards; a lot of these aren't traded as much as cards; the market isn't as refined. It's just one of those things. The DeBusschere did really well, and the Bradley didn't."
The Reed jersey from the historic 1969-70 NBA Finals, a couple of gems from the estate of Walter Johnson and a PSA 6 T206 White Border Eddie Plank were only non-Yankees pieces that cracked the top 10.
"The Walter Johnson bat, at $96,000, was extraordinary," said Kohler. "I can tell you, this was the fifth sale we've done with Sotheby's, and we've never had so many phone operators. It was a lot of work to put the auction on.
"We deal with high-end clients, and there were some celebrities bidding on the phones, but I can't reveal who they were."
I can vouch for the extraordinary number of bids per lot; I can't recall a live auction that seemed to get so many bids, often quite frantic bidding, back and forth between the book (absentee bids), the Internet, the phones and the enthusiastic live crowd at Sotheby's elegant offices on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
"We had a lot of participation from every area. There were a lot of people on the Internet, and a ton of people on the phone," Kohler added. "And the crowd was real active, plus there were a lot of absentee bids. My hunch is that we outperformed our estimate for the entire sale, just based on the number of bids that came in."
The SCP president also talked about the Stengel World Series ring, the top-selling item in a sale with literally dozens of pieces selling above $50,000. "The Casey Stengel 1951 World Series ring was a real nice surprise, which at $180,000 puts that into really elite company in terms of World Series rings, with Mantle and DiMaggio. That was another that was suprising to us and about triple the estimate."
In an auction held in the heart of Manhattan, Babe Ruth and Co. would be expected to fare well, so it was noteworthy, but hardly a calamity, that a Gehrig jersey from 1931 failed to reach its minimum after opening at $80,000 and streaking quickly to nearly twice that figure. It was ultimately passed at $160,000. "I was very surprised by that; actually, we've already had somebody that asked about the price, so we may do something after the sale. You never know."
Dan Imler of SCP Auctions talked about the extraordinary bidding on the 1957 Stengel World Series cufflinks that ended up selling for ($72,000). "I think it's a simple case of two people that absolutely had to have it. Sometimes you can just throw out the book when two bidders fall in love with a piece. Every auction you see a few cases like that that just defy the marketplace.
"The 1907 Cubs medallion ($54,000) surprised us, and it almost tripled the estimate. It's a spectacular piece; it had everything going for it in terms of rarity, the passion of Cubs collectors. We knew it would be beyond the high-end estimate but we didn't expect a price like that."
Pete Siegel, who grabbed national media attention in auctions of the Mickey Mantle estate in 2004 and two years ago at Sotheby's when he was the winning bidder at nearly $1 million for the sale contract that sent Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1920. He is arguably one of the most prolific collector of Yankees memorabilia, much of which will ultimately be on display at his museum, details as yet to be finalized. In the meantime, he continues to acquire Ruthian treasures, for example, that would fit in any museum from Cooperstown to the Big Apple.
"I purchased two of the small Babe Ruth photos from the tour of Japan, and in the afternoon we picked up the baseball that was signed by both Babe Ruth and Brother Matthias," said an elated Siegel. "We are very happy to have that and it's probably the only one in existence in terms of the history of Babe Ruth. If it weren't for Brother Matthias (from the St. Mary's School for Boys orphanage where Ruth was raised from age 7), Ruth might never have had an interest in baseball.
"The other item we bought was what I would call the finest Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig signed photo extant, from Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day in 1939, with pristine signatures and is in terrific condition.
"It was a great sale and there were a lot of different items across the board, and there were a few other pieces that I was bidding on, but nothing that I wanted more than the two that I actually won."
For Siegel, who spent more than $1 million at the Mantle auction and the Sotheby's with SCP sale two years ago, the spectacular results of the June 5 sale illustrate a fundamental strength in the industry.
"It shows that the market is very strong for vintage material, and while I saw a lot of old faces in the crowd there were a lot of new faces, and they were actually bidding, and that's great for the hobby. There was a great selection of things and Sotheby's always puts on a good show.
"I think the Stengel 1951 World Series ring was a terrific item, but we actually own Mickey Mantle's 1962 World Series ring, which is the only ring that ever survived from Mickey's collection," Siegel continued. He bought it from the Mantle estate sale three years ago at Madison Square Garden.
"It was a terrific price for the Stengel ring, which I did not think was going to go that high, and now it holds the record for the most expensive World Series ring sold.
"The strength of the Yankees items was terrific and the Walter Johnson ball was great. Anything that has to do with history or with the great iconic moments in sports or that has to do with a great player usually commands good money."
Siegel said the items he bought will be going into their museum, ultimate location as yet unannounced.
And speaking of museums, the live Sotheby's with SCP sales routinely bring out the celebs, but this time the guest lineup included Jane Forbes Clark, the chairman of the board of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Immediately after the sale of the Walter Johnson bat in the middle of the morning session, five lots of Hall of Fame-related correspondence came up in Lots 107-111. The letters, which feature fascinating insight into the process the Hall used to encourage the players to donate items, included missives from the likes of Clark Griffith, Honus Wagner, Cy Young (3), Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and Ford Frick.
The five lots included more than a dozen letters from some of the greatest stars in the game who responded to museum planner Alexander Cleland's inquiries about getting donations of memorabilia for the brand-new Hall of Fame. The letters are all dated in the 1930s and feature three from Ty Cobb, including one where he pointed out statistical errors concerning his career numbers. That lot inspired furious bidding that reached $27,000, with Clark, seated in the front row prevailing as she did with all five lots, totaling $56,000.
As serious fans are well aware, the Hall of Fame does not purchase memorabilia items for the museum but rather relies on donations from ballplayers and the collecting elite, both of which have come through to varying degrees of success over the years.
"My grandfather founded the Hall of Fame, and these papers are important to my grandfather, and to the Hall of Fame in terms of being some of the original documents that began the Hall of Fame as we know it today.
"The Hall is not bidding; I was bidding on them myself, personally, and of course I'll put them on loan to the Hall," said Clark.
"As you know, the Hall of Fame does not buy artifacts," she added.
She also responded to a question about the origins of material that would have traditionally been saved by the museum. "We're not entirely sure, but we think that when Mr. Cleland left, he took boxes of documents with him. And those have been, we think, with his family.
"And we are very happy to get them."
There were a lot of bidders voicing a very similar sentiment that Tuesday in June.