Sports memorabilia collecting - a history

Today, sports memorabilia is one of the most popular forms of collecting.

Few hobbies attract the kind of fierce loyalty exhibited by sports fans, and this market is certainly driven by their commitment. Encouraged by this robust base, most of the major auction houses hold regular sales of sports memorabilia, and even investors have been attracted to the hobby by strong returns and liquidity.

Yet, there was a time when fans couldn't care less about a baseball sporting a scribbled signature or a sweaty jersey discarded by the star of their team. Paul Fraser Collectibles looks at the history of sports memorabilia collecting…

First base

Back in the 1800s, baseball - now America's national pastime - was just finding its feet, becoming popular with the upper-middle classes in New York.

Several semi-professional teams formed in the 1830s, and soon found themselves the subject of adoration from local fans. The sport was catching on across the US, and before long the very first leagues began.

An addictive hobby

Tobacco was big business in America back then, and the companies producing cigarettes were also advertising powerhouses, determined to get every citizen hooked on consumerism. Advertising cards were placed within packets, selling medicine, cleaning products and just about every item imaginable.

It wasn't long before the tobacco giants noticed that baseball had become a phenomenon and decided to cash in, placing picture cards of the sport's pioneering players inside each packet. These cards were an instant hit, and the public began to keep the cards to remember their favourite players.

1865 Brooklyn Atlantics baseball card
The Brooklyn Atlantics card from 1865 has been named as the earliest known dated baseball card

In 1887, the Goodwin Company of New York began producing the world's first numbered baseball cards, and this made them collectible for the first time - collectors could now concentrate on completing a whole run.

The poster below, produced in 1887 by the Old Judge tobacco company, shows some of the earliest baseball cards, with the first stars of the sport standing alongside "celebrated pugilists and leading actresses". Designed to promote the cards in the company's cigarette packets, the poster now sells for in excess of $100,000 at auction.

1887 Old Judge baseball cards
Early collectors had their work cut out, with 'over 2,000 different subjects'

Other companies soon followed, and the collecting phenomenon was firmly established. Like their cigarettes, the tobacco companies had created another irresistible product.

Soon, tobacco cards were produced for every sport popular in America and Canada at the time, including ice hockey. These cards below from 1910 were the earliest issued in Canada - a full set of 45 sold for $119,000 in March 2013.

1910 Sweet Caporal hockey cards
Only one other complete set of these earliest known Canadian hockey cards is known, assembled by Montreal hockey expert Carleton McDiarmid

Live-ball legends

However, in the early 20th century the hobby was limited to collecting cards, as baseballs alone cost $3 each, a considerable sum at the time, and very few could afford any physical memorabilia.

At the end of the dead-ball era, all this was about to change. Rules regarding the tampering of baseballs meant that many more entered play, creating a supply for the memorabilia market and simultaneously bringing down the cost.

Harvey Wildstein’s baseball collection
Babe Ruth was one of the first collectible celebrities of the live-ball era

Batters were also able to hit the ball more easily due to these rules, and the first big-hitting celebrity players broke out, creating a demand for their memorabilia. The undoubted Sultan of Swat was Babe Ruth, alongside his "Murderer's Row" Yankees team.

From then on, the stars of the game were swamped before and after each game, with every fan wanting to have their baseballs autographed.

Today, Babe Ruth memorabilia is the most valuable in the industry, with his first Yankees jersey selling for $4.4m in 2012 - the world record for any item of sports memorabilia sold at auction.

The record breaking Babe Ruth jersey, from his first season with the Yankees following a controversial move from the Boston Red Sox

Game-worn gems

After the second world war, the American economy found its feet once more and sports fans found themselves with more cash to spend on collectibles. Bats, gloves, balls, and just about every other kind of memorabilia was being mass-produced to counter the growing demand.

Yet, it wasn't until the 1980s that major sports franchises began to sell their jerseys in stores. This was obviously extremely popular; fans could now walk around in their team colours and display their loyalty, but the most dedicated enthusiasts needed a way to distinguish themselves.

Thus, the market for game-used memorabilia was born. Today, game-used items often command the highest prices at auction, boosted by the fact that they can be "photo-matched" to the particular event, giving a rock solid provenance.

Authenticity doubts

However, authenticity hasn't always been the strongest point of sports memorabilia markets: in the early 2000s, a number of once-reputable sports memorabilia dealers were found by the US government to have been selling fakes, and over $10m of counterfeits were seized.

The market was rocked by this news, but it has since led to greater measures being put in place to protect the consumer. Grading and authentication systems, such as the holograms placed on many items, are now the backbone of any sports memorabilia sale, and the Standard Catalog of Sports Memorabilia ensures you're not paying over the odds.

Across the pond

Pele shirt
The shirt worn by Pele in this photo holds the record for a game-worn football shirt

The sports memorabilia market has expanded considerably, and while baseball may see some of the biggest bids at auction, the hobby now encompasses every sport, with boxing, golf and even horse racing among some of the most popular areas.

Outside of America, the market is largest in the UK, where football fans collect iconic game-worn shirts, programmes from memorable (and not so memorable) matches, and just about any other item from the "Beautiful Game". The current record for a match-worn shirt is held by the one worn by Pele for Brazil in the 1970 World Cup final. It made £157,750 ($264,000) in 2002.

Tennis has also found popularity among British collectors, with Andy Murray's US Open shirt auctioning for $23,500 in June 2013.

One of the most valuable collections of British sports memorabilia is the Priory Collection of Nigel Wray, chairman of Saracens Rugby Club, which is worth more than £

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