Published: July 11, 2017
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Lelands Auction
ONLINE – Babe Ruth is still hitting them out of the park, 69 years after his death. It was a good day for the Great Bambino at Lelands’ online sale, as two objects from defining moments in the player’s career combined for more than $4 million. The online sale, which saw bidding close on June 30, totaled just over $9 million in sales and featured a treasure trove of sports memorabilia that placed at its heart an offering of important baseball artifacts, including World Series rings, record-setting balls, game-used jerseys and bats from Sandy Koufax, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Lou Gehrig, as well as Olympic medals, boxing memorabilia and hockey material. No matter the sport, Leland’s was offering a rare piece of its history in the summer invitational online sale.
At the front of the auction were two holy grail artifacts from the Sultan of Swat, both consigned by actor Charlie Sheen. Sheen sold off most of his collection in the 2000s, but kept his most-prized pieces to enjoy for a while longer. He only came out publicly as the consignor of the lots about a week before the sale concluded, resulting in a media storm.
When the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth away to the New York Yankees in the 1920 off-season, it began the Curse of the Bambino, an 86-year stretch where the Red Sox failed to win a single World Series. In the 14 years that Ruth was with the Yankees, he would go on to raise Yankee Stadium into a perennial powerhouse as he helped the team win seven American League championships and four World Series championships.
The physical embodiment of the Curse of the Bambino, one of three total copies of Ruth’s trade agreement between the Red Sox and the Yankees, pulled in the top lot at Lelands’ sale after spirited bidding to $2,303,320. While only two of the three copies have ever surfaced, this one originated from the estate of New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, the man whose signature appears on the contract. The other known example originally sold in a 1993 Lelands auction for $99,000, and then again after the Curse had been lifted in 2004 at Sotheby’s for $996,000.
The 1920 agreement sold Ruth for an unprecedented $100,000 cash ($1.2 million in 2017 dollars), as well as a further $75,000 to be paid over six years. Although the contract makes no mention of the supposed kicker to the deal, an additional $300,000 mortgage on Fenway Park, Lelands states that other documents that came from this collection included promissory notes that added up to the sum of the loan.
The stories attached to both the contract and the ring, each having emanated from the collection of Barry Halper, paint a picture that shows just how far the sports memorabilia market has come in the past 20 years. Antiques and The Arts Weekly spoke to Joshua Evans, Lelands’ chairman and founder, following the sale as he recounted his earlier days and doing business between Charlie Sheen and the forefather of baseball memorabilia collecting, Barry Halper.
Halper was a one percent owner in the New York Yankees, and, because of his access to the sport, he amassed one of the greatest baseball memorabilia collections in the world. Sotheby’s sold the collection in 1998 for $21.8 million.
“Halper was really incredible,” said Evans. “Because you could go there and trade. It was like going to MoMA and getting the director and asking to trade your Warhol for his Picasso. But Halper was just like that ,and you could go there and trade with him and buy from him.”
According to Evans, Halper had a ritual. If you wanted to see Halper’s collection, you had to meet him at a bagel place in Livingston, N.J., at 5:30 am. If you were late, he would leave without you.
“I once sold him one of the best jersey collections in the world, and, still, I had to meet him at the bagel place and head back to his house. It was hysterical, but you would go there and his collection was epic. He’d always try to give you the tour, he had a standard tour. And I would have to say, ‘No, Barry, I don’t want the tour.'”
On one of these visits, Evans saw a three-ring binder with papers sticking out of it. It said “Babe Ruth Sale” on it.
“I quickly asked him if I could look at it. He didn’t have any archival supplies back then, so he had these cheap plastic pages with documents in a binder. It was the whole transaction from selling Ruth to the Yankees. I knew that I only had 30 or 60 seconds to look at it, because if I spent too much time, he would know it was really good. He was a savant. He was very good at getting stuff but he didn’t always realize how good it was. So I knew I had 30 seconds to find the contract. There was a lot of stuff in there and I was looking for something that was built differently than a regular document. And finally I saw it. I pulled it out and I said ‘How about this Barry?’ He said, ‘No, no, no, I like that stuff.’ But I said, ‘You have two of them, the one for the Yankees and the one for the Red Sox!’ Which was ridiculous, because its like having both Thomas Jefferson’s and George Washington’s copy of the Declaration of Independence.”
So Halper told Evans he would sell it for $25,000. A year later in 1993, Evans put it through a sale of his and it went for $99,000 to philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein.
“So Charlie calls during the auction, he somehow gets through, and says he really wanted it, that he fell asleep, he was shooting a movie at the time. So I got Feinstein on the phone and he said he would sell it, but he wants $1 million for it. So that fell through and I went back to Barry. I told him I wanted to buy the other one. He says, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll sell it for $150,000.’ Everything with Barry was that price. That was his number. So I bought it and sold it to Charlie for $200,000.”
Feinstein would later wait until 2004, the year the Red Sox won the World Series and lifted the Curse, to sell his copy in a Sotheby’s auction for $996,000.
“I always laugh about that,” said Evans. “He didn’t get his million but he got close.”
Finishing just beneath it at $2,093,927 was the Colossus of Clout’s 1927 World Series championship ring in 14K gold with the original, single diamond at center. The ring is said to have been bought by Halper from Ruth’s widow, Claire Ruth, in the 1970s. “G.H. Ruth” is inscribed to the inside of the ring.
“In the mid-90s, I went to the Plaza Hotel to see Charlie and to bring him some stuff to look at,” said Evans. “We brought him a trunk full of stuff, and I’ll never forget it, he literally bought the whole trunk. And he hands me this list and says, ‘This is my top ten. These are the things that I want to own.'”
Evans looked at the list and saw a mountain of memorabilia that hadn’t hit the market yet. He expressed his doubts that some things may not exist any longer, they may be in public and private collections, and some of them were so important to sports history that they were probably in a hall of fame collection.
“Charlie didn’t care, he said, ‘No, here it is.’ The first thing on the top of the list was Babe Ruth’s 1927 World Series ring.”
Evans knew a guy that might have something like this. That guy, of course, was Barry Halper.
“I called him up and said, ‘Barry, do you have Ruth’s 1927 World Series ring?’ He said, ‘Yes, and I have Gehrig’s, too.'”
But when Evans asked Barry if he would sell Ruth’s ring, Halper said he’d prefer to sell Gehrig’s. Ruth’s ring was in better condition as Gherig’s had been worn from wear and Halper likely preferred it for that reason, as the two were basic equals in the memorabilia market at the time.
“I said no to Gehrig’s and Barry was kind of upset about it. He lectured me that Gehrig was the MVP that year.”
But he relented. Barry sold Evans the Ruth ring for the standard fare of $150,000.
“That was more than what anything had ever sold for before. And it was all the money I had in the world at that time, but I bought it and then I sold it to Charlie for $225,000 and he was so excited. Charlie was a very astute collector.”
At a presumed zero percent seller’s commission, our estimates place Sheen’s profit at $3.09 million on the two pieces together.
The actor took to Twitter following the sale to voice his satisfaction with the results, “It’s with tremendous gratitude, honor and poleaxed mysticism, that I tip my hat to last night’s historical and unprecedented auction.”
Evans confirmed that the Ruth market has exploded in recent years. “Ruth has consistently gone up and stayed at the top,” he said. Where Gehrig and Ruth were once hand in hand, the spacing has gotten much broader. “The best Gehrig jersey would be worth half as the best Ruth jersey right now.”
But that is not to say that there aren’t other opportunities to get in on a green arrow market. Many lots from some of baseball’s greats performed well in the sale, surpassing high estimates and rounding all the bases.
Sandy Koufax’s rookie jersey with the Brooklyn Dodgers mounted a strong showing, as it sold for an impressive $667,189. The jersey is one of only two known to exist from the player’s 1955 season and was originally acquired during the 1957 spring training by a AAA minor league player who was training with the Dodgers. In his rookie year, 19-year-old Koufax pitched for the team 12 times, scoring a 2-2 record and a 3.02 ERA. The Brooklyn Dodgers would go on to win their only World Series championship that year.
Other sought-after jerseys from the game’s greats proved to add more fuel to the fire. A full Joe DiMaggio Yankees pinstripe uniform from the player’s 1950-51 season, which was his last, sold off the block for $376,610. Willie Mays’ 1957 game-worn jersey from his last game at the Polo Grounds brought $212,216.
In 1987, Pete Rose sold his record-breaking 4,192-hit baseball to his insurance agent for what is said to be the first piece of sports memorabilia to have ever sold for a six-figure sum. The collector also bought the bat and the red Corvette that the Cincinnati Red’s gave him for his milestone accomplishment. With the hit, Rose broke the half-century record held by Ty Cobb for most hits in a career. The ball had never been sold publicly since, and, accordingly, it went off the charts for $403,657.
Highly rated game-used bats were in demand, as a number of them sold in the six-figure range. At the front was a Lou Gehrig bat that was given to the bat boy of an April 2, 1939 exhibition game between the New York Yankees and the Houston Buffaloes. The lot came with an autograph book with 32 signatures collected by the boy from the period. It went for $393,300. A 1925 Ty Cobb game-used bat with a perfect condition rating found a new owner at $366,961. And finally, another bat originally given to a lucky bat boy was a 1962 Mickey Mantle game-used bat. It went out the door at $113,924.
But baseball was not the only sport represented. Before the 2016 Olympic games in Rio, golf had only appeared in the international competition twice before, once in 1900 and again in 1904. Lelands presented two medals from the 1904 Olympic golf competition, a gold and a silver that were each presented to US golfer Chandler Egan. For his part in winning the team event with the United States, Egan received a gold medal, which sold to a bidder for $120,000. His silver medal, awarded for individual play, went out at $42,517. Ken Norton’s fight-worn gloves from his 1976 bout with Muhammad Ali at Yankee Stadium, signed by both fighters, found a new home at $38,011.
Moving forward, Evans expects to continue the model of his summer invitational, which is the most-curated and high-grade sale of his yearly calendar.
“But I don’t know if we’ll ever beat this one,” he said.
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For more information, www.lelands.com or 631-244-0077.
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