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Opportunity knocks in a subdued market

For those who are prepared to do their homework, current market conditions make it possible to invest in items of golfing memorabilia at very reasonable entry-level prices. Gi’s auction-room expert Kevin McGimpsey looks back on the highlights of 2011 and ahead to 2012, a Ryder Cup year certain to raise interest in anything related to the biennial matches

Golf is not immune to the economic climate and hamer prices, in many areas, have fallen considerably over the last 10-15 years. One problem faced, as with other collectible areas is the lack of younger collectors getting involved. Many of the older collectors are completing collections of all the golf classics, narrowing their searches accordingly to the really rare or the small, elusive and ephemeral. As a result, many items once considered the mainstay of the golf market, such as long-nose clubs, have gone the way of longcase clocks in terms of demand and price, and have to be something special to go above one thousand pounds these days.

It is noticeable, too, that the major auction houses no longer feel that their traditionally bumper summer sales have to be centred on the Open Championship. Sadly, the days of salesrooms being filled with visiting American tourists enroute to the Open are over; reflecting the way technology has transformed our behavior, auctions are now internet led, with live global bidding from armchair buyers. What’s more, traditional ‘dealers’ are staying away in the current economic climate.

(left): With its dust-jacket fully intact, this first edition of The Lost Golfer, by
Horace G. Hutchinson, sold at the Pacific Book Auctions for $2400
(Middle): This rare golf 1908 Queen Adelaide golf medal was awarded to Horace. G. Hutchinson – the winner of the British Amateur in 1886 & ‘87 – to mark his appointment as captain of the R&A. It sold for £5,400 at Mullocks;
(right): a dream lot for hickory lovers, a set of matching Tom Morris smooth-faced irons, circa 1870, sold for just below the guide of £1,400, again at Mullocks

They were the ones who soaked up the multithemed low-end lots and helped with the auctioneer’s sale-through rate; consequently the poor quality lots continue to perform poorly. Of course, the ultra-high quality and rare items will always continue to sell well in all the traditional auction houses. Identifying where the next spike of interest may arise is not easy. There is evidence of interest in the Far East, with the Chinese resorts attracting vast new investment. With 1,000 courses under construction or expected to be completed within the next 10 years, will their owners want to demonstrate their heritage with a collection of golfing memorabilia?

REFLECTIONS ON 2011

Pacific Book Auctions in San Francisco kicked off 2011 with a cracking book and golfing collectibles sale in February. Lot 57 was Robert Chambers ‘A Few Rambling Remarks on Golf’, a 1862 1st edition that sold for $10,200. This was the second book in prose to be written on the subject of golf. Another fine example of a fragile book was Lot 233, Thomas Marsh’s ‘Blackheath Golfing Lays by the Poet Laureate’, again, an early 1st edition book of golf verse of which only five copies have appeared at auction in the past 20 years. This one sold for $8,400.

I asked George K. Fox, PBA’s Vice President for his thoughts on how the golf book market had performed in 2011. “The trend we are seeing is that the important rarities and one of a kind items do very well, and the market supports that kind of material,” he told me. “But the midlevel market has been hurt by the internet.

Golfing posters continue to be highly sought after;
(right): This magnificent bronze of an unknown golfer by H S Gamley (1865-1928) sold for £2,400 in June at Bonhams

Books that we previously thought were rare or difficult to find are now available in multiple copies online. Many people are paying premium prices for early titles with dust-jackets to replace their jacketless copies. Elsewhere, golf ephemera remains strong and anything related to Bobby Jones will skyrocket...”

A good example was Lot 190, a tiny die cut 3½ x 3 inches ticket to the 1930 USGA National Amateur at Merion, won by Bobby Jones, completing his Grand Slam that year. This sold for $2700.

Lot 362 was a 1947 Ryder Cup Programme signed on the cover by all members of the US and UK teams. Portland, Oregon. This fetched $3,600 Back in the UK, Mullock’s held their ‘spring’ sale on 28 April in Hoylake. The 500 lots were made up of the usual range of single-owner collections mingled with material from various vendors.

Highlights for me included Lot 589, a rare gold 1908 Queen Adelaide golf medal that was awarded to Horace G. Hutchinson on his appointment as Captain of the R & A. Hutchinson winner of the 1886 and 1887 Amateur Championships was in fact the first Englishman to be appointed the R & A Captain. The Queen Adelaide medal was instigated by King William IV’s widow in 1838 as a medal to be worn by the current Captain on all public occasions. The auctioneers estimated it at £5,000 to £6,000 and it got away at just under the mid-point at £5,400.

Possibly the quirkiest lot in the sale was lot 590, a private vehicle golf number plate, registration number ‘S18 TEE’ that transferred itself to a new owner for £700. Earlier in the Mullock’s sale was the dream lot for those enthusiasts who like to collect and play with hickory shafted golf clubs; a set of matching Tom Morris smooth-faced irons, circa 1870s, all with Tom Morris oval stamp marks. The irons comprised a cleek, 3 general irons, a lofting iron, a rut iron, a small headed sand iron and 2 putters. As well as being market- fresh they were in immaculate original condition and sold just below the low estimate at £1,400.

(Left): This 128-piece canteen of silver-plated cutlery– with each of the player’s signatures on the knife blades – was presented by Sam Torrance to the visiting Americans at The Belfry in 2002. Sold for £3,240; (right): Bobby Jones’ Masters Jacket – quite possibly the single most coveted item of golfing memorabilia, sold for $310,700

This Hoylake sale also included a series of four small watercolours of Royal West Norfolk Golf Club (Brancaster) by the always popular sporting artist Charles Whymper and these sailed out between £2,000 and £2,500.

G Budd Auctions held their Sporting Memorabilia sale in May in London; there were just over 80 golfing lots, the standout being lot 752, described as being Walter Hagen’s gold and diamond-set winner’s medal from the 1927 PGA Championship at the Cedar Crest Country Club, Dallas Texas. Probably because its provenance was not stated in the sumptuous brochure the medal failed to sell during the auction but there was however, a deal to be done and it got away in an after sale at just below the low estimate at £35,000 plus auction house buyer’s commission (17.5%).

Bonhams had their summer sale in June 2011. An immediate eye catcher was their section of vintage golf posters. Often prices are driven ridiculously high by interior designers and holiday home owners vying for a vintage poster of their favourite links. Despite this demand, it is a highly volatile market with individual posters fluctuating in price from one year to the next depending on the whims of the bidders. Striking designs appear to be increasingly important to the buyers. The majority of posters passed the £500 mark. However lot 160, a Ronald Lampitt British Railways poster circa 1950s, showing the strand and Royal Portrush links, was bought by Royal Portrush for just £480. A good example of a strong image was lot 165 titled ‘Stay young playing golf in Germany’; it triggered a contest between a set designer in the sale room and a keen German collector. It went to Germany for just over £700.

Staying with posters, elsewhere the Bloomsbury’s Auctions 280 plus sale of vintage posters in London on 22 June included one measuring 29 x 24 inches by Henry George Gawthorn (1879-1941) promoting LNER services to St. Andrews, ‘The Home of the Royal and Ancient Game’, circa 1925 that got away at the low end of a £5,000-7,000 estimate.

Another medal of note in the Bonhams auction, although much more modern was lot 195, a 1953 Golfing Union of Ireland Open Championship winner’s gold and enamel medal, won by Eric Brown and consigned to Bonhams by the family. Keen bidding drove the price to £2,760.

An unusual golfing trophy (lot 207) confirmed that the very best pieces of golf memorabilia are still capable of surprise sums.

(Left): One of only two Aynsley bone china Samuel Ryder trophies – something of a bargain at £1,800;
(middle): A signed 1st Edition of Willie Park’s ‘The Art of Putting’ fetched $3,300;
(right): Sotheby’s sold a similar John Kenneth Garner billiard-style brass putter for $10,000 in 2007, making this example – albeit without a shaft – highly sought after

The Lady Golfers Club Challenge Trophy comprised a sterling silver plaque on an oak frame. The auctioneers had estimated it at £600, but had wisely highlighted in the catalogue that Charlotte Cecilia Pitcairn Leitch (1891-1977) was its first winner in 1912. Two years later she won the first of her four British Ladies Amateur Championships.

Bidding started at £500 and it was the subject of a lengthy phone battle as the bidding went up in increments of £100 to eventually halt at £2,500.

Most auctions have a ‘sleeper’ within its lots where the auctioneer may have missed something important or estimated it too low. Lot 117 was a John Kenneth Garner billiardstyle brass putter head circa 1904; the shaft was lacking. Given that Sotheby’s had sold a similar putter in 2007 for $10,000, the Bonhams £400-600 estimate was a tempting one. It blew away its estimate to sell to a US private buyer for £4,080.

Ryder Cup memorabilia continues to be strong – and will be one area to look for this year as we countdown to the 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah (Sept 25-30). Bonhams final two golfing lots illustrate just how much the rarest and freshest examples can command. Lot 233 was an example of a 128-piece silver- plated canteen of cutlery presented by Sam Torrance to the members of the visiting American Ryder Cup team at The Belfry in 2002. Individual player’s signatures were stamped onto the knife blades including that of Tiger Woods. This sold for £3,240.

Lot 234 was a hand-painted bone china two-handled trophy showing Sam Ryder dressed in his robes. Although the Aynsley potteries had intended to produce only 10 such pieces, in the end only two were made. a bargain here, you’d think, at £1,800.

Back in the States, in August 2011, Heritage Auctions in Texas pulled off something of a coup when they sold four pieces of Robert T Jones memorabilia. The first lot was Bobby Jones personal Masters Green Jacket circa February 1937 as made by Haskett, 2 West 45th St., New York.

Jones’ personal Green Jacket was not a victor’s prize, but rather worn to identify him as a member of the staff, an idea germinated from his experience at the 1930 Open where red jackets were supplied to course representatives and the winning golfer.

It was in 1937 that Jones issued Green Jackets to all Augusta members and in 1949 that it became an annual prize for the new Masters Champion. The green wool garment survived in remarkable and 100% original condition, down to the brass buttons and the simple golden “RTJ” embroidered on the interior chest pocket. A spokesperson said that the Jacket presented, ‘is arguably the most important Bobby Jones artefact that exists, which puts it quite solidly in the running for the most important collectible from the history of golf as well...’

It sold for $310,700 (£190,592) including a 19.5% buyer’s premium far exceeding the $100,000 pre-auction estimate. (Photograph courtesy of Heritage Auctions).

Other notables sales here included: Lot 80052: A 1918 Robert T. Jones World War I Benefit Exhibition Medal that sold for $13,145.

Lot 80054: A circa 1930 Bobby Jones Match Used Club with exceptional provenance that realised $41,825.

The penultimate golfing sale in 2011 took place in Ludlow where Mullock’s had assembled some 500 lots. Its ceramic section performed strongly with its Lennox, Amphora, Doulton Morrisian and Doulton Lambeth pieces all going to new homes. Lot 449 was the star item, described thus in the brochure: ‘An extremely rare pair of Doulton Burslem hand painted ceramic golfing vases circa 1885 comprising large tall blue and white vases with bulbous bases hand painted with different golfing scenes (one putting and the other driving) both signed with monogram JL (J. Littler); each measures 12 inches high...’

Sold for £7,500 plus commissions. The third and final Bonhams sale took place in October. As Bonhams accept a broad range of golf consignments there were plenty of two- and three-figure offerings for the budget conscious as well as big money items.

Easily the best examples to come to the market in recent times was a small collection of Life Association of Scotland calendars, all complete with their backing boards and James Michael Brown golfing prints. The only drawback was the inability of those on tighter budgets to get a look-in, as they all sold well between £500 and £900.

Topping the sale was lot, a 37 line poem written in 1783 titled ‘The Golf Match’; it described a golf match between Blackheath and Leith golfers. The Royal Blackheath Golf Club was very much interested in it once the Bonhams manuscript expert had verified its age. After a zealous telephone bidder had gone to £1,500, it was left to the Blackheath representative to take the lot way past its £400 expectation with the winning bid. Yes, it would have been a travesty if this important document had not been returned to Royal Blackheath.

And finally for 2011 we have this great find...an unknown 1804 watercolour by a rather minor Scottish artist William Douglas depicting the Musselburgh links in the distance. We will probably never know who the two boys are! With an estimate of £20,000- 30,000 it was offered by Bonhams in their Scottish Art sale on 8 December. I will announce the result next time...

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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