You liked the list of 50, so I’ve got a follow-up in the works, Most Valuable: The Sports Edition. Same as last time, the records are only given to objects that have realized a record price, and does not represent “asking prices” or evaluations.
01. Most Expensive Piece of Football Memorabilia: “The Rules, Regulations, & Laws of the Sheffield Foot-Ball Club”
Price: £881,250 ($1,376,645)
Both the original handwritten draft rules from 1858 and the only known surviving copy of the printed Rules, Regulations, & Laws of the Sheffield Foot-Ball Club, from 1859 were sold together in a 2011 Sotheby’s auction to become the most expensive football memorabilia ever sold. Sold by the oldest football club in existence, Sheffield FC (established in 1857), the code was built on earlier football rules, mainly from Cambridge University and the public schools, and expanded to encourage a passing game played with the feet, and included the free kick, throw-in, goal kick, restrictions on handling the ball, and the banning of “hacking or tripping”. The early success of Sheffield FC encouraged the development of other football clubs in the region playing by the rules agreed by Sheffield, and the rapid development of the world’s first football culture. Sheffield v Hallam FC in December 1860 is the first recorded inter-club football match while the first inter-club competition, the Youdan Cup, was played in 1867 in Sheffield, under the ‘Sheffield Rules’.
While this rule book is the current holder of the title, there is another contender for the crown: the jersey worn by Sir George Hurst in the 1966 World Cup Final. Originally sold by Hurst in 2000 for less than £100,000, the piece is currently up for sale at a price of £2,300,000 (~$3,600,000); in comparison, the previous record for a football shirt is £157,750 paid in 2002 for the one worn by Pele in Brazil’s 1970 World Cup triumph. Hurst is the only player to score a hat trick in a World Cup final (and this is the shirt he wore while doing so).
02. Most Expensive Piece of American Football Memorabilia: Oilers Helmet Signed by Bum Phillips
Former NFL coach Bum Phillips may no longer be a household name, but he continues to be one of the most beloved sports icons in Texas. He coached the Houston Oilers during their most successful stretch, reaching the 1978 and 1979 AFC Championship games (the Oilers existed from 1960 to 1996, after which they relocated to Nashville, Tennessee to become the Tennessee Titans). Arguably the league’s most charismatic figure of the era, Phillips always wore his Stetson cowboy hat on the sidelines. In 2011, at a charity auction in Beaumont, Texas, this helmet signed by Phillips and several of his players became the most expensive piece of football memorabilia ever sold. The fight for the helmet was won by lawyer Steve Mostyn, who outbid his wife in comical scenes at the charity auction in Beaumont, Texas, inflating the price to well beyond its retail value, but still claiming the overall record. The helmet pictured is not the record-setting piece, but one similar to it (image quality was not sufficient on other images).
03. Most Expensive Piece of Baseball Memorabilia: 1920 Babe Ruth Game-Worn Jersey
Babe Ruth’s first season with the Yankees, 1920, is still reverberating. He batted .376, hit 54 home runs and drove in 137 runs. Attendance at the Polo Grounds more than doubled to 1.29 million. It was the season when the future Yankees dynasty began to take shape. Ruth wore a gray wool road jersey that season to perform in Boston, St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and the three other American League cities. “Ruth, G. H.” is still visible on the collar in faded pink script. Blue letters spell “New York” across the chest. Dirt stains — and probably some from sweat — are evident. All of these combine to represent the highest price ever paid for a baseball artifact at auction, and the highest of which there is a verified public record. Ruth is central to the modern sports memorabilia marketplace even if he predated car shows and QVC appearances. He revolutionized baseball with his power, his charisma and his immense appetites. Everything about him suggested that he was his own reality show. It is almost as if Ruth is still alive and preparing to compete in the July 4 hot dog eating contest in Coney Island. He is still a sports icon. And while he signed innumerable balls during his career and until he died in 1948, there are few of his game-used bats, caps or uniforms in existence.
04. Most Expensive Piece of Basketball Memorabilia: James Naismith’s Original Rules of Basketball
Kansas University graduate David Booth felt so strongly that the two pages on which James Naismith (credited with creating the sport) wrote the original 13 rules of basketball should find a home on the campus of the perennial basketball powerhouse that he paid over $4,300,000 to guarantee it. The Naismith family, who had retained the piece since its creation in 1891, decided to put the rules on the auction block in 2010 and to give the money to the Naismith charity that promotes sportsmanship and provides services to underprivileged children. Many of the 13 rules have been adapted or abandoned since Naismith wrote them for a winter sport for boys of a YMCA in Springfield, Mass. For example, rule No. 7 states: “If either side makes three consecutive fouls it shall count as a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul).” In 2013, Kansas University announced the construction of the DeBruce Center, an $18,000,000 dollar facility to be attached to their Allen Fieldhouse, which will serve as the semi-permanent home of the document (among other functions). In comparison, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln and purchased by Robert F. Kennedy was sold for less ($3,700,000) at the same auction.
05. Most Expensive Piece of Rugby Memorabilia: Broadley Medal Collection
Price: £5,280 ($8,216)
I have no idea why rugby mementos do not sell for more. In the 2007 World Cup, across 48 matches, there was a cumulative television audience numbering in the billions. Perhaps due to the relative infancy of the sport on an international stage (the Rugby World Cup was first held in 1987), artifacts from the sport of rugby do not enjoy nearly the financial windfall that memorabilia from other athletic campaigns do. The highest price (that I could verify) paid for a piece or collection of rugby memorabilia is $8,216, for a collection of late 19th and early 20th century medals and badges awarded to Yorkshire and England forward Tom Broadley that sold at Sotheby’s in February 2003. The seven medals and three badges included a 15 carat medal presented to Broadley following Yorkshire’s two tries to nil victory over England in 1892; they are so little-known that I was unable to find an image of the medals themselves.
A close second is a Wales rugby union jersey, worn in a match against England in 1910 by Ben Gronow, which made £5,040 at Christie’s in November 2006. Gronow switched codes to league later in the year.
06. Most Expensive Piece of (Ice) Hockey Memorabilia: Paul Henderson’s 1972 Summit Series Jersey
Canada had long been at a disadvantage in international ice hockey tournaments as its best players were professionals in the NHL and therefore ineligible to play at the ostensibly amateur World Championship and Olympic Games. The Soviets masked the status of their best players by having them serve in the military or hold other jobs affiliated with the teams, so they retained amateur status, even though playing hockey was their only occupational responsibility. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) promised to allow Canada to use a limited number of professional players at the 1970 tournament but later reneged, causing the nation to withdraw from all international competition. Officials in Canada and the Soviet Union subsequently negotiated an arrangement that would see the top players of each nation – amateur or professional – play in an eight game “Summit Series” in September 1972 between the world’s two greatest hockey nations. After a series of seven matches that saw some of the most brilliant plays and some of the dirtiest (Bobby Clarke would break Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle with a vicious two-handed slash, and Game Six saw some of the most biased refereeing in international play), the competition had become a battle between Eastern and Western ideologies. An estimated 50 million Soviets watched the final contest, while in Canada, offices were closed and schools suspended classes to allow students to watch the game on television in gymnasium assemblies. The two teams ended the first period tied at two goals apiece, but Canada trailed at the second intermission, 5–3, and Soviet officials stated they would claim the overall victory if the game ended in a draw as a result of scoring more goals throughout the series. Canada rallied in the third period to tie the game with seven minutes remaining. Sitting on the bench as the game entered the final minute of play, Henderson “had a feeling” that he could score. He convinced coach Sinden to send him out when Peter Mahovlich left the ice. Rushing into the Soviet zone, Henderson missed a pass from Yvan Cournoyer in front of the net and was tripped by a Soviet defenseman. As he got to his feet, Phil Esposito recovered the puck and sent it towards Henderson in front of the net. The first shot was stopped by Vladislav Tretiak, but Henderson recovered the rebound and slid it past the fallen goaltender to give Canada a 6–5 lead with only 34 seconds left to play. It was his seventh goal of the tournament, tying him for the series lead with Esposito and Alexander Yakushev. The goal won the game, and the series, for Canada. The team returned home to massive crowds in Montreal and Toronto, and Paul Henderson had become a national hero, having scored the winning goals in the last three matches of the series. This jersey, worn by Henderson in Games Five through Eight, was sold to Toronto-based Mitchell Goldhar, owner of private real estate development company SmartCentres and one of Canada’s richest men. Buyers were required to undergo a screening process to weed out those who had ideas other than displaying it publicly or privately, such as cutting the jersey up for sports card inserts.
07. Most Expensive Piece of Olympic Memorabilia: Jesse Owens’s 1936 Olympics Gold Medal
Owens, the track-and-field star of the United States, set three world records and tied another in less than an hour at the 1935 Big Ten track meet (an event that has been called “the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport”) and has never been equaled. However, he earned international fame from having won four gold medals: in the 100- and 200-meter dash, the long jump and as a member of the 4×100 meter relay team, with Adolf Hitler looking on as host of the Games; he was the most successful athlete at the games and as such has been credited with “single-handedly crushing Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.” It is unclear where the other three originals are, as the four gold medals from these Games that reside at Ohio State, where Owens attended college, are replacement medals, which the German government had made after Owens was said to have lost his originals. Since neither the medal nor what it was stored in had any markings, it is not clear which gold medal, or what event it was awarded for, is. The Owens gold medal was consigned to SCP Auctions by the estate of Elaine Plaines-Robinson, the wife of entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a close friend of Owens, who died in 1949, and was purchased by Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, a Los Angeles-based billionaire investor.
08. Most Expensive Piece of Tennis Memorabilia: Proximus Diamond Games Trophy
The only item that makes this list based entirely on intrinsic value, the Proximus Diamond Games Trophy was created with the intention to be awarded to any female player who could win the singles three times in five years in the Diamond Games. Weighing in at 8.8 pounds, the trophy is an actual molded tennis racket, however instead of being made from your typical racquet material, such as graphite or carbon fiber, this racket is made of gold, and studded with more than 1,700 diamonds including an enlarged tennis ball studded with diamonds and attached to the strings. In February 2007, Amélie Mauresmo, from neighboring France (the games were held in Antwerp) took home the trophy with a tough win over local favorite Kim Clijsters at 6-4, 7-6 (7-4). In 2009, with the restructuring of the WTA tour and the retirement of both Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin (founding players), the tournament lost its status of being a WTA tour tournament and evolved into an annual exhibition tennis event before returning to the WTA calendar in 2015. However, the trophy has never been sold as the games are ongoing.
Though likely not the true holder of the title, the most expensive sold piece of tennis memorabilia I could find evidence of is the “Tennis Girl” dress and racket, the clothing worn in the infamous poster that has graced the bedroom walls of teenagers and tennis fans since it was released in 1977 as part of an Athena calendar. It smashed a £1,000-2,000 estimate to sell for £15,500 ($24,127) in 2014.
09. Most Expensive Piece of Cricket Memorabilia: Samuel Britcher Scorecards
Price: £324,000 ($504,257)
In its infancy in Georgian England, cricket was left with very few records of match results, until the arrival of one Samuel Britcher. Though relatively unrecognized until the start of the 21st century, Britcher was the legendary archivist who kept score at the newly established Marylebone Cricket Club from its foundation in 1787. From 1790-1805 he published an annual compilation under the title: “A List of all the Principal Matches of Cricket that Have Been Played in the Year.” Today extremely rare, original editions of his record of matches between 1795 and 1806, in four volumes, was sold for the record sum in 2005.
For a single item, the highest price ever paid is £175,375 ($272,954), which was paid for the baggy green cap worn by Sir Donald Bradman in his final Test for Australia. Australia went undefeated in 1948 and Bradman, the captain, scored two centuries. But he was dismissed without scoring in his final innings at The Oval in London, leaving him with a Test average of 99.94‚ just four runs short of an average of 100.
10. Most Expensive Piece of Golf Memorabilia: Bobby Jones’s 1937 Green Jacket
Jones, most famous for his unique “Grand Slam,” consisting of his victory in all four major golf tournaments of his era (the open and amateur championships in both the U.S. & the U.K.) in a single calendar year (1930), was the most successful amateur golfer ever to compete on a national and international level. During his peak as a golfer from 1923 to 1930, he dominated top-level amateur competition, and competed very successfully against the world’s best professional golfers. Jones often beat stars such as Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, the era’s top pros. Jones earned his living mainly as a lawyer, and competed in golf only as an amateur, primarily on a part-time basis, and chose to retire from competition at age 28, though he earned significant money from golf after that, as an instructor and equipment designer. Jones founded and helped design the Augusta National Golf Club, and co-founded the Masters Tournament. This 1937 jacket, a prototype made by Haskett and thought to be Jones’ first green jacket, brought $310,700 at Heritage Auctions’ Vintage Sports Collectibles Platinum Auction, held in conjunction with the National Sports Collectors Convention in 2011. Green jackets rarely come up for sale because Augusta National restricts the jackets from being taken off club grounds, and the only exception is that the winner of the Masters Tournament gets to keep it for a year.
11. Most Expensive Piece of Boxing Memorabilia: Muhammad Ali’s Religious Exemption Letter
It’s often said that time heals all wounds, and while the statement is belied by the physical toll Muhammad Ali continues to pay for a decade and a half in the professional prize ring, perhaps no figure in American history has endured such a thorough transformation from pariah to national icon. While the brash young fighter earned more than his share of detractors for the vocal self-aggrandizement that characterized his rise from 1960 Olympic Gold Medalist to Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1964, his refusal to accept Vietnam War conscription added rocket fuel to that fire, inflaming the nationalistic ire of the Red Scare mainstream. At the height of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, Muhammad Ali suddenly found himself to be the most reviled athlete in the United States. This last attempt for approval of conscientious objector status would fall on deaf ears, and Ali was arrested, found guilty of draft evasion, and stripped of his Heavyweight title, the start of three and a half years of banishment from boxing. On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court voted unanimously to reverse Ali’s conviction, with this letter serving as the basis for the Court’s decision; it became the most expensive piece of boxing memorabilia in the world in early 2015, when it sold for $334,600 through Heritage Auctions.
The second place finisher, with the record for the most valuable ring-used piece of boxing memorabilia, were Ali’s trunks from his first fight against the champion Joe Frazier, which took place at Madison Square Garden in New York in March 1971.
Dubbed ‘The Fight of the Century’, it was Ali’s first fight in three years after being barred from the ring for refusing the Vietnam War draft. Viewed as a battle between two polar ideals, the liberal anti-war movement versus the conservative pro-war establishment, the fight took on an important symbolism in the U.S. It ended with Ali’s first defeat in his professional career, but would serve as the first chapter in Frazier and Ali’s continuing rivalry. Currently, mementos of Ali take up nine of the top ten spots on the most expensive pieces of boxing memorabilia of all time.