Going once, going twice: How to go big at a golf memorabilia auction

March 7, 2017

In 2007, the Jeffrey Ellis Antique Golf Club Collection sold at auction for $2,166,210. In 2013, the green jacket of inaugural Masters champion Horton Smith fetched a tidy $682,229. Although collecting and selling golf memorabilia isn’t quite as lucrative as it once was, golf auctions are still big business. So, have you checked your garage lately? Longtime collector Tom Stewart, of Pure Golf Auctions and Old Sport & Gallery, tells prospective buyers and sellers just what they’ll need to know to get started.

Put your trust in a reputable auctioneer. “Don’t drop a lot of money on eBay,” Stewart cautions. “Besides ours (puregolfproductions.com), recommended golf auctions are Green Jacket (greenjacketauctions.com) and The Golf Auction (thegolfauction.com). Others include Heritage and Mullock’s.”

Selling? Get your items properly appraised and authenticated. Says Stewart, “I don’t touch it if I don’t know where it came from. Signatures make items more valuable, but they should be legible and fairly well-known so they can be verified. Arnold Palmer took great care to sign. Rory McIlroy signs with almost a series of circles. It’s tough to authenticate those.”

Get to know auction terminology and terms. “Seller’s and buyer’s “premiums” are usually 15 percent (although some auctions charge 20). That means 15 percent of the sale price goes to the auction from both the buyer and the seller. A listed “reserve price” is one specified in advance by the seller and represents the minimum bid for an item. If the reserve isn’t met, the item is removed from consideration. In some cases, it stays up until the next online auction; in others, it’s returned to the seller.”

Understand that asking price is determined by an item’s condition, authenticity and scarcity. “For $35, you can find a first edition, in good condition, of Ben Hogan’s book Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals. Find one signed, in excellent condition, and it could go for 20 times that.”

Walter Hagen’s signature is worth more than Arnold Palmer’s, Sam Snead’s or Jack Nicklaus’s. “He had the best signature of them all—the John Hancock of golf signatures.”

Antique and classic clubs are in less demand these days. “The old square-toe irons, feathery balls and long-nose woods are still valuable, but much less so than they once were. On the rise are historical paper items—old press photos, programs, letters, travel brochures and art deco posters for golf travel destinations.”

Yes, green jackets are out there, but… “They don’t come up for auction often. Five or so years ago, Bobby Jones’ green jacket sold for more than $300,000, and Horton Smith’s did double that. I came across one that belonged to Ed Carter, who’d been the tournament manager. After he passed away, we opened a dry-cleaning bag in his apartment and there it was. These are really rare, though.”

The holy grail of collectibles? “A green jacket? A U.S. Open medal? It’s up to the buyer. I like one-of-a-kind items, such as a model of the R&A clubhouse I have, built brick by brick to scale using 37,000 pieces. How do you even put a price on that?”