Quack! An Elmer Crowell Preening Black Duck Decoy Could Fly Away with $300,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

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What you see: A Phillips rig preening black duck decoy, carved circa 1912 by A. Elmer Crowell for his patron, Dr. John C. Phillips. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

 

Who was A. Elmer Crowell? Born in 1862 in East Harwich, Massachusetts, he’s the king of American duck decoy carvers. Initially, he carved in the course of his work at duck-hunting camps, but over time, his magnificent wooden birds won fans who loved them as decorative objects. His decoys have sold at auction for six-figure sums, and two sold privately for more than $1 million each. Crowell died in 1952, at the age of 89.

 

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but is this preening black duck a hen or a drake? Black ducks get a pass on being hens or drakes. 99 percent of the time, they’re just black ducks. This is just a black duck, with no clear designation on being one or the other.

 

It’s also described as being a “rig mate” to other duck decoys that belonged to the late Dr. Phillips. What does it mean for a decoy to be a rig mate? A rig is a group of birds [decoys] owned by and hunted over by one person. It doesn’t always mean the decoys are exactly alike, or made side by side. There can be a lot of variation, depending on how they were made and used. In the context of the Phillips rig, a decoy can be anything out of that group of rig mates. There are Phillips rig mates that look nothing like Crowell’s work.

 

Crowell carved and painted hundreds of decoys that depicted black ducks. Where does this one rank among his lifetime output? It’s among his very finest. As you mention, he did hundreds of them. This bird is as good as they come, in my personal opinion.

 

Did he carve the decoy from a single piece of wood? The bird is made of two pieces, one for the body and one for the head. One thing that makes the bird so strong is the masterful sculpture of the duck in a preening position. It’s not easy to capture well, and Crowell did it nearly perfectly. The finer details of the carving show Crowell’s tremendous effort to do his best work for his best patron. We see him coming into a sweet spot in his career–he was as good a carver as he would be, and this was on the early side of showing his command of his wet-on-wet painting technique, which gives a natural, soft look to the feathers.

 

This looks gorgeous enough to have been destined for a mantle, but the lot notes say it shows evidence of being used on a hunt… It’s a working decoy, and at the same time, it represents one of the best carved decoys in a decorative sense. The bird was hardly used. It was probably retired early because of an appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. I suspect the patron deemed it too precious to hunt over. What’s interesting about the Phillips rig is Crowell didn’t just make this decoy for Phillips, he was his stand manager. He created the decoys, and decided where they would be hunted, and how they would be hunted over. Crowell knew he was going to be involved with handling the decoy after it left his workshop. He wasn’t handing it over to a hunter who might break it. It’s unknowable, but it’s possible because of the relationship Crowell and Phillips had.

 

Do we know when Crowell made this decoy? He used a hot brand [on his decoys]. We can date his birds to some extent on the quality of the brand. Every time a brand is heated, it corrodes a little. Over the years, a brand can be seen burning out, leaving a softer and softer impression. It’s a great dating tool that Crowell inadvertently left behind. This has a perfectly crisp oval brand, which suggests it was 1912.

 

Carving the duck’s head to make it hover in a natural-looking way over the body seems difficult. Is it harder to carve a preening duck? You can think of a preener as the decoy maker’s deluxe model. It’s harder to carve and harder to paint. But it adds variety to the rig, making it look more lifelike as a group. An additional benefit is they’re less breakable because the body can protect the head. We have a 200-year-old decoy in the sale with an intact bill because it’s protected by the body in the preening pose.

 

What is your favorite detail on this decoy? When I look at this bird, the first thing it does is hold together as a phenomenal piece of sculpture. You can go from tip to tail picking out fine details that were expertly executed, but the bird is better than any one single detail.

 

What is it like to hold the decoy? [Laughs] Being in the presence of the decoy before handling it is a real pleasure. It’s excellent from every angle. And it feels just right in the hand. It’s full, robust, and you can feel the finer subtleties in the carving details. I wouldn’t change a thing.

 

To explain what a big deal it is to auction Donal C. O’Brien, Jr.’s collection of decoys and sporting art, can you draw an analogy to other notable auctions of lots consigned by great collectors? It would be somewhat like the Rockefeller collection or the Yves St. Laurent collection in its breadth and quality, and that’s been reflected in the market response to the birds so far.

 

Why will this Crowell preening black duck decoy stick in your memory? Crowell is a quintessential representative of great American bird carving. He was self-taught. He started making decoys because he needed to, and his working decoys led to the birth of American decorative bird carving. This bird is at the nexus of his carving career, where his working decoys became so good, they’re indistinguishable from decorative carving. He’s one of the best makers, making his best effort, carving one of his favorite species for his most important client. It fires on all cylinders from a historic standpoint and an aesthetic standpoint.

 

How to bid: The Crowell preening black duck is lot 14 in the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Collection of Important American Sporting Art and Decoys, Session III, taking place July 19, 2018 at Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

 

Copley Fine Art Auctions appeared on The Hot Bid last summer in a post about a record-setting Gus Wilson duck decoy.

 

Quack!

 

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Hunt Auctions Has a Mickey Mantle Game-worn Yankees Cap That Could Fetch $100,000

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What you see: A game-worn Mickey Mantle Yankees baseball cap, circa 1968, size 7 3/4, inscribed by Mantle to his teammate, Tom Tresh. It also comes with a letter of provenance from Tresh, who died in 2008. Hunt Auctions estimates the cap at $50,000 to $100,000.

 

The expert: Dave Hunt of Hunt Auctions.

 

How rare is it to see any authentic game-worn garments from Mickey Mantle at auction, hats or otherwise? Game-used, game-worn, there’s different terminology used in our industry. Jerseys and uniforms come first, and that’s understandable, because [prior to the 1970s or so] there were a few sets issued per year [players got a home uniform and a road uniform each season], and few are in private hands. Then there’s hats and bats and the like. Hats are rare specifically because [provenance] is so hard. If you take a magic marker and write ‘7’ inside the hat, it could be attributed to Mantle. Here, the provenance is buttoned up. It’s so special. I’ve had two or three Mantle hats of any type over the last 26 years, and this is clearly the best one I’ve offered.

 

What makes this Mantle cap the best one you’ve offered? In today’s [Major League Baseball] world, everything is formally witnessed. It’s just different from the 1960s. You’ve got to get as close to the primary source as you can. To the degree that you can, this cap has every attribute that can be corroborated. You have “Mick 7” written underneath the bill with the inscription, “To Tom My Best Wishes, Your Friend Mickey Mantle.” You have a letter of provenance from Tom Tresh, his teammate.

 

Is it rare to have an inscribed game-worn hat from any well-known baseball player? I would say it’s unusual. You do see them.

 

How hard is it to document a period game-worn baseball cap? Fewer hats are documentable to the degree that meets [accepted third-party graders’] guidelines. We’ve had plenty of hats that could well be significant, but don’t have the documentation to prove it. We have one in the auction, a game-worn Brooklyn Dodgers hat with insertion plates [which were needed] because teams were beaning Jackie Robinson. A Brooklyn Dodgers employee gave it to his neighbor–we locked that up [that aspect of the provenance]. But there’s no 42 in it, and the size is off from Jackie Robinson’s hat size. [The lot notes state that the cap is 6 3/4, while Robinson’s documented hat size is 7.] It’s a beautiful hat, a rare hat with insertion plates. It may sell for $3,000 to $4,000, but if it had a 42 in it, it could be a quarter million plus. We clearly point out the inconsistencies that say that its not [not necessarily worn by Robinson]. That’s how to represent it.

 

How generous was Mantle with his game-worn hats? Did he give them away often? I don’t know. You do see, with a player of Mantle’s caliber, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays–they were the most popular people in the world. People sought them out and had access to the players and the field that we don’t have today. You could wait by their cars. Hats weren’t worth a lot then. It was a different world.

 

And Mantle gave this hat to Tresh because they were teammates? As far as we can tell. They clearly were teammates, they played during the same era, and they had a lot of chances to interact. What’s nice is there’s a personal letter from Tom [explaining how and when Mantle gave him the hat].

 

How do you know the hat dates to circa 1968? Yankee hats still are so stylistically similar to what they wear [now] that you go by tagging [period tags sewn inside the hat]. We had the advantage here of Tresh himself noting in the letter of provenance when he recalled getting it. The 1968 date is consistent with the tagging, model, and style. With the Tresh attribution, we feel comfortable in saying it’s circa 1968.

 

Game-worn clothes present a weird situation to collectors: you want them to show some wear, but not too much. What condition is the Mantle cap in? It’s very fine. It’s excellent. It’s not abused in any way, shape, or form. It does have cracking to the bill, which is normal. It has perspiration wear, but not abusively so. The top of the hat is navy blue in color, but muted. Why? Because of the sun. It’s a nice mix of honest use and the wear you want to see, but not with the condition issues that might hold the value down.

 

How did you arrive at the estimate of $50,000 to $100,000? It was actually a bit difficult. Mantle game-worn jerseys bring from a quarter of a million to $750,000. There are so few hats at this level that this hat–it’s tough. You could argue it’s $20,000 to $30,000. You could argue it’s $100,000 to $150,000. If it was a jersey, it would be one of the better jerseys.

 

Have you tried on the hat? No. Nope. (Laughs.) People have asked me that before with jerseys and hats, and I can honestly say in 26 years I don’t think I ever wore one. Not once.

 

How have you avoided the temptation? I don’t know. There’s nothing wrong with wearing them, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s baseball superstition. Maybe it’s reverence. Maybe it’s coincidence. But I don’t know.

 

As of July 6, 2018, bids on the Mantle cap have passed $15,000, with the close of the auction more than a week away. Does that mean anything? It really doesn’t. You can go through the auction and see things that are three times higher than the estimate already. It could sell for past that, or not any further. I wouldn’t say it’s completely irrelevant. It can be. But it’s by no means indicative of how it will end up.

 

Why will this Mantle cap stick in your memory? I’m a fan of the pieces of professional model equipment that have incredible provenance. When you have something so well-sourced, it not only does better at auction, you can go to the client and stand behind it and say this is the one to go for. On this piece, it’s the combination–it’s not just the “Mick 7,” or the inscription, or the size and the style being consistent with other Mantle hats, or the letter–it’s all of those things. It has all those boxes checked to make it one of the better pieces.

 

How to bid: The inscribed Mickey Mantle game-worn Yankees cap is lot 895 in Hunt Auctions‘s 2018 Live Auction at the MLB All-Star FanFest on July 16 and 17, 2018.

 

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Hunt Auctions.

 

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RECORD: Jesse Owens’s 1936 Olympic Gold Medal Sells for $1.46 Million at SCP Auctions

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Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records. 

What you see: A 1936 Olympic gold medal, one of four earned by Jesse Owens during the Berlin games. SCP Auctions sold it in 2013 for $1.46 million, a world auction record for any piece of Olympic memorabilia.

Who was Jesse Owens? He was an African-American athlete who put the lie to Adolf Hitler’s racist Nazi policies when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin in track and field events: the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump, and the 4 x 100 relay. Sadly, his glory was cut short by American sports officials, who took away his amateur status and killed his career after he accepted endorsement deals. He struggled thereafter, resorting more than once to running against racehorses (and beating them). He died of lung cancer in 1980 at the age of 66.

How did you come up with an estimate for Jesse Owens’s Olympic gold medal? “Estimates are always educated guesses,” says Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions. “Nothing is directly comparable to Jesse Owens’s medal. We had the estimate at half a million and up, and we far exceeded our estimate.”

Do we know when Owens gave the medal to his friend, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson? “We can’t pinpoint the moment when Owens gave it to him, but their relationship is well-documented,” he says.

What was your role in the auction? “The bidding was all done online,” he says, noting that he dealt with prospective bidders and promoted the lot. “To be honest with you, when we’re in the final stage of bidding, most of our work is done. There’s a tremendous amount of research and marketing leading up to that point.”

When did the online bidding enter crunch time? “On the final day, at 5 pm PST, we went into extended bidding. The hours between 5 pm and 8 pm PST are when people make their moves and really competitive bidding, bidding wars, occur,” he says. “We entered extended bidding on the Owens medal at $447,000. It rose to $1.4 million over a period of three hours. I can’t say exactly how many people were bidding, for privacy reasons, but there were definitely more than two.”

When did you know you had a world auction record? “We weren’t really focused on setting a record,” he says. “We were more focused on getting a result that was worthy of the item. We were very pleased to see it pass the seven-figure mark, but we were not surprised.”

What do you remember most about that auction? “The exciting part for us was having the validation of people recognizing the historic significance and value of the item. It was nice to see it go for a figure commensurate with its importance,” he says. “We’ve sold items for more than this sold for, but I’m not sure we’ve sold anything more important from a cultural standpoint. It goes so far beyond the realm of sports memorabilia. Given what it represents, it’s very difficult to put a price on it. In my opinion, it’s worth more today than it was in 2013. If it sold again today, it would bring a higher price.”

Why do you think the Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal would sell for more than $1.4 million if it was consigned again today? “There are several factors,” he says. “The high-end collectible sports memorabilia market has advanced significantly in the last four years. Also, in that time, a major motion picture about Jesse Owens, Race, further raised his profile and raised awareness of what he accomplished. The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian recently opened an African-American sports exhibit. It wasn’t in place at the time the medal sold, but I can’t imagine a greater centerpiece for it. I think the medal’s magnitude has grown for all those reasons.”

Owens won three other gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, but they appear to be missing. If any of them turned up, along with ironclad documentation that proves they belonged to Owens, how might they do at auction? “If another two or three could be verified, none would be worth less than what we sold ours for, and they could sell for substantially more,” he says.

What was it like to hold Jesse Owens’s Olympic gold medal? “We’re in the business of handling historic artifacts on a daily basis. You can get numb to it. We really felt we were in a privileged position to be handling this,” Imler says. “After 20 years in the business, you don’t get goose bumps that often. This raises goose bumps. It’s very special.”

Why will the Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal stick in your memory? “It’s the ultimate symbol of triumph, and not just in the athletic realm,” he says. “It’s symbolic of civil rights, athletic greatness, courage, fortitude–it’s so far beyond sports, so far beyond anything we’ve handled in our company history. It will stand the test of time and provide inspiration for many generations to come.”

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SCP Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram as well.

SCP Auctions will offer the Jesse Owens Estate Collection in its 2018 Spring Auction, which takes place between March 7 and March 24, 2018. Lots will include the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to Owens by President Gerald Ford in 1976 (estimated at $250,000-plus); the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously awarded to Owens by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 (estimated at $150,000-plus); and two of the four First Place Olympic Winner Diplomas he received for his performances in the Long Jump and the 200 Meter race at the 1936 Berlin games (estimate pending).

Jesse Owens has an official web site.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of SCP Auctions.

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SOLD! Yo, Adrian! This Rocky Balboa Statue Commanded More Than $403,000 At SCP Auctions

Rocky Balboa Statue

Update: SCP Auctions sold the Rocky Balboa statue for $403,657.

What you see: A limited edition monumental bronze statue of Rocky Balboa, commissioned from sculptor A. Thomas Schomberg for the 1982 film Rocky III. SCP Auctions estimates it at $500,000-plus.

Who is Rocky Balboa? He is the fictional star of the Rocky series of films, which are about an Italian-American boxer who climbed from the bottom to the absolute top. The first Rocky appeared in 1976 and propelled its writer-lead, Sylvester Stallone, to Hollywood fame. Stallone has played the Rocky Balboa character in six sequels, including the most recent, Creed, released in 2015. The Rocky films have collectively earned more than $675 million in ticket sales alone.

How did this statue come to be? The producers of Rocky III commissioned the statue for the film. It commemorates the famous scene in the original film in which the boxer runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was placed at the top of the steps for filming, but now stands at the bottom right of the steps. The statue and the steps rival Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell as the most popular tourist attractions in Philadelphia.

Who is A. Thomas Schomberg, and how was he chosen to sculpt the Rocky statue? By the early 1980s, the Colorado-based sculptor was well-known for his sports-themed works. Stallone owned a few of his boxing-related pieces and called him for the Rocky III job, which took a year. The actor sat for a plaster life mask to assist Schomberg in creating the bronze.

How many Rocky statues are there? Only three of the monumental-size statues exist. Two, including this one, were cast at the same time in the early 1980s, and the third was cast in 2006. The statue consigned to SCP Auctions had been on loan to the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum until recently. The later-cast statue is still with Schomberg.

And this is an exact replica of the one that’s outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art? “Correct, and it was made simultaneously, to the same specifications. They’re virtually identical,” says Dan Imler, vice president of SCP Auctions. “The one on display in Philadelphia and the one we have are twins.”

How often do you have sports-themed art in your auctions? Is it something you seek? “We’ve had our fair share over the years. It’s a take-it-as-it-comes scenario,” he says. “The Rocky statue fits many categories. It’s a monumental piece of art. It’s sports art, but you can see it as movie memorabilia. And it’s an iconic piece of Americana. It transcends categories. It’s many things. It should appeal to a cross-section of bidders.”

This statue stands eight feet, six inches tall and weighs 2,000 pounds. What should bidders hold in mind when they consider this piece? “It’s not ideally suited for your average living room. You won’t put it on your mantle or your coffee table. But I think it’s going to appeal to different people,” he says. “It has a lot of commercial value. You could display it at a public venue, or a business, or privately as well. We know from the example in Philadelphia that it was made to be displayed outdoors, or it can be put indoors, as it was in San Diego.”

I’ve never seen the Rocky statue in person. How did it affect you? “It’s breathtaking, first of all, for its sheer size,” Imler says. “Second of all is its sheer artistry. It’s incredibly well done, a beautiful work of art that conveys its ultimate intention, which is inspiration. It’s a very inspiring piece. Anyone who has seen the Rocky movies immediately thinks of the rags-to-riches story. This is an ideal representation of that.”

Why will this lot stick in your memory? “I was always an enormous fan of the Rocky movies,” he says. “If I’m flipping the channels and I happen upon any one of them, it’s hard to turn away. I remember being very moved by the original Rocky film. This statue embodies that story–the overcoming-the-odds, blue-collar, never-give-up mentality. It’s a very inspiring piece. We hope it lands in a place like its brother in Philadelphia, to be appreciated by as many people as possible.”

How to bid: The Rocky Balboa statue is among the lots in SCP Auctions‘ Fall Premier sale, which takes place from October 18 through November 4.

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SCP Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram as well. A. Thomas Schomberg has a website with a page that is dedicated to the Rocky statue. The statue also has its own website.

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of SCP Auctions.

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LAST CALL: Nothing But Net: Grant Zahajko Could Sell a 1936 Olympic Basketball Gold Medal for $150,000

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Antiques Roadshow returns to PBS with new episodes starting on Monday, October 30, at 8 pm (check your tv listings for your local station). To celebrate its pending return, I’m reposting stories from The Hot Bid that feature people who’ve appeared on the show as appraisers. Up first is Grant Zahajko.

What you see: The Olympic gold medal awarded to John Haskell “Tex” Gibbons for his role in propelling the United States basketball team to victory in 1936. Gibbons was 28 at the time. The medal is double-sided and gold-plated and measures just over two inches in diameter. It comes with a letter of authenticity from his family and ephemera that he gathered on his Berlin adventure. Grant Zahajko estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.

Who was John Haskell “Tex” Gibbons? He was a 6’1″ inch guard who played professional basketball years before the NBA arrived. He was on the team at Southwestern College, in Winfield, Kan., and moved on to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), playing for the McPherson Globe Oilers. He earned his nickname from the state where he was raised. He died in 1984 at the age of 76.

Why was the 1936 US Olympic basketball team important? “1936 was the first time basketball was an Olympic event,” Zahajko says, adding that more than 20 countries fielded teams and James Naismith, creator of the game, then 74, crowned the winning team with laurels.

What did the Americans have to do to win? “Hitler was not aware of basketball and didn’t give it much recognition. He built gyms, but he didn’t build one for basketball. They played on lawn tennis courts,” he says. “They played [the Olympic final] in a downpour. They couldn’t dribble. They could only pass.  It was a low-scoring game.” The U.S. squelched its way to the gold, defeating Canada 19-8.

Are Olympic medals from 1936 more valuable than those from other years? “1936 medals are very sought-after, even gold medals with no attribution,” he says, referring to those that come to market without related material that proves who earned them. “It’s because of the importance of that Olympics, and how tense and charged it was. Hitler promised not to push his [regime-glorifying] campaign, but he did not hold to that.”

How many other 1936 Olympic gold medals for basketball have you handled? “Only three from the 14-man team have ever surfaced, and I’ve had the privilege of touching all three,” he says, alluding to having appraised them. One went to auction at another venue in 2015. It commanded $67,000 despite suffering heavy wear that included having a hole drilled at the top so it could be worn as a necklace. The Gibbons medal is in far better condition. “It’s no longer in its original box, but it’s been well-cared for,” Zahajko says.

How to bid: The gold medal is lot 110a in the Sports Cards and Memorabilia, Autographs, Entertainment, Transportation & More! sale offered by Grant Zahajko Auctions on June 24, 2017 in Spokane, Wash.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Grant Zahajko Auctions.

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RECORD: Hunt Auctions Sets a Record with Roberto Clemente’s 1967 Silver Bat Award

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What you see: A National League Championship Silver Bat award, given to Roberto Clemente in 1967. Hunt Auctions sold it in July 2017, during the All-Star festivities in Miami, for $420,000–a record for a silver bat award at auction.

Who was Roberto Clemente? He was a Puerto Rican right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1972. He won the Gold Glove every year from 1961 through 1972, won the National League batting title four times, and played in two World Series. When Clemente died in a plane crash on the last day of 1972, the stewards of the Baseball Hall of Fame changed the rules to allow any player who has been dead for at least six months to gain eligibility to enter. Clemente was chosen for the hall within months of the change, becoming the first player with Latin and Caribbean heritage to earn the honor. He was 38 when he died.

How often do these silver bat awards come to auction? “It’s extremely rare for one to come to auction, especially one from someone of Clemente’s stature,” says Dave Hunt of Hunt Auctions, who notes that he’s handled about 10 of the awards over the last 25 years. “They’re inherently scarce.”

This is a full-size bat? And it’s made from solid sterling silver? Yes and yes. The 1967 Clemente silver bat weighs 55.6 Troy ounces, which equates to 3.8 pounds–more than twice as much as a standard wooden Louisville Slugger, which weighs 1.6 pounds. “It’s heavy,” Hunt says, laughing. “It’s a very, very significant presentational piece, which it should be. It was given to some of the greatest athletes in the world. You don’t want to hand them something that’s any less than the quality level you’d expect.”

Clemente earned four silver bats during his career, in 1961, 1964, 1965, and 1967. Where are the other three? The 1964 bat was sold alongside the 1967 bat in the July 2017 auction. They were subsequent lots–569 and 570. The Clemente family has the third silver bat, and the fourth, which Clemente gave to Pirates manager Joe Brown, was later sold and is now in private hands.

So the 1964 and the 1967 Clemente silver bats both came to market for the first time in the July 2017 Hunt Auctions sale? Yes. Both came directly from the Clemente family, both in the same good condition, both had the same estimate ($100,000 to $200,000). The only difference between the bats was the dates.

The 1964 silver bat fetched $260,000, and the 1967 silver bat sold for $420,000. Why did the 1967 bat do so much better?1967, statistically, is Roberto Clemente’s finest year as a hitter,” Hunt says. “That’s why this is considered the best one, and why it brought the most money.”

This set a record for any silver bat award at auction. What makes this achievement such a big deal? “To give you a sense of the significance, Mickey Mantle is one of the benchmarks, he’s on the Mount Rushmore of baseball, and it wasn’t even close. The Clemente bat sold for at least $100,000 more,” Hunt says. (Mantle’s 1956 silver bat sold for $270,000 in 2003.)

When did you know you had a record? How long do you think it will stand? “When the hammer came down, I was confident it was a record, but I had to check to make sure,” he says. “The number of players on the level of Ted Williams, Clemente, and Mantle, who won silver bats and can eclipse the Clemente bat… it’s tiny. There’s a handful [of comparable silver bats] out there, and I mean a scant handful, less than [the fingers on]one hand, that might have a chance.”

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Hunt Auctions.

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RECORD: A Game-Worn 1920 Babe Ruth Jersey Hit a Grand Slam at SCP Auctions in 2012

Babe Ruth Jersey

What you see: A road gray, game-worn New York Yankees jersey that was worn by Babe Ruth. SCP Auctions sold it for $4.4 million in May 2012, setting a record for any item of sports memorabilia at auction.

How rare are game-worn Babe Ruth baseball uniforms? “If you count them all, it’s ten. If you’re talking Yankees, it’s less than half a dozen,” says SCP Vice President Dan Imler, adding that SCP has handled five of the ten.

Ruth was recognized as a superstar in his time. Why weren’t more game-worn Babe Ruth uniforms saved, even as mementoes? “In his era, even the Yankees were fairly frugal,” he says. “It was typical to issue only two home uniforms and two road uniforms for the entire season, and they were considered to be disposable. [Once the season was over,] they would send them to the minor leagues as a cost-saving measure. That’s how a lot of [pre-1970 game-worn baseball uniforms] come to market–a player in the minors is issued a major-league jersey and doesn’t go on to a career, but he keeps his jersey.”

I understand that SCP Auctions uncovered some information that made the jersey even more valuable? “There was an undiscovered element to the jersey,” Imler says. “Before it came to us, we knew it was a Babe Ruth Yankees road uniform in all-original condition, but it was not dated until it reached us. We were able to date it to 1920, which elevated it quite a bit.”

How did you pinpoint the jersey’s date to 1920? “Through photo-matching. Also, it has cut sleeves [shorter sleeves than standard issue]. We were able to find images of Ruth with cut sleeves from that period,” he says.

Your colleague, SCP President David Kohler, called the Ruth road jersey “The finest sports artifact we’ve handled in our 30-year history.” Do you agree? “I absolutely agree with that. It’s arguably the finest piece of baseball memorabilia to surface anywhere,” Imler says. “You have to start with Ruth. Ruth is on a level all his own. When it comes to baseball memorabilia, he is the king. There’s nothing more coveted than a jersey or a uniform he work on his back in the most critical period of baseball history. Any Ruth uniform would be paramount, but he wore it in the earliest part of his career, when he transformed and resurrected the game. It checks all the boxes. It has everything you could ask for.”

Well, maybe not everything. Would it have sold for even more if it was a home jersey–if it had the famous Yankees pinstripes? “I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone looked at it as if it was lacking anything,” he says. “I don’t think anyone was wanting more from it.”

SCP estimated the jersey at $2 million and up. Was it difficult to arrive at that estimate?  “Any sports object in seven figures is very uncommon. Multiple seven figures is very rare territory,” he says. “It was a lofty estimate at the time, but the market spoke and it sold for more than double that estimate. It validated the quality we believed it possessed.”

What factors drove the record price? “It was the best of the best in every category,” Imler says. “It was Babe Ruth. The quality was off the charts. It was completely original. It was from the most pivotal point in his career. And the fact that so few Ruth-worn jerseys come up–it was a huge call to action for high-end clients. When an item like this presents itself, you never know when you’re going to get another shot.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “Certainly this same jersey, if it was ever offered again, would surpass the previous sale price. I could see the record being topped in the next five years if something comparable surfaced,” Imler says, adding that he is not aware of another item, aside from the jersey itself, that could beat the auction record.

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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of SCP Auctions.

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