THE listing of a Nicky Winmar jumper for sale at Sotheby's with a cool $100,00-$200,000 estimate put the staggering value of sports memorabilia in the spotlight.
From football bedlinen to lunch boxes, the market for AFL merchandise alone has grown to an annual $25 million (up $1 million in a year) while the less visible, but much pricier football memorabilia market is worth $10 million a year, and, according to AFL valuer Rick Milne, has risen 10 per cent annually for a decade.
Unlike the art market, where the primary retail and secondary auction house markets overlap, buyers and vendors of massproduced merchandise and rare collectables remain distinct. Like the art market, collectors of football memorabilia are reluctant to part with precious items.
Mr Milne says the 500 to 1000 serious collectors "only want items pre-dating 1965" and of the 100-plus weekly inquiries he receives about football items, "only 10 per cent want to sell".
Good investments, he says, are items that can't be reproduced including original, match-worn football jumpers, old membership cards, social club badges, cigarette and trade cards and footy cards and records. "Some late 1800s membership tickets and bound volumes of 1912 footy records the first year they were issued sell between $5000 and $20,000," Mr Milne says. "The original 18-card set of Scanlens footy cards from 1963 can sell for up to $30,000, with early individual cards selling from $1500 each."
Charles Leski established Leski Auctions in 1973, selling coins and stamps, expanding to sports memorabilia in 1992. He now dominates football, cricket and Olympic Games collectables as well as rare coins, stamps and books, and holds eight yearly sales. His annual $5 million turnover includes $500,000 from football memorabilia, which, he says, will increase as the market becomes more discerning. "It's still a young market. Prices for classic football items of the 1920s, '30s and '40s don't match the prices comparable cricket items attract. Cricket is an international game with an international market, football is not."
Four years ago, Leski sold the last jumper "Mr Football", Ted Whitten, wore in 1970, for $15,700 in 2011 it sold a first Brownlow medal for a record $203,660. Leski's next sale, on June 27, will have 40 to 50 items owned by former Carlton player Ian Robertson, that Mr Leski says "is worth tens of thousands of dollars". Included are three premiership medals from 1968, 1970 and 1972 at $5000 to $7500 estimates.
Scarcity drives market value but provenance proof of the origin of an item can also be crucial. In April, the provenance of a jumper worn by former St Kilda player Winmar, on April 17, 1993 (when he exposed his dark skin following racial taunts) came into question and the item was passed in at Sotheby's for $95,000.
Leonard Joel managing director, John Albrecht, who admits the company is only just breaking into the sports memorabilia market, warns, that as far as items such as the Winmar jumper are concerned "the value of such a piece is inextricably tied to that moment on the field and not just the footballer wearing it". "Such a complex association requires extensive and 'on the ground' research within collecting circles."
Provenance at Leski's "is not a significant issue as most items come from the owners", Mr Leski insists. "Generally our clients are in their 60s, sick of the storing their memorabilia, worried about it being stolen or being harassed by prospective buyers.
"They are people providing impeccable provenance and, having not being paid the salaries of today's players, looking at superannuation outcomes."
Aside from Leski's auctions, there are three main dealers in football memorabilia in Melbourne. Mario Lopo, who has sold football collectables in Brighton for 17 years, lists unsigned VFL jumpers with emblems and the sponsor's logo, and Herald Sun cartoonist Weg's original caricature posters which span 1954 to 2008 as "great collectables". A 1958 Weg Collingwood premiership poster sells for $7000 and sets of 1954 posters can fetch $100,000, he said.
Despite the obvious distinction between merchandise and memorabilia, Mr Leski says the fund-raising initiatives of clubs producing multiple signed and framed copies of unworn jumpers puts false values on what he describes as "furniture not memorabilia".
"There's a legitimate place for the mass market but what I have trouble with is the misrepresentation of those items to have greater value because they're sold as a limited item," he says. "An unworn, framed and signed mass-produced jumper that was purchased for, say $495 would, if sold, fetch $200 to $300," Mr Leski said.
Merchandise manager at reigning premiership team, Geelong Cats, Mitchell Coulson, disagrees. He says "memorabilia" can include club fund-raisers such as 100 personally signed replicas of the jumpers worn by players in the 2011 grand final which have sold out at $2495 each.