On the same dramatic evening that saw Kevin Rudd defeat Julia Gillard in the political arena, and Queensland thrash NSW in State of Origin II, a more polite battle took place at Charles Leski's auction house in Hawthorn East, Melbourne.
There, several collectors of VFL/AFL memorabilia were after a rare 1936 premiership medal, won that year by Collingwood. The medal was presented to player James Crowe. Several keen bidders withdrew once the lower estimate of $8000 was passed, but two collectors wanted it so badly they pushed the sale price up to $19,500, including buyers premium (IBP), a record result for any Australian rules premiership medal.
Most of the 300 or so lots of Australian rules football memorabilia sold for well above estimates, confirming the prediction of Charles Leski a few years ago that this sport was taking over from cricket as the most popular category at his regular sporting memorabilia auctions.
Cricket items were also included but results for these were disappointing, despite the timing of the auction to fit in with the Ashes tour in England. A significant collection, including Bill Woodfull's 1934 Ashes Tour photograph albums, went unsold. Leski noted that the British cricket tragics who usually participate by internet or phone were conspicuously absent.
What local collectors were after were rare VFL treasures, such as a copy of The Football Souvenir booklet from 1891 (sold for $2200 IBP), a 1913 Essendon Football Club membership badge (sold for $1465 IBP) and a large collection of Fitzroy Football Club members tickets from 1920 to 1954, all selling for prices well above estimates.
Leski notes that the 1891 souvenir booklet was in average condition, with the front cover detached and sticky tape damage, but demand for material from the 19th century is high. "There is a small but dedicated group of football collectors," he says, "who are more interested in the history of the game. It may have been a small, fairly insignificant-looking document but it's extremely rare and, well, I've never seen one before." Nor, apparently, had the pair of collectors who fought for it.
The Essendon membership badge had estimates of a mere $300 to $500. This was the subject of another bidding battle. Fitzroy no longer exists as an AFL club but there are many who collect anything to do with the club. The ticket for the 1922 season, in which it won the grand final, was seen as the most desirable. It sold for $640, IBP (estimates $400 to $500).
The others fetched about $350 to $400. The tickets were used, with a hole punched for each game attended. This makes them more collectable and every one sold.
There are fads in football collecting, sometimes short-lived. In August 2010 someone paid $1600 for a 1963 Scanlens Football Card Gum wrapper at a Leski auction. A few others have sold since (for a lot less) but the source of supply seems to have dried up. This year one of the boom areas appears to be the footy decals given away by service stations in the mid-1960s. These were designed to be fixed to the rear windows of cars, but surviving examples in good condition are now in demand. A near complete set (11 out of 12) produced by Mobilgas circa 1964 sold for $245. Estimates were $150 to $200.
Perhaps the most established subject is cigarette and trade cards, with a massive selection listed at most Leski sales. Among the more spectacular results this time was a club flag with pin given away with packs of Wills cigarettes in 1908. There are 27 different examples in the set, but one for the Geelong Football Club scored best for $440. A metal badge for Carlton produced in 1933 by Australian Liquorice sold for $340.
Charles Leski says there seems to be no end to the enthusiasm for this relatively new market. His estimate is that 80 per cent of the Australian rules material sold on the night, with cricket down to perhaps 60 per cent. The reverse applied five years ago.
Collectors or potential collectors should be careful not to invest too heavily in the memorabilia produced featuring current players. This week's hero can be quickly forgotten, especially if his or her form is not sustained over a long career. Of much greater certainty, from an investment perspective, are the items associated with the sporting achievements of significant sports men and women whose reputations have stood the test of time: Dick Reynolds, Ted Whitten, Ron Barassi, Alex Jesaulenko, Bob Skilton, for example, in Aussie rules.
And beware the "limited edition"! Ten, 20, 30, even 50 examples is a limited edition. Often so-called limited editions are no more than numbered print or production runs, marketed to take advantage of a moment in time: a grand final win, a Brownlow, a Clive Churchill medal. Five hundred, 1000 or 1300 examples of a product is not a limited edition. These have a legitimate place in the market, but should not be thought of as investments.