Hogging the Spotlight

Hogging the Spotlight

Ever heard of Babe Ruth?  Sure you have.  How about his teammate Lou Gehrig?  Probably.  What about their contemporaries Tris Speaker or Walter “Big Train” Johnson?  Maybe not, although both of the latter were among the greatest baseball players of the 1920’s and were later elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I was at a reception recently and got to chatting with Nick Dawes, who handles special collections for Heritage Auctions.  We were talking about high prices for sports memorabilia, a field in which Heritage is the dominant player, and Nick said something that surprised me.  I knew that baseballs signed by Babe Ruth are extremely popular (the baseball shown brought $93,000 at Heritage in 2021).  What I didn’t know was that collectors prefer to let stars have the stage all to themselves. 

You would think that a baseball signed by several well-known players would bring more than a ball with only one signature, but that’s not the case.  More signatures drag the price down.  Last year, for example, a baseball signed by Ruth, Gehrig, Speaker, and Johnson sold for only $10,500 at Heritage.  Differences in condition between the two balls doubtless also played a role in the disparity of values, but collectors like to see one signature showcased, and multiple signatures prevent that.

The event at which I spoke with Nick was a viewing at Bonhams of for an upcoming sale of contemporary prints, a subject about which I know far more than about sports memorabilia.  Old Master prints can be a tricky subject, with thousands of dollars riding on which state of the plate from which the print was pulled, whether the margins of the print were trimmed to make it fit in a particular frame, the condition of the paper, and so on.  Contemporary prints are generally more straightforward.  Their condition is usually better: they’re normally done on non-acidic paper and, unless the print was not protected from sunlight, the colors are still vibrant.

Even so, there can be condition issues.  Is that a smudge on the paper, or is it a shadow from a scratch on the frame’s Plexiglas?  That seeming misregistration on the borders of a screenprint – was it a deliberate choice by the artist, or did the printer get a little clumsy on this particular pull?  Factors such as these can have an effect on the desirability (and hence the value) of a particular print.

I’m not the person to appraise a Babe Ruth baseball or a jersey worn by Michael Jordan, but I do know something about contemporary prints.  They provide an opportunity for a collector on a modest budget to acquire attractive works by important artists for a fraction of what a painting would cost, but there are still hazards out there.  If you’re looking to explore that territory or you need an appraisal for some prints that you have, let’s talk.

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