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A Clumsy Opening Tip-Off: Breaking Down A New Era at NBA Auctions

A Clumsy Opening Tip-Off: Breaking Down A New Era at NBA Auctions
February 1, 2024
Dylan Dittrich

Photo: Sotheby's

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The spotlight invites scrutiny.

The NBA and Sotheby's announced their new game-worn partnership to great acclaim in November. Finally, the parade of jerseys was emerging from the obscurity of the NBA Auctions site to the well-lit halls of one of the world's most renowned auction houses. The secret - seemingly known only to existing basketball memorabilia collectors - would soon be out, and throngs of new bidders would vie for the game-worn garb of the sport's brightest stars.

The partnership tipped off with a dream start from a dream asset: Victor Wembanyama's debut-worn Spurs jersey. Against an estimate of $80,000 to $120,000, the jersey sold for a brow-raising sum of $762,000. If the result was a harbinger of things to come, then this partnership would indeed elevate game-worn hoops collecting to a new level. The Wemby jersey captured headlines - rightfully so - but behind the curtain cast by a jersey made for a man standing 7'4, results were lukewarm, at least relative to the expectations cast by Sotheby's.

In that first event, 42 of 64 lots hammered for prices below their low estimates. Fifteen lots hammered within their ranges, while only seven exceeded them. Absent the top-billed Wembanyama lot, the aggregate hammer price of just under $384k came up shy of the aggregate low estimate of $428,000. Perhaps then, the $762,000 price for the debut jersey was not a reflection of the partnership's strength but instead simply the sports memorabilia market doing what it does at the moment: paying top dollar for premier assets.

Auctioning a high volume of sports memorabilia lots at a regular cadence is not something Sotheby's has a long and documented history of doing. In recent years, they've demonstrated an immense ability to achieve museum-quality prices for museum-quality pieces. Single-lot auction events have repeatedly delivered seven-figure sale prices for Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, Wilt, Maradona, and Messi. Irrevocable bids or not, that's no small feat. But if you've watched Part II of those auctions, featuring dozens of lots of a lesser caliber, you've noticed many results fail to stack up against estimates.

This frequent-cadence, higher-volume game is new to the house in sports. It seems that adjustment will take time and a recognition that each individual jersey will have a harder time standing out in a quickly growing sea of them. What seems like an extraordinary jersey due to a statistical accomplishment or an occasion (Christmas, In-Season Tournament, etc) often proves ordinary when competing for bids with 30 other jerseys today and who knows how many more tomorrow. That was a reminder frequently issued during last week's International Player Edit event.

The event saw 22 of 35 lots hammer below their estimate ranges, with just three finishing above. Some of the jerseys with the highest expectations came up shortest:

  • A jersey from Luka Doncic's 10,000-point game, played on Christmas Day, was estimated to sell for between $80,000 and $120,000. It hammered for $40,000 and sold for $50,800. Unfortunately, Luka passed 10,000 points in the first half, and this was a second-half jersey. His 50-point performance was not enough to propel bidding to the expected levels.
  • A jersey worn by Giannis Antetokounmpo when he achieved his third-highest point tally was estimated to sell for between $30,000 and $50,000. It hammered for $7,000 and sold for $8,890. Unless collectors vividly remember that third-highest point tally for good reason, they don't care much about a third-highest point tally, and that rings true of a first-half jersey from a November loss to the Pacers.
  • A jersey worn on Christmas Day by Nikola Jokic was estimated to sell for between $25,000 and $35,000. It hammered for $10,000, selling for $12,700. Christmas Day provenance apparently delivers a lump of coal instead of high prices.

Lots with a low estimate of $10,000 or higher achieved a hammer ratio (hammer price divided by low estimate) of just 0.81 in the event. Lots with a low estimate under $10,000 performed far better versus estimates, achieving a hammer ratio of 1.04. Demand for assets lining the floor of these events may be in a healthy spot. But the qualifying standards for standout prices are growing more strict. As the supply of jerseys continues to hum to market (and hum, it will - there are seven more Sotheby's events scheduled in 2024), the bar for extraordinary will only rise.

Even Victor Wembanyama recording all kinds of debuts and rookie achievements won't permanently spare the results, although he continues to draw spirited bidding. The $82,550 paid for his City Edition jersey was the standout of last week's event, outperforming a $30,000 - $50,000 estimate.

The Sotheby's partnership no doubt represents a step forward for the category. It remains early, and expectations will be adjusted should audiences not rise to meet them. But gone are the days of shadows and obscurity on the NBA site, where jerseys had no estimates to stack up against. The spotlights are on the center of the collecting hardwood, and they're illuminating a clumsy tip-off.

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