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Great Expectations, Good Results: Rising Stakes Mean Disappointment in Huge Sports Memorabilia Auction Results

Great Expectations, Good Results: Rising Stakes Mean Disappointment in Huge Sports Memorabilia Auction Results
June 22, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

Photos: Sotheby's (Left), SCP Auctions (Center), and Goldin (Right)

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"Only $1,380,000."

"Just $1.8 million."

If you follow the world of high-end collecting for long enough, you get alarmingly numb to big numbers. $1.4 million for a pair of sneakers? Where'd they get 'em, Payless?! That's a bargain! $1.8 million for a 60 year old uniform? Buyer's lucky day!

That's the state of play in the game-worn sports memorabilia category in 2023. A flurry of headline-making sales in the mid seven and even low eight-figures have completely reset the expectations for the prices trophy assets should fetch at auction. So, when Michael Jordan's Flu Game sneakers sell for $1,380,000 and Wilt Chamberlain's Rookie uniform sells for $1,792,289, as they did last week, the news is met in some circles with surprise.

No, not surprise that they sold for that much.....surprise that they sold for that little! Borderline disappointment!

When you zoom out, as we'll do in a moment, you realize that's kind of crazy. These are massive figures! Before we gain some valuable perspective, though, let's explain how these million dollar relics could possibly disappoint some observers.

It was only two months ago when Michael Jordan's sneakers from Game 2 of the 1998 NBA Finals sold for a sneaker record of $2,238,000 at Sotheby's. With an estimate of $2,000,000 to $4,000,000, they received just a lone irrevocable bid to seal the deal, but a sale was struck nonetheless. The pair was no doubt impressive for myriad reasons: the Last Dance season, a beautiful signature on each shoe, a photomatch to the occasion. Take nothing away from that pair, which is certainly a formidable Jordan relic.

Here's the thing, though: not that many people remember anything specifically special about Game 2 of the '98 Finals. You could check out the stats and see that MJ dropped 37 and the Bulls won. But could you conjure up a vivid image of the game in your imagination? Unlikely.

So, when the Flu Game Jordans surfaced in the Goldin 100 Auction just weeks later, some felt the record would be short-lived. Basketball fans hear "Flu Game", and images of the iconic moment instantly flash through their memories: Jordan doubled over with his hands on his knees in exhaustion, Jordan leaning on Scottie to walk towards the bench. Whether it was the flu or just funky pizza, the game is a widely-recognized piece of Jordan lore. It's often the power of the moment that propels memorabilia to record prices.

Alas, it was not to be. All they did was sell for the 4th highest publicly-known price of any sneakers ever, about $850k short of the record. The pair slots in behind the Last Dance Jordans ($2.2 million), the Kanye-worn Air Yeezy Prototype ($1.8 million), and the Jordan-worn Air Ship ($1.5 million). It's a massive result by almost any measure, but it's not the continued assault on the record books some were hoping for.

The Wilt uniform was a record setter, though. At $1.8 million, it's the most expensive game-worn vintage basketball item ever sold. Whose expectations aren't met there?! Well, for one, fractional shareholders.

The uniform was consigned from the Collectable platform, where the flow of assets to auction continues. In August of 2021, shareholders received a buyout offer of $2,000,000 for the uniform. 82% of shares voted to decline it. In September of 2022, an even higher offer of $3,000,000 came in. It was met with an even harsher response: 92% of shares voted to reject. Fast forward nine months, and it sold for over $1.2 million less. Ouch. You can see how disappointment is merited there, particularly for shareholders who either wanted to accept the offers or would prefer to hold on for the much longer term. The uniform was initially offered at a market cap of $1,275,000 and traded as high as $3,337,500.

Okay, here's the part where we zoom out and realize that 1) these heightened expectations tell the story of just how much this category has advanced in recent years, and 2) we shouldn't be quick to sneer at the massive sales numbers.

Those Flu Game Jordans? Well, not to steal the Flip of the Week's thunder, but they sold in 2013 for $104,765. We'll unpack that further down the e-mail, but suffice it to Or let's take a look at the record books. Until October of 2021, no pair of sneakers had broken the $1 million mark. In fact, before the Air Ships sold that month, the record stood at a "mere" $615,000. Pre-2020, the most any pair of sneakers had ever sold for was $437,500. Today, a $1.4 million sale hits, and it's a so-so result!

The Wilt uniform? It sold privately for $700,000 in the summer of 2019. It's only been four years, but it's up 156%. The sale prices aren't listed online for auctions that took place so long ago, but back in 2001, the uniform was auctioned at Grey Flannel with an opening bid of $20,000. Set that specific uniform aside. A Wilt rookie road uniform, albeit with lighter authentication, sold for $48,000 at SCP in 2007. Or more recently, the literal last uniform Bill Russell ever wore, which clinched an NBA title, sold for $1,126,250 in December of 2021, establishing the vintage record at the time. For what it's worth, mainstream media outlets remain rightfully blown away by the $1.8 million price, blissfully unaware of the complicated history of rejected buyouts and higher estimates.

This is a market that has advanced dramatically, both over the long and especially short term. The stakes have risen, and so have the expectations. The headlines have brought in some new buyers; card collector Rob Gough, who famously bought a PSA 9 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card for $5.2 million in 2021, entered the space with a major splash in the last week. He bought the Wilt uniform, the $715k Gretzky jersey at Grey Flannel, and a $462,000 Kobe Bryant jersey from the 2010 NBA Finals at Goldin. Just a quaint little collection, built over a few days.

Ultimately though, while the buyer pool is growing, it remains limited when items pass $1 million. Two high-end auctions in one week can cannibalize each other, because the pool isn't yet that deep. It takes multiple highly-engaged bidders to push items to those record heights, and we're at a stage where those bidders don't necessarily show up to every highly-touted auction lot at the pivotal moment.

Still, next time you start to yawn when the hammer drops on a million dollar item, give yourself a good slap across the face and think about how much money one million dollars is. Welcome back to reality.

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