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Not Worn Out Yet: Large Game-Worn Sales Bring the Year to an Epic Close

Not Worn Out Yet: Large Game-Worn Sales Bring the Year to an Epic Close
November 30, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

Photo: Sotheby's

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Game-worn collectors rejoice: the black-eye of the Jordan jersey photomatching scandal has been replaced in the headlines by several stories of encouraging importance.

Despite being one of the loudest collectible categories of the last two years, game-worn memorabilia flexed its might again in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, demonstrating momentum across three separate sports and delivering encouragement to those bullish on the space's most coveted items.

On November 17th in Las Vegas, RM Sotheby's sold a jersey from Tom Brady's last NFL game for $1,391,000, making it the most expensive football jersey ever sold. The sale came a little more than a month after Brady's jersey from his 700th touchdown game sold for $1.2 million at a charity auction and eight months after Joe Montana's jersey worn in two Super Bowls became the first seven-figure game-worn football memorabilia, notching a $1,212,000 result at Goldin.

Finally, after years in the cold, the sport has a game-worn record fitting of its stature in America. Before 2023, the record was $480,000, paid for a relatively inconsequential Brady Bucs jersey in early 2022. It made little sense, but the headline results in other sports (and Brady's retirement) elicited the consignment of assets worthy of the crown. The seven-figure Brady jerseys are no doubt important pieces, and they highlight Brady's continued collecting relevance as his cards head in the opposite direction, but the sales make you wonder what a jersey from a key moment of his Patriots heyday might command should they ever find the auction floor.

While that result elevates the ceiling for high-end football memorabilia, it doesn't shape the future of NFL game-worn collecting. An announcement from Sotheby's and the NBA, though, does just that. For years, auctions conducted by the league have toiled in relative obscurity on the NBA Auctions site. While the site has been responsible for some impressive results, it felt like an isolated piece of the NBA marketing machine, given little attention and emphasis to convey an asset's story to a broader audience. In many ways, it was like a secret known only to the most engaged collectors.

But that's all set to change.

On November 14th, Sotheby's and the NBA announced a multiyear partnership that sees Sotheby's become the "Official Game Worn Source of the NBA." Sotheby's will conduct NBA auctions throughout the year, with a particular focus on marquee events. The auction house has consistently built its stable of sports-focused auctions in recent years, and this announcement ensures that it will offer a more persistent sports cadence. For the NBA, it ensures memorabilia items will receive greater storytelling attention from a house that has played a major role in shaping the art and luxury markets.

The partnership tipped off with the fittingly named "Tip-Off" auction, featuring the perfect headliner: a game-worn jersey from Victor Wembanyama's NBA Debut. With a tantalizing estimate of $80,000 - $120,000, the jersey of one of the most hyped prospects since LeBron sold for $762,000. Some context: you now know that's 59% more than any NFL jersey had ever sold for prior to this year. A little more context: Paolo Banchero's debut jersey sold through NBA Auctions around this time last year for $75,280, a mere tenth of that total.

Before the NBA gave memorabilia greater attention, it was rare to see a debut jersey surface so soon. But now the chain of provenance has swiftly started for one of the most prized pieces of a potential icon, and it allows for card-like speculation. It's also a result in search of a confirmation sale: on its own, it's an outlier, but if even nearly rivaled over the next year by another jersey of an ultra-modern star, it will have retrenched the category at a higher level.

If big news comes in threes, then it was news of Lionel Messi's 2022 World Cup jerseys completing the trifecta. Sotheby's announced last week that a set of six Messi jerseys from the tournament, including a jersey from the final, will be sold next month. Initially, those jerseys were meant to be sold by AC Momento in the immediate aftermath of each match. But it quickly became clear how high the stakes were, particularly as Argentina progressed through the tournament. AC Momento has since pivoted its business model, but remarkably, it came up with the holiest grails it could have ever handled and provided them to Sotheby's.  

A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the UNICAS Project to support children suffering from rare diseases. There is an expectation that the set will add to the very small stable of eight-figure sports collectibles, and Jordan's $10.1 million jersey record could be under threat, though it's a 6-on-1 fight.

Before Jordan's jersey could fly, it was Diego Maradona's Hand of God jersey that lifted the category to new heights last spring, selling for $9.3 million. Now it's Maradona's spiritual successor who has the opportunity to rewrite the record books. The global admiration for Messi has shone brightly over the last year, and the bidding audience will surely be international.

If all goes to plan, the world will soon know the power of sport's most vaunted memorabilia.


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