By Simon Garfield
And Pele should know - his World Cup shirt has been sold for £140,000. Sports memorabilia has become a million-pound industry, but it is increasingly plagued by exploitation and forgery. So how do you know if you're getting the real deal - and is it all worth it when you do?
Every now and then, David Convery, the man in charge of sports memorabilia auctions at Christie's, receives a phonecall from someone with a terrible hangover. 'I got very drunk at a charity event last night,' the conversation always starts. 'And I bought a shirt signed by David Beckham.' 'Yes?' 'It cost me £7,000.' 'What match did he wear it in?' the expert asks. 'Oh, he hasn't worn it, it's just a replica from the shop, but he did sign it. Do you have any idea how much it might be worth?' 'About £60.' 'Oh dear,' the caller says.
Some shirts are worth more. A few weeks ago I sat with Convery in the Christie's basement in South Kensington and held and folded a shirt that had been worn by Pele in the 1970 World Cup final in Mexico. Its value was uncertain, as few comparable items had come up for auction before. In September 2000, the shirt Geoff Hurst had worn in the 1966 final went for £80,000, but that was considered to be a freak result: the hat-trick shirt, a feat never equalled. Pele's jersey - yellow with green trim, number 10, still mudstained - was worn in one of the greatest finals ever held, by the greatest player the world had ever seen. He scored the first goal in Brazil's 4-1 victory over Italy, a triumph that displayed such unfettered artistry that the memory of it makes mature people tearful. At the end of the match, half the defeated Italian team displayed one unexpected character trait: not despair, but ambition - they all wanted Pele's shirt.
Roberto Rosato, the defender, got to it first, and treasured it for 31 years. And then in November of last year a Christie's employee, Lisa Perecca, received an email from Rosato's daughter. Carola Rosato explained that her father's English wasn't so good, and she was making an inquiry on his behalf: would they be interested in selling the Pele shirt? The first thought at the auction house was scepticism; perhaps it was a wind-up; perhaps the shirt was a fake. Carola Rosato then emailed some detailed photographs, and Christie's began to get excited. 'The key details gave it away,' Convery says. 'The badge, the stitching, the label - 'Umbro World Cup Choice - Made in England'.'
Convery did some further research, frequently replaying the end of the 1970 final on video, watching Pele slide over the byline, scrutinising the hands reaching out for the shirt at the end. But the tape was inconclusive, as it failed to identify who had grabbed the prize. He called Umbro to find out how many shirts they had made for the tournament, but their records were vague. 'I think it's safe to say there were three shirts worn by him that day,' Convery says. He probably changed at half-time because of the heat. Mario Zagallo, the Brazilian coach, claims he has another Pele shirt from the final. When Pele receives his medal he is wearing another number 10 shirt, because there was no swap with Rosato and he didn't fancy parading the trophy bare-chested. 'That last one will only be worth a couple of thousand of pounds,' Convery estimates.
Without forensic testing, there wasn't much more Christie's could do. But in January, Roberto Rosato's son and son-in-law flew from Italy to London with the shirt, and Convery became convinced he was holding the real thing: everything about it felt right, including the torn stitching and the white chalk mark on the back. 'It's all about provenance,' he concluded. 'Proving things absolutely is very difficult. With a family connection it's so much easier. If someone came in with the Pele shirt and said they bought it from a fleamarket in Italy in 1975, we could tell that it was Pele's World Cup shirt, but saying it was the one worn in the final would be much riskier.' Convery told the Rosato family that Pele's other match-worn shirts had gone for about £5,000-£7,000, but this was clearly something else. He decided on an estimate of £30,000-£50,000, and resolved to put it on the cover of the next catalogue.
Convery is a Scot with the sort of robust frame unsuited to most sports except fishing and darts. He is only 31, but he has seen something remarkable happen to the market in football memorabilia during his professional lifetime. In the summer of 1989 he was working in the Scottish Art department at Christie's Glasgow branch when it was decided to hold a specialist football sale. This was the first time a major auction house had attempted such a thing; annual auctions of cricket and golfing items were popular, but they dealt mostly with prewar items and the buyers were a small band of well-heeled men with an obsessive interest in Scottish links and the 'bodyline' Ashes series. Football medals and old programmes were occasionally tacked on to these sales, or featured in general collectible auctions, but the thought of a dedicated sale was often regarded as - whisper it - too working-class to attract sufficient funds. In the first auction, the gems included an 1897-98 England v Scotland cap awarded to Ernest Needham of Sheffield United (which went for £620) and the football used in the 1903 Scottish Cup final (£480). There was also a lot of attic stuff - wooden rattles, faded photographs - and it all helped to push the total to £45,179. A year later, the next sale in Glasgow made £48,873. But in 1991, as news of the new market spread to players and collectors, the total came to £126,730.
The auctions moved to London, and Sotheby's and Phillips and Bonhams decided it would be useful to hold football sales of their own. The auction houses have done well out of the football boom, charging a buyer's and seller's commission of at least 15 per cent of hammer price. Fans now have little choice but to pay these prices, for no big items are available at small fairs any more (although very occasionally a generous newspaper will offer a tear-stained item in a free competition).
By 1998, the sales at Christie's were bi-annual, and the total hammer price in that year rose to £662,267. As each year passes, Convery becomes increasingly skilled in predicting prices for all sports memorabilia, not just football. But he is frequently surprised and has been delighted to see several items reach three times their estimate: the gloves with which Cassius Clay fought Henry Cooper in 1963 (£37,600); golfer Joseph Lloyd's US Open winner's medal from 1897 (£39,950); and a collection of unpublished letters from P.G. Wodehouse to Billy Griffith, the Sussex and England cricketer (£28,200).
While the trade in golf and cricket items remain fairly steady, the growth in the football market continues unchecked, and is yet to experience even the hint of downturn. Convery thinks the expansion of television coverage may have had something to do with increased demand. On the supply side, the reasons are clearer, and Roberto Rosato's case is standard. 'Certainly one reason is financial,' Convey says. 'He's probably been following the market. It doesn't look to me as though the family is on poor street, but I'm sure the money will help.' There are other explanations. 'He can't put it on display because the insurance costs would be very difficult. Also, he knows the historical importance of the shirt, and it should be available for everyone to see. He'd like it to go to a museum, ideally in Brazil. I told him there was no guarantee of this.' (There was some relief at the end of the sale of Geoff Hurst's '66 shirt when it became known that the buyer was English. There had been concerns from the tabloids that it might turn out to be a pyromaniac German.)
David Convery is in a crowded vault of highly prized collectible items beneath the auction house floor. The working area is overrun by the stacks and shelves of upcoming lots. The football objects lie in cardboard boxes next to tennis rackets and signed boxing gloves, and these are not far from German teddy bears and Beatles wigs and a Corgi James Bond gold Aston Martin DB5 in near-mint box with fully-working ejector seat. It is hard to decide whether these collections are a priceless part of our cultural heritage or melancholy junk, or both, but it is clear that something new is happening to the value of our souvenirs. Sportsmen are selling the mementoes of brilliant careers, and the items they won with the utmost endeavour are up for sale to city boys with the utmost Christmas bonus.
Casting aside all cynicism, we could argue nobly that sport is the poorer for these sales, but to do so would be to rail against the forces of the market, and against the forces of need that have driven Geoff Hurst and Gordon Banks and Bobby Moore's wife Tina to the auction houses in the past two years. Since it arrived in London, the Pele shirt has been locked away in a jewellery safe, but Convery has taken it out to show a couple of prospective buyers. He's also taken out Ray Wilson's 1966 World Cup medal, a tiny piece of gold which he has estimated to be worth £70,000-£80,000 (it might fetch more if the defender still had the presentation case). The medal, which weighs about the same as a pound coin, has an additional inscription chiselled into the back at the player's request: he has inserted both his name and the word 'Winners', in case anyone had forgotten. 'Ray has this attitude of "no one can buy my memories - I'll always be a World Cup winner whether I have a piece of gold or not",' Convery says. 'He never made much when he was playing, so if football can give him £100,000 now, then why not?' Wilson has already sold most of his artifacts - 40-odd lots that made him about £30,000, and he hoped never to have to sell the big one. 'Although it is painful to part with my World Cup Winner's medal, an object full of personal and national nostalgia, I have decided to sell in order to financially provide for my family,' he said before the sale. 'It has taken me a good few years to come to this decision, but I believe it is for the best and I hope my medal finds a worthy home. Regardless of its ownership, it will always represent England on top of the world.'
Geoff Hurst had two reasons for selling his medal and other goods. His house kept on getting burgled, and he wished to control the distribution of his wealth and possessions between his three daughters. After the sale in September 2000 he said an extraordinary thing. 'I truly hope that the successful buyers tonight will gain as much pleasure and happiness from these mementoes as I have had from being awarded them.' Now there is no doubt that we paid Hurst and his colleagues too little for the pleasure they brought, and that we pay today's stars too much. But to suggest that the personal happiness derived from winning the World Cup may be duplicated by simply buying his medal or shirt is plainly absurd. The people at Christie's have observed an interesting truth: 'If every one of those players from 1966 earned the same amount of money as the players of today there probably wouldn't be a memorabilia market to speak of,' Convery reasons. 'Will David Beckham and Michael Owen sell their medals? Somehow I doubt it.'
But Beckham and Owen sell something else. On the walls of David Kay's walk-in stall at Gray's Antique Market near London's Bond Street there are Liverpool shirts once owned by Owen and signed photographs of Beckham and the entire England team. The autographs sell from £40 upwards, and the shirts start at £100 for a replica to several thousand for a shirt from an important match. Some of the items have come from collectors, but most have come from deals struck with the players, or their friends and agents. Evidently, the trade in memorabilia is no longer just the naive pursuit of smitten fans.
David Kay is a 36-year-old sports lover who once sought the signatures of John Snow and Bill Edrich at the back of the pavilion at Lord's. Like many of us, he still reads the newspaper from the back, and when his mother saw him do this in former years she used to chide that he would never make a living out of sports. But now he does, developing his hobby into a career called Star Signings Ltd. He and a partner took their first small stall at Gray's market three years ago, a peculiar sight among the Victorian silver and book dealers. They started with a half-unit, , and graduated to a walk-in surrounded on three sides by the most spectacular display of colour that Umbro and Adidas and Nike can muster. There are shirts from all the big clubs and many international teams, and signed items from Donald Bradman and Ayrton Senna. 'I love it when people walk into the shop and go "Wow!",' Kay says. From this month they will be able to go 'Wow' at Kay's new shop in New Quebec St, central London; the strength of the market has determined that sporting signatures now demand a stand-alone home of their own.
His first sales were signed football pictures. 'I met players, asked them to sign some things, and it went from there. Now we know a lot of the players, we get their time, we get them to sign pieces. Some players take great care with their signings. If Michael Owen is asked to sign 100 pieces, he will maybe do 20 at a time so that his signature remains consistent.' Kay is happy with the way he operates because it keeps things professional and everybody wins. 'There are a lot of people who pose as fans and obviously aren't,' he says. 'There are people who get loads of things signed, perhaps at the training ground, and then sell them without giving anything back, and that pisses some players off. Some fans are outraged that a player should ask to be paid for their signature, and they resent paying £10 or whatever. But why shouldn't the player charge? The same fan would think nothing of paying £20 for that same signature on the open market.'
I ask him how many signatures of Michael Owen there are in the world. 'There are probably millions of everyone,' he says. 'But that doesn't matter. The market just keeps on expanding.' I wondered whether, as a sports fan, he ever felt ashamed that he was trading their belongings. 'Not really. I don't have a problem with it because everyone knows what's happening. It's very clean cut. The players get treated fairly.' He is, however, cautious about revealing where he obtained some of his wares. 'A player may have given them away as gifts, and then the recipient decides to sell them.' He will also discreetly offer items from sportsmen who don't want others to know they're selling. 'We've had tour blazers, international caps,' he says. 'One player's sister brings us stuff.' Kay also sells to other dealers, and to charity events. A charity will buy a certain amount of signed shirts or footballs at an agreed price, and then auction them for as much as they can get. 'The more they make the better,' says Kay. 'I'm delighted if they make £20,000 from items they bought from us for £1,000.'
Kay used to do a radio show on TalkSport during which fans would call up with requests for rough valuations. He told a lot of people that their set of Esso World Cup badges and Squelcher books weren't worth very much. A conversation with him today brings out four collecting rules. One: if possible, always buy from a reputable dealer. Two: a Manchester United shirt will almost always be worth more than a Hapoel Tel Aviv shirt, even if you are a Hapoel supporter. Three: a personalised signature - to Kevin, Best Wish, Claudio Ranieri - will only have market value to other Kevins. And four: be very very careful about anything you buy over the internet. The auction site eBay sells thousands of sporting items every day, many of them purporting to carry a famous player's signature. On one particular day at the beginning of April, you could have bid on 82 Muhammad Ali signatures and 1,748 items in the category titled 'Football autographs located in the UK'. Of these, 26 related to David Beckham, some of them autographed books from the signing sessions he held last year. 'Suddenly there are 12,000 signed books out there,' David Convery told me. 'And people think that if the book is worth 20 quid to begin with, with a signature it must be worth £70. Unfortunately it's actually a second-hand item so it's worth £10. It's not just football - it's golf, tennis, cricket, the market is being saturated.'
Recently, one person advertised the following on eBay in capital letters: 'THIS IS AN AUCTION FOR A PELE SIGNED BRASIL SHIRT, IT WAS OBTAINED BY MYSELF IN PERSON AND I AM SELLING IT DUE TO HAVING 2 OF THEM, IT IS A TRULY GREAT SHIRT AND A MUST FOR ANY FAN OF ANY FOOTBALL TEAM IN THE WORLD...IT WILL BE WORTH ALOT OF MONEY IN YEARS TO COME GUARANTEED. IT IS SIGNED NICELY IN BLACK MARKER AS SHOWN ON THE PICTURE. BECAUSE I AM SELLING IT I HAD TO OBTAIN A COA [Certificate of Authenticity], IVE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT ONE AS I GOT IT MYSELF AND I KNOW IT IS 100% REAL, GUARANTEED !!!!!!IF NOT I WILL GIVE YOU 10 TIMES YOUR MONEY BACK...PLEASE FEEL FREE TO EMAIL ME WITH ANY QUESTIONS AND GOOD LUCK !!!! I emailed the seller to ask if he would answer some questions about collecting memorabilia once the auction was over. 'YEAH NO PROBLEM I CAN HELP.' After the shirt was sold (for £200), I emailed him again. Where did he get the shirt, did he say anything to Pele, how hard was it to get a certificate of authenticity? No reply.
The Pele shirt and the Ali items may all be genuine, but the odds are stacked against. There is so much money to be made from sports stars these days that forgers who once considered baseball and football beneath their creative talents have elevated the signing of a scuffed pair of Everlast boxing gloves into a highly competitive artform. The FBI has a warehouse in San Diego packed with memorabilia with an estimated market value of $10 million. All of it is forged, seized recently in a sting called Operation Bullpen. Earlier this year, the American sports channel ESPN broadcast some of the FBI's covert wiretaps, and interviewed young men who expressed no qualms about signing their name Joe DiMaggio. A convicted forger called Mike spoke of how it was common practice to rip paper from antique library books and sign them using old fountain-pen inks. But it was also revealed that brands of baseballs that hadn't been invented when Babe Ruth died now bore his signature, and the signatures were signed with modern Sharpie felt pens. Wayne Bray, one of two dozen convicted conspirators in the FBI case, told of how on the day that DiMaggio died he got a call from someone wishing to buy 1,000 baseballs bearing his forged signature. And of course he would need to do 1,000 certificates of authenticity to accompany them.
On the FBI recordings, two unidentified men are having a conversation about signing basketballs. First man: 'Hey, who does those [Michael] Jordans over here?' Second man: 'Greg.' First man: 'He does it pretty good then. He does it better than I do. He makes that slanted.' Second man: 'Yeah, he's got the slant.' The ESPN programme concluded that 75 per cent of all sports memorabilia was fake. Most of this doesn't reach the auction houses but turns up at collectors' fairs and the internet. Last year Lars Gentry from Illinois sued eBay for allowing him to buy four expensive baseballs and various autographs that were later exposed as frauds. Five other plaintiffs had similar stories. The website successfully argued that it was not a traditional auction house, had no way of examining the millions of items it sold each year, and had always issued a 'buyer beware' warning in its smallprint.
To counteract the damage, reputable dealers are going to extraordinary lengths to authenticate their products. The Upper Deck company, which sells signed memorabilia alongside its popular baseball and basketball collectors' cards, boasts of a five-step process to boost a buyer's confidence. This includes providing affidavits from company staff, applying a complex system of holograms to an item at the time of signing, and something it calls its PenCam, an innovation personally endorsed by Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. The PenCam records every aspect of the celebrity signing procedure, and this information is then issued to the purchaser in the form of a CD-Rom. This dossier includes a date-stamped video record of the signature, and footage of an interview with the athlete about the signing session. Yes sports fans, it has come to this.
Don DeLillo opened his bestselling novel Underworld with a fictionalised account of perhaps the most memorable baseball game of all time, the final play-off between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers on 3 October 1951. The climax of this game - the so-called Shot Heard 'Round The World - came when Bobby Thomson hit a glorious three-run homer in the ninth inning to achieve a 5-4 victory for the Giants. In the book, a boy tussles for the winning ball amid a sea of hands in the stands, and walks home nervously with its raised seams pulsing in his palm. He never once considers its pecuniary worth, eager to own it only because 'it's the ball they play with, the thing they rub up and scuff and sweat on'. On the way home a man offers to buy it from him for 10 dollars, swiftly upping his offer to 12 with the logic that the boy can get a new ball and a new mit for that sum of money. But the boy keeps moving. Forty years later the ball is bought for a great but undisclosed amount of cash from a dealer who convinces the purchaser that he is 99.9 per cent sure this ball is the Thomson homer. The buyer then meets a man who argues that no one knows where the real ball is, that it's been lost in the sea of mythology. The greater philosophical question is not whether the ball is genuine, but whether it is worth anything even if it is: shouldn't balls be hit and chased in a park on a sunny afternoon? Wasn't the boy's attitude perfect? Isn't this monetary obsession spoiling the fun?
The non-fiction world has no time for such idealism. In 1999, the baseball Mark McGwire hit for his record-breaking seventieth home run of the previous season for the St Louis Cardinals was sold for $3 million. In October of last year, the ball that broke that record was slugged into the standing-only section of the San Francisco Giants' Pacific Bell Park by Barry Bonds, and was caught by a 37-year-old fast food entrepreneur, Alex Popov. Within a second, Popov was rushed to the ground by a crush of hysterical fans, and he lost control of the ball. It then showed up in the grasp of computer engineer Patrick Hayashi, who was whisked away by the Giants' management team and awarded a display case and a certificate of authenticity. The two fans have been locked in an expensive legal dispute ever since, and the ball has been confiscated by a judge. A trial date - Hayashi has been charged with assault and theft - has yet to be set, but there has already been some interesting argument. Popov has claimed that Bonds 'hit it right to me', as if he was somehow aiming for an anointed fan. But Jeff Nelson, a professional umpire, has reviewed a videotape of the incident and used the rules of the game to decide for Hayashi, arguing that the ball was not fully in Popov's control when he was attacked. He added: 'You go to catch a ball like that, you pretty much know it's every man for himself until the cops come.' Both parties are hoping no one will beat Barry Bonds's record before the case can be heard, and before the ball can be auctioned. And they both trust that the ball has been locked away securely, making a switch impossible. They will be aware of an incident from January 1999, when the 500th home-run ball hit by baseball legend Mickey Mantle came up for bids at Guernsey's auction house in New York. Minutes before the ball was due on the block, a call was received from Mantle's widow, Merlyn. The ball was a fake, she claimed, as she had the real one right there next to her in her Dallas home. The auction was stopped and legal actions commenced..
One remarkable fact has emerged from the proceedings. After Mantle hit his 500th home run into the stands, the fan that found it gave it back to him. Inevitably, even Mrs Mantle's signature on a baseball is worth something now, another item on the sports market that has less to do with sport than it has with celebrity, and in particular the celebrity of defeat. Ralph Branca has joined that market too. After hitting the Shot Heard Round The World, Scottish-born Bobby Thomson became a hero, but his story is incomplete without a loser. The ball was pitched by Branca, who for years afterwards buried his head in shame, but later realised there was a way of conquering his demons. Branca got together with Thomson in the baseball-signing business, and even in their seventies they are an indefatigable attraction at memorabilia conventions. The balls, which come sealed in perspex cubes, usually cost $200. Muhammad Ali also relies on signing sessions for much of his income, either in his home or in public halls. At the public events the great man and his promoters charge $300 for a photo - usually the dramatic, snarling one of Ali standing over a prostrate Sonny Liston in Miami - and $2,000 for his signature on a replica Olympic torch. He does not tend to personalise items. Within one day of a signing session much new Ali material appears on the internet. The vendors are certain of its authenticity, for they have witnessed the signature in person, but to allay scepticism they often list the item with a photograph of the event. One of these pictures may be the saddest thing you will ever see in the name of sport. Ali is seated at a desk, his face in deep concentration. On his left, an assistant holds a print to the table to avoid it slipping beneath his pen, while on his right another person holds his hand, guiding it gently over the surface.
On 27 March, a slightly camp auctioneer with a goatee arrived at Lot 34 in the Bonhams football sale. 'Newport County,' he said. 'It's here to be sold.' The item was not the club itself, but a framed fixture list from the 1987-1988 season, the last time the club played in the Football League. The reserve price was £20-£30. 'We'll start at £5,' the auctioneer said. There was little interest. 'Come on, even the frame has to be worth £5.' Silence, and then someone put up their hand very slowly. '£5, thank you,' the auctioneer said. 'Sold.' The Bonhams football auction is in its fourth year, mopping up items that other houses frown upon. It has 880 lots to sell over two days, many of them a product of obsessive behaviour. Lot 166, for example, is a collection of 15 shots of Martin Chivers, while Lot 179 consists of 32 matchbox labels from the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile. In the past, television celebrities Nick Hancock and Frank Skinner have gathered at this venue in Chelsea to buy Stanley Matthews and West Bromwich Albion things, but this time the only face was the tipster Angus 'Statto' Loughran, bidding unsuccessfully for a book published in 1914 called Le Football. A few days before the sale, its curator Graham Smith took me round some of the lots. The most interesting items were the cheaper ones. On one wall was a mounted collection of signatures by BBC commentators. 'Yes, the lads together there,' Smith observed. 'Barry Davies, John Motson, Tony Gubba. Only a £60 lot, very reasonable. It would cost you £60 just to have it framed.' The cost of framing was clearly a big issue at the lower end of the market. The following week Gubba and his friends fetched £40, and the entire sale made £170,000. 'Delighted with that,' Smith said. 'The buoyancy of the market is undiminished.'
On the same day, another auction was taking place five minutes' drive away in a crowded room in South Kensington. Throughout the morning, the main attraction was displayed on a mannequin in a tall glass case to the auctioneer's right, but was removed from its cabinet at about 11.40. 'Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen, coming to lot 114 now, Pele's 1970 World Cup shirt, and I will open the bidding at £20,000. Thank you, 22,000, 25,000, 28,000, on my left here, 30,000...' And so it went, swiftly reaching £75,000. At £80,000 there was a slight lull, but then a man standing at the back of the hall began taking on a buyer on the phone. The bid rose to £120,00, then £140,000. 'Are you all done? the auctioneer asked. '£140,000. Selling on the telephone at £140,000. Fair warning.' The hall drew a collective breath as the gavel came down, and many scribbled the sum in their catalogues, thus spoiling their resale value in future auctions. With commission, the total would come to £157,000, the highest price ever paid for a football shirt.
Outside the saleroom, a member of Christie's staff who spoke Italian called Roberto Rosato from his cellphone. Rosato was more than pleased. He kept asking, 'Are you sure?' 'I was absolutely stunned,' Convery told me a few days later. 'We had an indication the evening before that it might beat the world record. But we were still thinking about £80,000.' Convery declined to say who had bought the shirt, but was pleased that Ray Wilson's 1966 medal, which reached the lower end of its estimate at £70,000, would not be leaving the country. The sale made £456,000 in all, another Christie's record. The auction was on a Wednesday. The following Tuesday, Convery turned on his computer to find 54 new emails in his inbox, most of them from people who had Pele items to sell. He opened them excitedly, and was both disappointed and relieved to find that no one was yet offering anything wearable from the World Cup final of 1970.