Taking the shirt off their backs

(1996) In the stunned silence that followed England's fatal missed penalty at the Euro 96 semi-final on Wednesday, Stuart Pearce coolly took off his grey shirt and swopped it for a German player's white shirt.

To collectors of soccer shirts, it looked like a smart move. German shirts worn in the semi-final will soon be changing hands among collectors for pounds 700-pounds 800. Pearce's shirt is worth only pounds 350-pounds 500. "Even in that moment of anguish," Gordon Wallis, Britain's biggest collector of soccer memorabilia told me, tongue in cheek, "Pearce was thinking logically".

If the value of both shirts sounds like big money, consider the value of the Penny Black of soccer shirts - the red one worn in the 1966 World Cup final by the heroic Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat-trick of goals. If Hurst chose to sell at auction, the shirt would confidently command pounds 6,000-pounds 8,000. If it provoked a saleroom duel between rich collectors, the price could be pounds 10,000 or more .

Even England Euro 96 winners' shirts - if that dream was to have been fulfilled at Wembley tomorrow - would have been worth pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000 each among collectors, with a premium pounds 4,000-pounds 6,000 for the shirt of the team captain or star of the match.

German shirts if they win tomorrow? pounds 1,500-pounds 2,000. Czech winners? pounds 1,000 for stars, around pounds 500 for the rest. Collecting soccer shirts is a bit like collecting military medals. It is the historic status of battles and combatants that confers value.

Losers? Cut the estimate in half - or forget it. This macho market is for winners only. Mr Wallis's consortium of three collectors, called Soccer Nostalgia, owns 300 soccer shirts, but he does not intend buying any worn in Wednesday's semi-final. "You get nowt for coming second," he says.

Speculators know this. But they also know that any international soccer shirt snapped up for less than pounds 150 at country auctions is likely to show a profit if sold in the big football memorabilia sales at Bonhams and Christie's Glasgow.

Both auctioneers pray that their cosy, nostalgic market will not become prey to the boom-and-bust syndrome. Fat chance. After crazy golf (pounds 92,400 for an 18th century iron) and cricket, football memorabilia is the latest sporting memorabilia market to break into the big money. It happened all of a sudden, two years ago, when a bundle of Manchester United football programmes - those dull, dog-eared things - estimated at only pounds 80-pounds 120 at Bonhams, fetched an astonishing pounds 2,640. Never mind that football is working class, that the rich have never chosen to commemorate it in saleable oil paint, porcelain and beaten silver: that football programme sale pricked up the speculators' ears.

German shirts if they win tomorrow? pounds 1,500-pounds 2,000. Czech winners? pounds 1,000 for stars, around pounds 500 for the rest. Collecting soccer shirts is a bit like collecting military medals. It is the historic status of battles and combatants that confers value.

Prices are now spiralling upwards. Bonhams' Duncan Chilcott, author of the first guide to football collectables, published only last year, says that his estimate in it for Roger Hunt's 1966 World Cup shirt - pounds 1,000- pounds 2,000 - could now be at least trebled.

The shirt is in the Soccer Nostalgia collection. I viewed some of it at Mr Wallis's home, a Regency manor house near Folkestone in Kent, set in 30 acres. Here he grazes sheep and offers coarse and trout fishing and his daughter runs a riding school. It is no way to earn money for an expensive hobby, especially as he is restoring the 30-room manor to its Regency splendour. Money for soccer things comes from his partnership of historic building restorers.

Mrs Wallis does not share her husband's enthusiasm for gems such as the 1928 league championship winner's medal of Dixie Dean, unsurpassed scorer of 60 goals in a season, for which Mr Wallis paid pounds 9,350 at Christie's Glasgow five years ago.

The Wallises live in the West wing, the collection in the East wing, where the servant's hall, with its massive fireplace and monumental Victorian sideboard, is decked with shirts, caps, soccer boots, Freddie Mills' boxing gloves and some small cliffs consisting of some of his 10,000 books on sport.

Mrs Wallis and I encountered one another while Mr Wallis was answering a neighbour's knock at the door. At the time, I was writing notes about the shirts hung on the wall like pictures - Tommy Lawton's three England and three swops from the Irish, Scots and Welsh, from 1938 to 1947, some sagging limply against the glass in their frames. I must have looked like a bailiff taking an inventory. We exchanged a few words, then she disappeared down a corridor.

"What does she think of your collection?", I asked Mr Wallis when he returned. "She hates it", he said.

Mr Wallis pays 25-30 per cent less than auctioneers' prices for his acquisitions - it's ready money, without a seller's premium. He also guarantees anonymity to football stars in reduced circumstances seeking to sell a shirt or two. Auctioneers need to trumpet names and games in order to sell. But Mr Wallis is the equivalent of The Lady magazine, in which dowagers discreetly offer secondhand clothes at reasonable prices. Many Soccer Nostalgia exhibits are shown as loans or donations.

He refuses to disclose the value of the collection, which is destined to form a national soccer museum. "I've no idea how much. Once you've made an acquisition it is its power of possession that grips you, not its material value. And with such possessions around you, you can actually get an atmosphere of the old days, when it was possible to score 60 goals in a season."

England WC 1966 home shirt made by Umbro

Grant MacDougall of Christie's Glasgow, says: "Most players are emotionally attached to the shirts they wore - but even more attached to their memories. I usually find myself dealing, if not with players' descendants, with players wanting to sell a whole collection rather than a shirt or two".

Among the collections he has sold, that of the Arsenal, Liverpool and England star, Ray Kennedy, at his peak in the Seventies. "Not only is it exciting to handle the actual kit they wore, the real joy is in meeting them. I'd admired Kennedy since I was a lad, and there I was, sitting down to lunch with him, discussing the sale". It raised pounds 80,000 three years ago.

Biggest threat to the booming soccer shirt market? Fakes - especially as some teams now wear shirts identical to those sold in the team's souvenir shop. Auctioneers are having to demand proof of provenance in the same way that they do for all other "association" collectables claimed to have been "once owned by".

The auctioneers consult Mr Wallis to root out fakes. He told me how he does it but pledged me to secrecy. The only clue I dare give is that a Chinaman might guess it easily. In the next few years, he warns, in auctioneer's jargon: "a lot of people are going to be well and truly tucked up".

Independent, The (London), Jun 29, 1996 by John Windsor



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Classic Football Shirts