There was a time, long before the phrase ‘sports memorabilia’ entered the sporting lexicon, when collecting a cricketer’s autograph, match day programmes or photographs of footballers depicted on cards distributed with packets of chewing gum represented the extent of any ‘memorabilia’ market.
Commercial considerations could hardly have been further from the mind of the clutch of youngsters stood in the rain at most football grounds in the 60s and 70s following Saturday afternoon’s match, autograph book open and pen eagerly poised.
Furthermore, players stopped, chatted and signed the proffered autograph books too.
It’s all a far cry from the situation today.
Burly security men donning equally bulky high-visibility reflective jackets keep would-be autograph hunters at bay while too many superstar footballers head straight to the car park and their latest overpriced four-wheel drive.
Why? Probably because the value of virtually all sporting items, be they balls, gloves, kit or photographs have shown a tendency to increase in price (if not inherent value) should they be enhanced with the barely decipherable squiggle of a sporting ‘personality’.
And there’s the rub. The sports memorabilia market has been swamped by a wave of perfectly authentic signed photographs, programmes and a host of other merchandise capable of accommodating a signature, to the extent that today, most of it is worth less than £20.
Of course, the perceived value is often considerably higher, but the fact that a simple Google search of the term ‘sports memorabilia’ produces 157 million results explains why some experienced auctioneers and traders believe that perhaps 99 per cent of the market is perfect only for hobbyists, not investors.
Yet collecting sports memorabilia is not dissimilar to collecting stamps because every so often, something of real value is uncovered.
It is this possibility of unearthing the unexpected rarity, a find of real sporting value, which explains why sports memorabilia is increasingly viewed as an investment asset class in it own right.
Over the past decade, for example, Sothebys, the auctioneer, has sold a host of sports memorabilia, achieving some eye-catching prices.
Sir Stanley Matthews’ FA Cup winners medal from 1953, for instance, brought £23,500, while last year, the firm sold the earliest rules of football, dating from 1859, for a staggering £881,000.
Another auctioneering firm, Bonhams, has suggested that bolder investors are turning to sports memorabilia and viewing it a form of alternative investment, much like fine wine and forestry.
Christopher Hayes, the firm’s sports memorabilia specialist, said: “It’s becoming increasingly popular for investors to purchase sporting goods at auction for investment purposes, rather than [accept] the current interest rate.
"As the world’s biggest sport, football is naturally the biggest seller, although you have to be selective in your purchase to turn a profit.”
This is wise advice. Consider, for example, that two years ago, Nobby Stiles sold his 1968 European Cup winner’s medal for £48,300.
A few months later, George Best’s estate auctioned his winner’s medal from the same match. Best’s brought £156,000.
Trevor Vennett-Smith, owner of Nottingham-based specialist sports auctioneer Vennett-Smith, emphasises the need for would-be investors to focus upon quality.