Chris Schutte never saw I them coming. The manager of an antique sporting goods shop in Hilton Head, S.C., Schutte had arrived at last Thursday's opening session of the weeklong auction of The Barry Halper Collection of Baseball Memorabilia giddy as a schoolgirl, his wish list in hand and visions of owning the Babe's wallet in his eye. Sure, he had come to Sotheby's in New York City to do the same thing as most everyone else—buy as much as he could afford and then turn the items around as quickly and as profitably as possible—but he also wanted a little something for himself.
Of course, no one—not Sotheby's representatives or the collectors and dealers in attendance or Halper himself—could have predicted the rabid comportment of the deep-pocketed bidders who, at times, acted like vultures fighting over a carcass. Barely an hour into the sale Schutte slumped in his chair and stared at the floor, empty-handed and defeated, the wallet he'd hoped to buy having gone for $7,500, though Sotheby's had estimated its value at $1,200 and Schutte at $2,500. By its raucous conclusion, the night far exceeded expectations, not just in dollars spent (more than $2 million paid for 133 items that Sotheby's figured would go for a maximum of $1.3 million) but also in chests thumped.
"Most of these people here didn't have a chance," Dave Bushing, a sports memorabilia dealer from Chicago, said with a chuckle. "If they thought they'd walk out of here with anything worthwhile, then they were idiots." Bushing and partner Dan Knoll had won the night's main event, a tussle for the bat Babe Ruth used as a cane in his last Yankee Stadium appearance, on June 13, 1948, for which they paid $107,000. "No one else was taking that bat home," he said breathlessly. "I would've gone to 150 grand for it."
Consider the final moments in Thursday night's bidding for Lot No. 101, the 1942 Oscar for film editing that went to The Pride of the Yankees. Scott Goodman, a pugnacious New York dealer, eschewed his paddle while making his last few bids. Instead he stood and pointed dramatically at the tote board, daring anyone to beat his final—and successful—bid of $57,500, a figure nearly three times the estimated price. The ovation that followed, easily the night's biggest, was met only by Goodman's defiant stare.
At the next morning's session one onlooker seemed out of place in his drab khakis, worn tennis shoes and garish jacket emblazoned with his company's Internet address. Alexander Cartwright IV—the great-great-grandson of Alexander Cartwright Jr., whom many baseball historians credit with the invention of the game—had come from Bonney Lake, Wash., to witness the sale of Lots No. 134 through 149, items that had decorated his childhood home until his mother sold them to Halper. As each was auctioned, he shook his head and sighed. "I'd try to buy some of this stuff back, but I'm not a wealthy man," he said. "To these guys I'm probably just another schlepp."