" Guernsey's was testing the air, and that's unfortunate," says Ronald DeSilva, former head of Sotheby's and Christie's Americana sales. "The stuff is there to be sold, and a good auctioneer already has the action going before the sale even starts. Screw around and the audience feels it. As an auctioneer, I set as low a reserve as possible. When you underestimate, you have 12 potential bidders, but give a high estimate and you're down to, maybe, two. If one of them doesn't show up, you're in trouble."
On the positive side, a bat used and inscribed by Gehrig and estimated to go for $15,000 to $20,000, sold for $26,000 to applause from the crowd. The consignor, a man identified only as Jerry, was 11 years old when he was given the bat by Gehrig. Jerry had accompanied his father to Gehrig's apartment, where the slugger removed the bat from a closet and wrote, "To Jerry, May you use this to better advantage than I did—Lou Gehrig." The year Jerry received the bat was 1938, only the second season as a Yankee regular during which Gehrig hit below .300. It was to be his last full season before amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—which later became known as "Lou Gehrig's disease"—forced him from the game and caused his death on June 2, 1941.
Boxing could be the coming sport for collectors, especially items associated with heavyweight champions. Some Muhammad Ali prices: two pairs of boxing trunks, $2,750 and $3,500; a pair of high-top white ring shoes worn in a fight, $1,100. Joe Louis items: four pairs of trunks, $2,250 to $5,500 each; three pairs of boxing gloves, $1,400 to $3,750 a pair.
Pro football, despite some famous names on the block, has yet to attract heavy-spending collector-investors. For the record, a Joe Namath Jet jersey sold for $4,000, an autographed Roger Staubach jersey for $1,800 and a Terry Bradshaw Steeler jersey for $1,700. A Dan Fouts San Diego jersey went for $475.
And despite the traditional throwing-out of first balls and the congratulatory phone calls to winning locker rooms, the mixture of politics and sports does not always go down well with collectors. Sales of NBA basketballs autographed by presidents of the United States put Bush on top at $450, Ronald Reagan next at $425, Richard Nixon at $300 and Gerald Ford at $225. But those prices looked terrific compared with the way two governors fared. A single lot of two NBA balls—one signed by New York Governor Mario Cuomo, the other by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis—brought a measly 50 bucks.
Are there any good buys for the average fan over the long term? "Wrestling," says Evans.
"Yes. Kids are absolutely wild about it, and they're the collectors of the future. That's the way it always is."
If nothing else convinces people that the memorabilia craze is in large part fueled by hype and the possibility of a quick buck, the sight of bidders clamoring for one of the Hulkster's ripped T-shirts might finally do it.