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With all the talk these days about a golf boom, it's worth noting that this is hardly the first time the game has ridden such a crest of popularity. Consider that in 1457 King James II of Scotland was compelled to ban the playing of golf because his subjects were spending too much time on the links instead of honing their archery skills.
The ban was largely ignored, even by the king himself, and in the five centuries since, a mountain of golf equipment, golf art, golf literature, golf trinkets and—let's face it—golf junk has been produced. Recently, much of it has been reappearing at auctions on both sides of the Atlantic. Since the early 1980s, four auctions have been held every year in Great Britain, three of them around the time of the British Open, in July, and they have been wildly successful.
The British sales have become so popular that some Americans have gotten into the game. Oliver's, a Kennebunk, Maine, auction gallery, added golf to its repertoire, and the Old Golf Shop in Cincinnati held an auction at Phillips in New York City, both in 1988. Other auctions have come on the scene since then.
Last October, the Old Golf Shop moved its sale to the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center, 20 miles north of Cincinnati. "In New York, people were spending as much money on a hotel room as they would have at the auction," said auctioneer Robert Gowland, explaining the move. Gowland, 47, a former amateur golfer from Chester, England, has been an auctioneer for Phillips of London since 1979. Though he deals primarily in Oriental rugs, Gowland ran the first all-golf auction in Britain six years ago. He marvels at the differences between chaotic, bazaar-like rug auctions and the more staid golf sales. "My staff in Great Britain are always surprised by how well behaved golf collectors are," he said.
Who are golf collectors, anyway? Kevin McGrath, of Melrose, Mass., who has been collecting since 1973, organized the first two auctions at Oliver's before holding his own in Andover, Mass., in April. "Most collectors are avid golfers who maybe didn't get as good at the game as they had hoped, and so they got into the history," he says. That might be said of Mort Olman, founder of the Old Golf Shop and co-author, with his son John, of The Encyclopedia of Golf Collectibles, a buyer's guide to memorabilia. One golf collector who probably did get as good at the game as he had hoped is Ben Crenshaw. Noted among PGA Tour players for his interest in the history of the game, Crenshaw is also on the Museum Committee of the USGA and wrote the foreword to the Olmans' book.
An amiable curmudgeon who is considered one of the world's foremost golf memorabilia experts, Olman, 74, laments the effect that auctions have had on the hobby of collecting. He is particularly disturbed by dealers who drive up prices without knowing anything about the game of golf. "When the British auctions got involved, it wrecked the whole collecting hobby," Olman complained before his own auction last fall. "People didn't know what this stuff was. The dealers should try to learn something, but they're not interested. All they're interested in is making a buck.... They love to see big prices at these auctions."
They see some very big prices, indeed. At Olman's auction, an anonymous Connecticut collector paid the world-record sum of $11,550 for a 150-year-old "feathery" golf ball, made by Allan Robertson in Scotland. Granted, it probably wasn't easy for Robertson to stuff a small leather pouch with a top hat full of wet feathers, let alone stitch the pouch up and patiently wait for it to dry before he put it to use.
The willingness to pay such high prices is based partly on the scarcity of an object. Pre-19th-century clubs are the most valuable collectors' items because there are so few of them left. But often the price of an item depends on whether it is in fashion. For instance, one piece of golf equipment, the rake iron, was rendered stylish last July at a Christie's auction in Glasgow, Scotland. The rake iron was designed for hitting out of mud or water and is considered fairly common, as uncommon clubs go. But the use of it is against the Rules of Golf, which adds considerably to its financial value. (There's hope yet for owners of nonconforming U-grooves.)
Still, knowledgeable golf collectors were stunned when an anonymous bidder offered $90,000 for an 80-year-old rake iron at the auction. In the months since, suspicion has grown about the "sale." The speculation among some collectors is that the buyer had one or two other rake irons in his attic and he wanted to drive prices up to turn a quick profit on his spring cleaning.
Whether or not the sale went through, the repercussions were felt throughout the collecting world, and rake-iron mania has yet to abate. The one rake iron at Olman's fall auction sold for $8,000, well above the anticipated price. As Gowland pointed out before the auction, "Age, rarity, condition and fashion make for high prices. At the moment, everyone thinks rake irons are fashionable. But the Ayrton is infinitely more desirable."