How to save your memorabilia items from fading

Regular readers might remember this magazine’s feature a while back in which collectors described their hobby bloopers and blunders. I loved reading those tales. They reminded me that I’m not the only one whose bouts of clumsiness have caused destruction and damage to otherwise valuable pieces of memorabilia. The anecdotes published here, though, have nothin’ on the story behind the Sammy Baugh game-used No. 33 jersey that headlined Hunt Auctions’ February 2010 sale.

Baugh, as fans of NFL lore know, was a game-changing figure in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. He was a three-way player who starred not only as the Washington Redskins’ strong-armed quarterback but as an All-Pro punter and safety. It’s no stretch to say that any jersey pulled on by Slingin’ Sammy would get a tad beat up. So it is with this one; it exhibits obvious game wear. However, the jersey also suffered a twist of fate, one that would make most collectors grimace.

First, the wear and tear. The jersey’s right shoulder is missing a 4-by-12-inch area of fabric; the left-side collar bears a rip that runs some 8 inches down the side seam. Indeed, it was “literally torn off of Baugh’s back,” according to a letter of provenance, against the old Boston Yanks in either 1947 or ’48.

After the game, Baugh tossed it into a “receptacle in the Skins’ locker room,” as the catalog tells us. A Redskins front-office man, Don Williams, retrieved the jersey and presented it as a gift to a friend’s young son. A devoted fan, the boy treasured the tattered and torn jersey and ultimately had it mounted in a frame, with the sleeves placed carefully across the front and a Baugh-signed index card positioned between the sleeves.

That’s how it stayed for decades — unfortunately. The back of the jersey looks fine, so it retains a deep maroon color. The front of the jersey wasn’t so lucky. Originally the same maroon color as the back, it gradually faded to a pale orange. The contrast is especially vivid in the front’s unexposed areas, where its sleeves and the signed card were positioned.

This is one case, however, where a condition issue was overshadowed (pun intended) by historical importance. In spite of the serious fading, the jersey still brought a hefty $40,000, well above the pre-sale estimate of $20,000-$30,000.  

I mentioned the story of the Baugh jersey to Antiques Roadshow appraiser Leila Dunbar. She spent 10 years directing sports auctions at Sotheby’s and now runs a New York-based appraisal business, so I asked her if she’s ever seen such a dramatic illustration of what can happen to unprotected memorabilia.

“A few years ago, I was at an Ivy League institution that had a number of Marc Chagall paintings on display at a home that kept the curtains open, causing the same fading to the paintings as the Baugh jersey,” Dunbar recalls. “This (exposure to light) devalued the paintings by millions of dollars.

“I’m sure that there are many more cases of ruined items that were tossed out, either by ignorance or guilt,” she adds. “How about the story in the book Miracle Ball? Bobby Thomson’s (1951 ‘Shot Heard ’Round the World’) home run ball was thrown away by a nun’s family after her death because she didn’t want her elders to find out she was at the game!”

Good point. Sure, in a perfect world, the Baugh jersey would have been protected behind conservation glass (sometimes called “UV glass”). It wasn’t, but at least it’s still here.

“We should be thankful these types of pieces exist, in any condition, as opposed being somewhere under three feet of muck in a waste facility,” Dunbar says. “When it comes to iconic symbols in sports memorabilia, the value lies largely in the very existence of the piece. Condition matters but is secondary, as long as the basic integrity of the piece is still intact.”

Baugh is a member of the Hall of Fame so it isn’t surprising to that it sold for $40,000. Would it have sold for $50,000 or $60,000 without the fade? Possibly, but the collector who did purchase this example could have said, ‘No thanks; find another.’ Rarity trumps condition.”

In the final analysis, the market uncovered a treasure that keeps alive the accomplishments of Slingin’ Sammy Baugh; the consignor received a nice hunk of change; and Hunt Auctions was rewarded for its thorough research and honest description. Plus, collectors who heard about it are reminded of a key lesson: Take care of your stuff.

“Care does matter, and condition does matter,” Dunbar says. “But for the rarest pieces, existence matters the most. We are all temporary custodians for the next generations. We want to keep our pop culture icons intact! It’s inevitable, though, that there will be a few casualties along the way.”

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