High prices are par when golf antiques reach the market


June 14, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Not all the action in the golf world is on the links. Golfers worldwide are puttering around auction houses, antique shows and specialty dealers' shops, and caddying home a huge assortment of antique clubs and balls, vintage trophies, famous players' autographs, historic tournament programs, and paintings, prints, ceramics, silver and glass bearing golfing images. "Golfiana" is on par with the most competitive of collecting fields.

A rare 18th century "square toe" golf club with a replaced hickory shaft and russet-colored leather grip sold for a whopping $77,000 in May at Sporting Antiquities' two-day golf memorabilia auction at the Andover Country Club in Andover, Mass. To warm up for their rounds of auction paddle raising, overnight guests could play on Andover's private course.

Several passionate collectors drove up the prize club's price until victory was claimed by an anonymous British duffer bidding by telephone, according to Kevin C. McGrath, Sporting Antiquities' owner and golf pro. No ordinary iron, it's one of only 20 known early and crude square toe clubs and still bears its blacksmith's hammer marks. Atop the hosel, the upright portion into which the shaft fits,there's nicking -- indentations which prevented the shaft from turning. (On later clubs, nicking is purely decorative.)

Neither signs of hard use nor replaced shafts stymie antique club collectors. In fact, last summer in England, Christie's got $72,000 for just the square toe iron head of an early club, found in a hedge.

Major auctions in July

Other 200-year old irons will be among the varied items on the auction block when Sotheby's, Phillips' and Christie's hold their annual golf sales in Scotland coinciding with the British Open Championship at Muirfield. The July auctions are pilgrimage sites for devout American collectors, many of whom expect serious competition from Jaime Ortiz-Patino, heir to a Bolivian mining fortune, who is decorating his private clubhouse in Spain with golfing art and antiques and has an agent at important sales.

At Musselborough on July 13, Sotheby's will offer a charming early-17th century Dutch oil portrait of a young boy dressed for the nines, with a golf club and ball, by Jan Anthonisz van Ravesteyn. It's estimated to bring at least $325,000. The next day in Edinburgh, Phillips will auction the earliest known golf film footage, 1.5 minutes of the famous 1898 challenge match between Willie Park Jr. and Willie Fernie at Musselburgh. Recently discovered, it is expected to bring more than $35,000.

Checking the attic

High prices for golfiana on the international circuit don't necessarily mean there's a fortune in your old golf bag in the attic, but it could be worth a peek. Old hickory shaft clubs generally don't bring more than $15 each, perhaps a little more for the putter if it's unusual.

"Considering there were more than 5 million golfers in 1925 and ** each might have owned eight clubs, there must be more than 40 million wooden-shafted clubs out there," said dealer Morton W. Olman, an elder statesman of golfing memorabilia, owner of the Old Golf Shop Ltd. in Cincinnati, and co-author of "Olmans' Guide to Golf Antiques & Other Treasures of the Game" (Market Street Press, $24.95), a good illustrated book for the beginning collector.

The pros can differentiate special clubs from the ordinary. AtMcGrath's sale, an uncommon circa 1916 Lard patent Spalding Whistler Shaft Dedstop Niblic -- Spalding left off the k in Niblic -- with illegal deep grooves and a perforated steel shaft, making it lighter to swing, brought an astonishing $5,500. It had sold for $600 along with another club in Scotland last summer, was cleaned, and then resold for $1,900 to the fellow who consigned it to auction.

Featheries and gutties

Despite the recession, increased buyer selectivity, and decreased bidding by Japanese collectors, McGrath's auction grossed $630,000 for 919 lots, not far below his $682,000 record for 1,000-plus lots set last year. Bidders this May showed more interest in early 20th century clubs than in 19th century long-nose wooden ones with whippy shafts, which were handicapped by high estimates and high reserves, the minimum prices acceptable to the sellers. Many old long-nosers failed to sell.

Long-nose wooden drivers, used until about 1890, were particularly popular before 1840, when golf balls were leather-covered and filled with tightly packed soggy feathers. At McGrath's sale, a collector paid $7,700 for a large used circa 1840 "feathery," with the faint stamp of its maker, J. Gourlay. It was a comparative bargain: Two years ago, Mr. McGrath sold a cleaner Gourlay ball with a more distinct stamp for $13,000, and at Christie's 1990 St. Andrews sale, an unused feathery marked and numbered by its maker, Allan Robertson, hit a record $26,879.

By the mid-19th century, gutta percha, the sap of a Malaysian tree, was found to be a good and inexpensive material for golf balls. "Gutties" flew farther after they were nicked from use, and so ball makers nicked them. Robert Forgan at St. Andrews initiated a cross-hatching pattern around 1860; other gutties have a bramble pattern. Mr. McGrath sold a rare unsigned circa 1865 black cross-hatched gutty in near mint condition for $3,630.

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