Four-minute-mile stopwatch and original All Blacks Jersey go to auction

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One of five stopwatches which recorded the first four minute mile is going to auction on May 18, 2015 at Graham Budd Auctions in London

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Given the rise in collectibles prices of recent times, you’d think that owning a slice of history would be by now, the domain of only the abundantly wealthy. The price estimates of some items on offer at a London sports memorabilia auction next week however, suggest that important sporting artifacts are still within reach of quite modest speculative investment budgets.

Sport is not new to the world, but the historical items on offer at Graham Budd Auctions Sporting Memorabilia sale a week from now at Sotheby's New Bond Street saleroom in London also perfectly illustrate the rate of progress we have seen in recent times.

The first is a Nero Lemania stopwatch used by one of the five timekeepers on the day Roger Bannister became the first person to break the four minute mile with a run of 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954.

Bannister’s achievement made global news and remains one of sporting history’s most significant milestones. Athlete’s had been targeting the four minute mile for a century, and many thought it was the limit of human capability.

With the benefit of hindsight and some historical data (as per the above chart), that concept now looks like a nonsense as with the benefits of sports science, modern training techniques, 3:50 was broken two decades later when New Zealander John Walker ran 3:49.4 in August 1975 and the world record is now held by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj at 3:43.13.

Accurate timekeeping has long been a problem in sporting events, and the use of multiple timekeepers using hand-held stopwatches was the solution of the day. This photo of Bannister breasting the tape shows some of the five timekeepers that day (recorded as W. C. A. Findlay, R. G. Hudson, L. R. Richards, W. J. Burfitt and chief timekeeper Charles S. Hill) with their stopwatches. The stopwatch due at auction next week is the watch used by Burfitt on that historic day and the auctioneers, Graham Budd Auctions, estimate it will fetch between £5,000 and £8,000.

As noted in the official auction description (page 85), the stopwatch used by chief timekeeper Charles Hill that day was purchased at auction by controversial British novelist, politician and lifetime peer Lord Jeffrey Archer for £8,855 at a Bonhams auction in 1998. What it fails to note is that that the same stopwatch was subsequently sold at a Christie's auction in June, 2011 for £97,250 (US$154,822), with the proceeds donated to Oxford University Athletics Club (Bannister’s club and the convener of the meeting at which Bannister broke the record).

Due to the documented history and artifacts accompanying the watch, there seems little doubt it is as genuine as the one which sold in 2011, so it’ll be interesting to see whether the price falls in the estimated price range. We think NOT!

Quite obviously, there was a huge margin for error in using handheld stopwatches, and many of history’s most famous sporting achievements were timed under exactly such circumstances. Despite the most elaborate and ingenious starting/timing devices man can conceive, there seems always an element of doubt. Michael Phelps won his seventh (swimming) gold medal in the 2008 Olympics in controversial circumstances with many believing Milorad Čavić had touched first without applying enough pressure to trigger the touchpad sensor.

The mile is now so ingrained in the human psyche that it will likely live on forever as a landmark middle distance event, just as the marathon remains the premier long distance thanks to its traditional roots (the distance run by the Greek runner was sent to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon in 490BC). The mile has been the only non-metric distance recognized by the IAAF for four decades.

The second piece of significant sporting memorabilia that might have been undervalued is a jumper worn on the original 1905-06 New Zealand All-Blacks tour of the United Kingdom, France and the United States. The All Blacks have a proud tradition of playing rugby union far better than the size of their player pool suggests they should (there are still only 4.5 million Kiwis today), and that tradition was established on this first international tour when the team won 34 of the 35 tour matches, and score 976 points while conceding just 59.

Along the way, New Zealand beat Scotland 12–7, Ireland 15-0, England 15-0 (in front of 100,000 spectators), and France 38–8, losing its only match 3-0 to the Welsh team in what many consider to be one of the epic sporting contests of all-time.

The jersey on offer at auction was worn against English club Swansea on December 30, 1905 and is yet another indication of just how far technology has progressed our sporting apparel. The white upper chest and back on the jersey is canvas. With an estimate of £15,000 to £20,000, I feel certain there will be a few keen Kiwis bidding for their slice of All Blacks history and the estimate might prove a bit light.

Most sports on offer

Take a bit of time to browse the auction catalogue and you'll no doubt see many items that catch your interest depending on the sports of your fancy. There's a set of boxing gloves signed by Muhamed Ali and Joe Frazier (£1800 - £2500), Jorge Lorenzo's MotoGP leathers (£6,000 - £8,000), Damon Hill's 1998 Jordan F1 racing suit (£4,000 - £6,000), an autographed lithograph with the top 50 NBA players from 1946-1996 (£20,000 - £30,000), Hurricane Higgins snooker cue (£1,000 - £1,500), an Arthur Ashe 1975 Wimbledon tennis racket (£800 - £1,200) and much more. There were several interesting contrasts though that invite comparison's between modern day sports and those of not very long ago.

Golf memorabilia

Many sports have changed significantly in a short space of time, but perhaps none as much as golf, as the two items above illustrate so effectively. The ball at left is a hand-hammered Gutty golf ball circa 1865 estimated to sell for between £300 and £500. Golf has gone through many technological revolutions since it began 600 years ago using wooden balls. Next came the "feathery" ball, which were leather stuffed with feathers, made by artisans and cost as much as a golf club. Then followed the "Gutty", which was made by heating and forming the rubber-like dried sap of the Sapodilla tree. Cheaper, more resilient and far truer in flight than a feathery, the Gutty was initially hand-made with a smooth surface, but when players realized that scuffed and scarred Guttys flew truer, there followed a period of several decades when the hand-hammered Gutty was a "must have" for the serious golfer. When the Gutty eventually succumbed to mass production, dimples were introduced into the moulds, and the modern golf ball began to take shape about 125 years ago.

Like the clubs at right from the same period, both golf ball and clubs have undergone several "revolutions" where driving distances were significantly increased, inadvertently changing the nature of the courses upon which they were played. Check out this video of Rory McIlroy driving the green on the 436-yard par-4 thirteenth hole at Royal Aberdeen last year – when the course was conceived, the thought of someone reaching the green from their tee shot was unthinkable.

Football-Soccer memorabilia

Football (the soccer variety), shares several things with golf in that it is a seemingly simple game which becomes labyrinthically more complex the minute you begin playing or studying it, and it too has been changed significantly by technology.

For hundreds of years (until recently) it has been played with simple leather boots and a simple leather ball – nothing fancy, just all skill, teamwork and tactics. The ball at left is an eighty year-old soccer ball used in a match between Arsenal and Everton in 1935 and the boots. The boots are Kingwell Club boots similar to those the pros would wear in the same period (estimated at £400 to £600) and although beautifully crafted from leather, would weigh in the vicinity of 500 - 550 grams (17 -21 ounces) dry, and maybe double that on a wet day, just as that leather football would act like a sponge and near double in weight when the weather turned sour. Football boots, not to mention footballs these days, are primarily synthetic or treated to resist water. Boots in particular are now one third to one fifth of that weight (adidas recently released the 99g, a boot weighing just 99 grams).

The reason the abovementioned football has been kept in such excellent condition is that it was used on the day Arsenal's goalkeeper, Fred Moss, scored a goal. In a time before substitutions, the England-capped Moss dislocated his shoulder early in the game so another player deputised in front of goal while Moss was forced to play out the game as best he could. Being unmarked, he found himself in the right position at the right time and slotted a goal for an historic first. Like I said, the game has changed a lot since then.

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