The MCC Museum was selling off a collection of valuable cricketing books and memorabilia at Christie’s this week: a complete set of Wisdens, signed bats from the 18th century, photographs of WG Grace. TWC sent Vithushan Ehantharajah to see just how voracious the appetite for cricket memorabilia is and to witness a world record …
I would be lying if I said I had been to an auction before, let alone one selling sporting memorabilia dating back to the late 18th Century. MCC had decided to clear out an old cupboard and I had gone along to watch.
My closest previous experience of an auction was when I approached a raucous crowd outside a dilapidated shop in west Ealing. I found them watching a man with a mega-phone on a makeshift stage.
“I must be mad; any minute now the men in white coats will be here to section me, so take advantage of me while you can!” I seemed to be the only one concerned, until I realised that his condition was a marketing tool – he was selling ‘state of the art’ stereo-systems out of black bin-liners.
While the lots on offer at Christie’s were hardly state of the art, I doubt they were being stored in opaque refuse bags.
Play got under way at 2pm with a good turnout of both collectors and spectators. I found a spot near the back, unwilling to venture too far forward in case a mistimed scratch of the nose left me out of pocket with The critical observations of Scriblerus Maximus or The Whole Art of Cricket with Instructions How to Bat and Bowl 1875. Each lot came and went, a vast array of artefacts from Fred Lillywhite’s account of England’s tour to America and the United states in 1859 to a long-handled bat signed by over 200 England and Australia players from the late 19th century.
I eventually meandered further back to chat to a few people who had ceased their bidding and moved out of the firing line. The majority were collectors but a few had vested interests in specific items, buying Wisdens that featured club or family ties. I returned to my seat for the much-anticipated Lot 59 – William Epps’ A collection of The Grand Cricket matches played in England between 1771 and 1791.
The bidding started at £30,000 and it was not long before the value was creeping up to the estimated £70,000 – and in a flash it was exceeding it, “£75,000, £80,000…” There were three bidders remaining, one present in the room, battling telephone and internet bidders. The trio took the bidding into six figures but it was too much for our man in the room as he reluctantly bowed out. You could sense the disappointment throughout the auction house; each and every one of us was willing him on (silently of course). “£115,000. £120,000. Do I hear £125,000?” He does, the telephone bidder goes for the knockout blow and the e-bidder cannot muster a riposte. Sold! “Now back to reality,” said the auctioneer.
The reality is that I was present for the setting of a new world record for the sale of a single cricket book (£151,250 after tax), and all the while I was cradling my October 2010-printed Christie’s catalogue. £14 seeing as you asked …
Vithushan Ehantharajah is a freelance journalist writing regularly at sport.co.uk