The high price of cricket nostalgia, 1981

Cricketana - a bull market

David Frith

Not so very long ago, cricket books and ephemera were collected by enthusiasts for the pure, albeit competitive, joy of possession. The scene has changed. Public interest in cricket has risen since the early 1970s; the frailty of currency in times of economic inflation has persuaded people - not all necessarily cricket-lovers - that cricketana is a solid investment; and the obsessive nostalgia which dependably visits mankind in time of stress has done the rest.

The business of collecting cricket material was brisk enough in the days when Leslie Gutteridge presided over his cavern of literary treasures, extraordinarily fairly priced, at Epworth Bookshop in London's City Road. E. K. Brown of Liskeard, Cornwall, took the premier spot among dealers when Mr Gutteridge moved to Canada, and J. W. McKenzie and Martin Wood, of the younger breed, further answered and encouraged the growth in interest which accompanied cricket's latest ascendancy.

Yet it was the sudden concentrated awareness of London's auction rooms which triggered off the unprecedented boom. In September 1978, some of Phillips's estimates for over a hundred lots were doubled, even trebled. Unlike the notorious Cahn sale at Sotheby's in 1951, this was attended by a large gathering, and bidding was determined beyond mere doggedness. A. H. Burr's oil on canvas, A Game of Cricket, fetched top price at £7,500 (an almost identical work entitled The Veteran Bowlermade £2,800 a year later); the charming The Young Cricketers(English school) £2,600; and lithographs after J. C. Anderson £50 or £60 apiece.

That these unique or rare and desirable lots should realise such high sums was no surprise. A first edition Felix on the Bat(1845) made £280, Denison's Sketches of the Players(1846) £180, and Sir Jeremiah Colman'The Noble Game of Cricket(1941), one of a limited edition of 150, £460, establishing positively a new era of valuation. But when a bisque figure of W. G. Grace saw bidding escalate to £440 and a WG Century of Centuries Coalport plate raised £800, when a WG commemorative handkerchief made £850 and a signed photograph of the 1909 Australian touring team made £190, there was no doubting that cricket's stock market was in a state of excitement.

There came the inevitable reaction. Seven months later, at same saleroom, when the most historically interesting item was a mid-eighteenth century bat (£550), an original Victorian cast-iron pub table with moulded portraits of W. G. Grace on the legs fetched £140, half the figure at the previous sale (only for values to be confounded again in December when, at Sotheby's, a modern reproduction was sold for £180); a WG handkerchief made £220 - still an astonishing price, yet little more than a quarter of that at the earlier sale - and another handkerchief, The Australian Cricketers 1882, made £340. While prints and paintings, ancient and modern, fetched substantial sums, there ware signs that things were settling down.

Whatever the oscillations in price in the areas of silver, art and ephemera, books held steady, with Wisden Cricketers' Almanacksthe gold bullion. A run of 97 Wisdensfrom 1864 to 1969, lacking nine pre-1900, took bidding to £4,200. This transaction was topped a year later when Sir Pelham Warner's Wisdens(1864-1963) were bought for £7,800. Even the auctioneer gulped as bidding reached this unexpected peak. It should be remembered, too, that 11½ per cent had to be added as buyer's premium plus VAT.

The salerooms now filled each time a cricket auction was staged in London, for media interest had increased public awareness. It also caused one buyer to realise too late that, having confessed to a radio audience of millions that he had paid £60 for eight coloured lithographs of the 1882 Australians, he could hardly expect to conceal the fact from his wife.

Postcards, medallions, tankards and pots, salvers, magic lantern slides: they came out of the bureaux and down from the attics and found their current values according to demand. The dealers, armed with sizable budgets, proved almost unbeatable when they set their sights on books, and there were suspicions that the market was being cornered, a depressing prospect for budding collectors. But by May 1980, a WG handkerchief - admittedly perhaps less pristine than others - had slipped to £65, and a large white marble figure of a boy with a bat, which had sold for £2,000 twenty months before, was knocked down, or conceivably brought back, at £750.

Wisdenand Graceiana continued to be the most appealing hallmarks. Even an 1894 telegram from WG to his mother was so highly regarded as to fetch £90.

The occasional hidden gem slipped through. Alerted at the preview, a West Country buyer paid little for a darkened bat which, it transpired, bore a lengthy inscription and signature by Arthur Shrewsbury. But the feeling persisted: that prices were getting out of hand, that the frenzy for possession would create a vacuum in its wake. Absurdities such as the pair of prints (1977) which went for £16, though still available from the publisher for £5, guaranteed this backlash.

Spy cartoons and Chevallier Tayler chromolithographs came through in profusion; menus, signed photos, scorecards; Plum Warner's England blazer and a dozen caps, one of them his renowned Harlequin lid. Spy's original wetercolour of Tom Hayward sold for £300, while Frank Reynolds drawings went for £50 or so per pair. A stevengraph of WG made £300, and in the book department Ranji's Jubilee Book, the signed, limited edition, made £110. The laws of Cricket, revised at the Star & Garter Pall Mall, in 1774, proved a prize catch, and made £500 to a Northern collector. The silver cigar-box presented to Wally Hammond by the 1928-29 MCC team went for £270. A delightful little eighteenth century Bilston patch-box, decorated with a view of a match at Sevenoaks in 1782, fetched £1,250.

By now, Phillips's sales were being scheduled several times annually, and taking two or three hours to conduct. With the scope now so broad and the hammer prices having levelled slightly, there was potentially plenty for everybody, particularly among the lesser rarities. The queue at the collection counter was long. Over £30,000 changed hands at Phillips's sale of May 1980, and £18,000 in September - when a daguerreotype of a cricketer, after being dropped to the floor accidentally, made £55. Other desirable items were A. P. F. Chapman's four photo albums (£180) and a copy of Biers & Fairfax Australian Cricketer's Guidefor 1856-57 (£240). Spasmodically, well-known names appeared in the commodity descriptions: formerly the property of Jack Hobbs ... Arthur Fielder ... J. R. Mason ... author Eric Parker ... and, by a circuitous route, John Arlott.

In the spring of 1980, Sussex County Cricket Club, severely financially embarrassed, took their cue and mounted an auction at Hove of purportedly duplicate cricketana from the club's library and museum. Some £10,000 was raised: a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century oil of Kent v Sussex, Malling (surely no duplicate) made £1,650; Tony Greig's last Sussex bat £200 and a boxful of his ties £22; two small Felix watercolours brought £300.

Next, Worcestershire pulled in almost £5,000 at the end of the season, auctioning donated objects which included the Benson and Hedges Gold Award medallion withheld when Somerset captain Brian Rose declared, rendering the match void. Someone thought highly enough of this oddity to pay £300. The ball used for the seventeen deliveries in that doomed match made, with arithmetical neatness, £17. Peter May's England cap fetched £38, Basil D'Oliveira's £33, and David Sheppard's Sussex cap £15. These will not have gone unnoticed by county beneficiaries of the future.

The last major sale of 1980, Sotheby's at Gleneagles, saw a most special heirloom change hands when a five-piece silver tea service presented to Mrs W. L. Murdoch by Prince Ranjitsinhji was offered to the public. With its evocative associations it seemed reasonably priced at £450 when the auctioneer's hammer descended.

The comfort for all genuine cricket-lovers whose purses have not stretched to the heavier demands comes in the knowledge that while so many people care about the preservation of the game's tangible heritage, it will remain protected. In an ideal world all worthwhile exhibits, to say nothing of a copy of every cricket book ever published, would be on permanent view to the nation an its overseas visitors, rather than scattered in private collections. But while the temptation exists to sell soon after buying, at least a kind of availability persists, given the funds. And for the poorer spectator there is at least the chance to examine the goods at auction previews before attending the sale and watching the tight-jawed purchasers in fervent competition.

Will values hold? If inflation continues to subside and if the boom in cricket's grip on the public's imagination runs into a recession, as predicted by the jeremiahs, then probably not. But the delight in handing a book first held by an aficionadoa hundred years ago, or of placing an Edwardian Test cricketer's cap upon one's head, will never cease momentarily to paralyse an addict with ecstasy.

© John Wisden & Co