Sold, American!

By Clarence George on July 16, 2013
Sold, American!
“Johnson earned more than 10 times what Cobb's salary was in 1910 to toy with Jeffries.”

“As a fan who held my precious baseball in such high regard, it was a kick in the balls to learn that Johnson was allowed to fight and win a heavyweight title…”

“God help us if we ever take the theater out of the auction business or anything else. It would be an awfully boring world.”—A. Alfred Taubman

Dave Bergin is the owner of Pugilistica.com and BoxingTreasures.com, and offers boxing collectors a wide range of memorabilia from the bare-knuckle age to the present. Items are available online or through auction, which are held on Sundays via eBay. Look for the seller name “boxiana.”

I myself subscribe to Pugilistica and BoxingTreasure’s newsletter, and enjoy participating in Dave’s weekly auctions. Indeed, I have a “thing” for neglected or forgotten boxers, and am fortunate to have been the high bidder on a fine vintage press photo of Lee Oma, a recent boxiana offering.

Though ably assisted by his wife and daughter, Dave pretty much runs the business on his own. I’m therefore grateful that he’s taken time from his demanding schedule to answer a few questions for the benefit of Boxing.com’s readers…and collectors.

C.G.: I know, Dave, that you’ve been collecting and selling sports memorabilia for the past couple of decades, but that you’ve focused on boxing in recent years. What was the siren call of the Sweet Science? And why did you heed it?

D.B.: As a fan, I watched Saturday afternoon fights with my dad. Hagler, Hearns, Leonard, Duran. Followed Marlon Starling religiously, a local guy. Loved Larry Holmes, mostly because everybody else seemed to hate him, because he wasn’t Muhammad Ali. After their careers began to peter out, I only kept track of the major bouts, especially heavyweight title fights. I remember nearly having a heart attack when Buster Douglas knocked Mike Tyson down in Japan. I noted the emergence of Lewis, Bowe, Holyfield, Golota, but was otherwise a pretty passive follower of the sport.

I think the fights that really turned me into a full-fledged boxing fan were the two Arturo Gatti-Ivan Robinson bouts of ‘98. A solid but limited brawler versus a solid but limited boxer. They were perfectly matched, at least as far as I was concerned. And with the first Morales-Barrera fight, which took place soon thereafter, I was hooked on the sport for good.

As a collector…well, I started collecting baseball cards when I was around six years old, looking for Yankee players. It was as a teenager that I started buying and selling baseball cards, making my presence known at card shows. I loved everything about baseball, including playing it and its history. I immersed myself in it, but I also branched out into other team sports.

There was a huge boom in the card market in the late ‘80s. It didn’t last, because of an over-saturation of new products, and the realization that obscenely mass-produced baseball cards wasn’t a terrific investment strategy. Old cards still held their value, but the new stuff drove a lot of people out.

At an antique-paper show, I found several vintage wire photos of the tragic bout between Sugar Ramos and Davey Moore; not only of the fight, but of its aftermath. Moore’s family visiting him in the hospital; Ramos shattered upon learning of his opponent’s death. Poignant stuff.

It was at this time that I began to change my collecting focus. I loved old stuff. The older, the better; the more unique and historically important, the better. But items pertaining to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Josh Gibson were way out of my price range. Where would I go? What would I collect?

It was then that I stumbled on Jack Johnson. A more interesting character would be hard to find. Best of all, there was all sorts of cool stuff on him. And very reasonably priced compared to the baseball players of the era. Johnson, of course, leads you to James J. Jeffries and Sam Langford, which leads you to Sam McVey, which leads you to Peter Jackson and James J. Corbett, to Heenan vs. Sayers, to Molineaux vs. Cribb, and all the way back to James Figg and Broughton in the early 18th century. Like I said, the older, the better. And much of it available to the collector on a limited budget.

C.G.: Fair to say Johnson holds a special place for you?

D.B.: Everybody knows Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League Baseball in 1947. As a fan who held my precious baseball in such high regard, it was really a kick in the balls to learn that Johnson was allowed to fight and win a heavyweight title in 1908. Not to mention lighter-weight fighters who came before him, like Barbados Joe Walcott, George Dixon, and Joe Gans.

Not to say boxing was some sort of utopia for black athletes, because it wasn’t, but to know it was even possible for them to compete against the best white athletes—and be accepted and even celebrated for it in some circles—was pretty mind-blowing for somebody who grew up reading about the obscurity Negro League ballplayers were forced to play in for so many decades.

People forget that boxing was a close second to baseball at that time, in terms of popularity. In fact, the top boxers out-earned their baseball counterparts. Hell, never mind the purses Jack Dempsey took home—Harry Wills earned almost as much as Ruth did in all of 1925 to not fight Dempsey. Johnson earned more than 10 times what Cobb’s salary was in 1910 to toy with Jeffries for 15 rounds—a fact that should make anybody who knows just a little about Cobb smile from ear to ear.

Anyway, long story short…I discovered eBay in the late ‘90s and started my own website in 2001. While I dabble in other sports, I deal almost exclusively in boxing. It’s my bread and butter.

C.G.: Value is of course measured by scarcity and demand playing off each other. But what specifically gives value to a boxing memento? Is it largely dependent on era? Weight division? Or does a given boxer’s popularity trump everything else?

D.B.: Like any collectible, there’s probably a thousand different factors that go into value. Supply-demand is fundamental, but also aesthetics, condition, popularity, type of fan base a certain boxer has, regional followings… As with all athletes, popularity and skill level aren’t always in tandem. Was the guy an action fighter, slick boxer, highly skilled but not very exciting? I don’t think any knowledgeable boxing fan would argue about who was the better fighter, Gatti or Pernell Whitaker. But there are always buyers of Gatti out there; Whitaker, not so much. Fans appreciate him as a master craftsman and sing his praises in pound-for-pound lists, but those same fans don’t go out of their way to buy his memorabilia.

Less extreme comparisons can be made with Lewis to Tyson, Gene Tunney to both Dempsey and Harry Greb, Corbett to John L. Sullivan, and countless others.

Then there is the one guy we all know, where popularity means almost everything—Ali. There’s a large segment of the collecting public who collects Ali and only Ali. He’s an icon that transcends the sport. You might even be able to separate the hobby into “Boxing Memorabilia” and “Muhammad Ali Memorabilia,” if you’re so inclined.

But there’s a lot of Ali stuff available, and it isn’t immune to the rules of supply and demand. Just because something has “Ali” on it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s valuable or expensive. He is, or at least can be, affordable.

There also items or types of items a dealer may have, myself included, that are arbitrarily priced. An item that’s rare, but for which there wouldn’t be a lot of competition if placed in auction. You price it, and hope the right buyer comes along.

C.G.: What’s the most interesting or valuable or rarest item to come into your hands?

D.B.: Rarity is a bit of a loaded term. There are plenty of one-of-a-kind items in the boxing-memorabilia world, but this doesn’t always translate into value.

The first item that pops into my head is a Johnson vs. Tommy Burns ticket that was sent to me by a consignor in Australia several years ago. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first time the main body of the ticket had been offered for sale, though the less desirable ticket stub has come up once or twice.

Ticket collecting is a major part of the hobby, and this one had obvious historical significance, in combination with the fact that everybody who collects tickets to heavyweight championship bouts was missing this one from their collection.

Other interesting items include a wonderful archival scrapbook compiled by Wills himself, revolving around his life and fights, and a huge collection of larger-sized photo negatives of boxers that came directly from the National and Bryant Photo Studios of New York. Just about every boxer who fought or traveled through the New York area from the 1920s to the 1950s went to that legendary studio to have publicity shots taken.

There was a great collection of a few dozen 1880s Old Judge Tobacco boxing cards, several of which had never been discovered before.

I also get excited by the obscure, just as much as I do by the big names. One of my favorite finds was a collection of two large postcard books from Europe, compiled by a Swiss journeyman boxer named Andre Simeth. He fought all over Europe from the late 1910s to the 1920s, and in his travels collected images and often obtained signatures from nearly everybody he ran across—from unknown club fighters to European champs to lesser-known African-American fighters who traveled to the continent for greater opportunities and paydays. Just a fascinating view of the fight game.

Another was a collection, from the same period, of photos from a San Francisco studio. West Coast stalwarts and guys who were traveling through, like Jeff “The Joplin Ghost” Clark, Willie Hoppe, Chuck Wiggins, Billy and Dave Shade, Kid Carter, Battling Savage, Willie Meehan, and dozens more. Guys who looked like they’d lived life hard, and been put through the mill more than once or twice.

Yeah, I have a bit of a soft spot for vintage photography.

C.G.: What’s your pugilistic Holy Grail? What item do you want more than any other? Would you sell it…or keep it in your private collection?

D.B.: I don’t think too much about that. But maybe a personal item that can be traced back to Cribb or Molineaux or Figg or Broughton. Probably a bit of a pipe dream.

I was once contacted by the owners of a signed contract for the 1849 bare-knuckle bout between Yankee Sullivan and Tom Hyer. They were relatives of the original stakeholder to the bout. I was able to take a look at it, and it was about as convincing as anything from that time period could be.

Many would consider this an obscure match, but it was one of the highest-profile bouts to take place in America before John L. rose to prominence some 30 years later. I found it absolutely fascinating, and the earliest surviving American title-fight contract that I’m aware of. The owners weren’t interested in selling, but that would be neat as hell to own…if only for a little while.

C.G.: Let’s name some more names. Will a collector salivate more over an autographed photo of Sullivan or Joe Louis? What about Sugar Ray Robinson? He’s generally considered the greatest boxer of all time. What does that mean for the collector? Is Robinson most in demand?

D.B.: Robinson is popular among a certain set of collectors, absolutely. I have him ranked number one myself. Is he most in demand? He’s probably the most in-demand non-heavyweight of his era, and that’s about as far as I can go with that. The more hardcore collectors and historians tend to favor Robinson. But even in the collecting world he needs to fall back on the pound-for-pound crown assigned to him, because he and others are overshadowed by the heavyweights.

A Sullivan autograph will always be far more valuable than a Louis or Robinson. It falls mostly to the era, and the ease in which a Robinson or Louis can be obtained compared to Sullivan.

C.G.: You recently offered a very nice Mickey Walker autograph at auction. In addition to signing his name, he drew a toy bulldog. Even though I was outbid, I was pleasantly surprised that it went for a reasonable price. That tells me there’s hope for collectors of relatively modest means. What advice do you have for buyers who can’t afford—here’s a ghoulish example—the gun Billy Papke used to kill first his wife and then himself? And, while we’re at it, what words of wisdom do you have for sellers?

D.B.: Oh, there’s always plenty of interesting stuff out there for people on a budget. It’s one of the things that drew me to the collectible side of boxing. So much history, and so much of it available to the average collector, if you’re discriminating in what you purchase, and sometimes just patient enough to wait for the right thing to come along.

In the case of Walker…as many people know, he became an artist after retiring from his boxing career. The little toy bulldog he liked to draw with his autograph is pretty standard fare for him. Mickey was always a willing signer all through his later life, and his autograph from his post-fighting days is both plentiful and affordable. He’s not aggressively sought after, however.

Advice to sellers? Weigh your options and do your research.

C.G.: Thanks for your time, Dave. Anything you wish to add?

D.B.: Thanks for the opportunity, Clarence. And thanks for bidding at my auctions. Your support is much appreciated, and it’s always exciting to see a new collector enter the hobby. I’ll add this, if I may: Buy what you like and collect what interests you, and be suspicious of anybody who sells you memorabilia based on investment value.

Do your research, and buy from somebody you trust. There’s lots of bad stuff out there, especially once you get to the in-demand names.

There’s a million variables to collecting anything that I haven’t touched on here, but much of it comes down to…learning as you go.

Based in Terryville, Connecticut, Dave can be reached at 860-589-5286, or at david@pugilistica.com or david@boxingtreasures.com.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Your Name 04:39am, 06/06/2015

    hi thanks for ur veiws,info,,keep good work up ,,,,,p.s know any good sites for sellin my item plz ,,darran

  2. darran 02:21am, 02/16/2015

    hi im loooking 4 somebody who would enjoy this item asmuch as me,,,,,iv a heenan vs sayers painting on 3 pine planks, with both boxers standing out from painting, all looks very origanl, paint work , sign writing, saying,,, to the gentlmen,lovers and patrons of the fine art of self defence,, in gold writing,,stands 2ft by 19 in,,,,looks great , i was looking 4 fair price only,,thx 4 your time   darran,....

  3. Clarence George 06:59am, 07/17/2013

    Thanks very much indeed, Peter.

    Mickey Walker’s paintings occasionally come up for sale, usually at auction.  He’s inexpensive, within the context of the art world…probably ranging between one and three thousand.

    I never heard that about Ruben Olivares, which doesn’t mean it’s not true, but I do know that junior middleweight John Thompson dabbles in art.

  4. peter 04:58am, 07/17/2013

    Thank you for another interesting article! These gems are only found on Boxing.com! Where would someone find a Mickey Walker painting? What price do they command?...Is it true that Ruben Olivares is a woodcarver who sells his art?

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