Heritage Auctions, headquartered in Dallas, bills itself as “the world’s third largest auction house” and “the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer.” Its website states that, since 1976, Heritage has sold more than three billion dollars worth of auction items and that its sports auction division is “the largest sports auction house in the world with over $50 million in annual sales.”
On May 11 through May 13 of this year, a Heritage sports collectibles auction grossed more than $9 million. However, a study of the auction suggests that some of the boxing collectibles offered for sale aren’t what Heritage represented them to be. And the provenance of other items involving Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson has been called into question.
Chris Ivy is Heritage’s Director of Sports Collectibles. The Heritage website says that Ivy began working at Heritage Auctions in 2000 and was “the driving force behind the inception of the Sports auction division in 2003.” It further states, “Chris is recognized as a nationally respected expert in the industry. In his position, he is responsible for the day-to-day operations, combining vision and execution with a balance of business and collecting passion. He counsels advanced collectors to help them build some of the most significant private collections in the hobby and he also works with consignors on a daily basis to recommend the disposition of their collections in order to maximize their financial return.”
Asked to respond to questions regarding the May 11-13 Heritage auction, Ivy referenced “the inevitability that a tiny fraction of the thousands of lots we sell annually are deemed problematic,” and declared, “Our authentication processes are the most rigorous in the industry. We will never sell an item we do not believe to be authentic.”
There’s no suggestion that Heritage knowingly sold phony sports memorabilia. However, Heritage appears to have engaged in painfully sloppy authentication practices.
Let’s start with Lot #81838 from the May 11-13 Heritage auction. It’s listed in the auction catalog as “1980 Matthew Saad Muhammad Fight Worn Robe from Lopez II Bout.”
The Heritage website link for the robe is:
The Heritage auction catalog describes the robe as follows:
“It was the Fight of the Year in 1980, a wild and violent thriller that saw Saad Muhammad hit with twenty unanswered power shots in round eight before recovering to drop challenger Yaqui Lopez five times en route to a fourteenth-round stoppage to successfully defend his WBC Light-Heavyweight belt. This is the white satin ‘Everlast’ robe worn by Saad Muhammad both before and after the brutal affair, as period film and photography confirms. Note that the detachable hood has since been lost, but otherwise the match is perfect, the distinctive black tackle twill ’Matthew Saad Muhammad’ text on verso both unusual and unmistakable. Robe is also missing the original black belt and exhibits a degree of toning from wear and storage, but it presents beautifully and ably recalls one of the most thrilling nights of boxing in the past four decades. LOA from Heritage Auctions. Pre-certified by PSA/DNA (autograph). Auction LOA from SGC Authentic (autograph).”
The robe sold at auction for $1,080.
The problem is that the robe sold by Heritage has an Everlast label on the front left breast. As evidenced by a video of the fight, the robe that Saad Muhammad wore did not.
Apparently, the “most rigorous” authentication processes in the industry didn’t include the simple viewing of a fight film that’s readily available on YouTube.
Lot #81837 in the May 11-13 Heritage Auction is another robe that’s problematic. It’s listed in the auction catalog as “1950’s Archie Moore Fight Worn, Signed Robe.”
The Heritage website link for the robe is:
According to Heritage, Moore wore this robe “in several championship matches, including the fights versus Tony Anthony, Yolande Pompey, etc.”
The Heritage auction catalog describes the robe as follows:
“His professional career covered a staggering twenty-eight years, earning him the well deserved nickname ‘The Old Mongoose’ for his tenacity and durability. His career knockout total of 131 is a record in the sport, and he ranks fourth on The Ring magazine’s list of the hundred greatest punchers. Prominent boxing website BoxRec names Moore the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the sport’s history. But despite his nearly three decades of prizefighting and pantheon status, scant few relics from Moore have surfaced in the collectibles market. We’re happy to address this shortfall with the presented piece, a black floral fabric robe with gold trim that was handmade by one of his ex wives’ mothers. Originally sold to the Sands Hotel Boxing Museum in Las Vegas by Moore, it was later purchased by renowned boxing collector Bob Case and is accompanied by a signed letter of provenance from Moore, which states that it was worn in several championship matches, including the fights versus Tony Anthony, Yolande Pompey, etc. Letter of provenance from Archie Moore. Letter of provenance from Bob Case. LOA from Heritage Auctions. Full LOA from PSA/DNA (autograph). Auction LOA from SGC Authentic (autograph).”
The robe sold at auction for $4,800.
The problem is that, here too, the robe sold by Heritage appears to be different from what it’s purported to be.
There is no film of Moore vs. Tony Anthony to verify that this is the robe Moore wore in that fight. Film of Moore vs. Yolande Pompey (available on YouTube) indicates that the robe auctioned off by Heritage is not the robe Moore wore that night. Note the wide lapels on Moore’s robe in the video, the different waist pocket design, and wider trim at the sleeves.
In response, Chris Ivy states, “The Moore robe, if your contention is correct, would be an extraordinarily rare instance of an athlete letter of provenance proving false. The hobby is conditioned to take athletes at their word, and it is Moore himself who was the source of attribution.”
However, serious collectors are not “conditioned to take athletes at their word” when it comes to sports memorabilia. Jack Dempsey was known for giving away fight artifacts and embellishing what they were. Archie Moore might have done the same thing when selling them. Or giving Moore the benefit of the doubt, he might have believed he wore this particular robe in the Pompey fight and was wrong. All Heritage had to do was go to YouTube and the robe’s provenance would have been called into question.
Lot #81845 in the May 11-13 Heritage auction is listed in the auction catalog as “1982 Larry Holmes Cornerman Shirt Worn by Ray Arcel – Arcel’s Last Fight!”
The Heritage website link for the jacket is:
The Heritage auction catalog describes the jacket as follows:
“A glorious career that began in the 1920’s and saw him train twenty men to World Championships ended the night Ray Arcel wore this ‘Everlast’ brand garment in the corner of Heavyweight beltholder Larry Holmes in a bout against Jerry Cooney. The June 11, 1982, contest would conclude with Cooney’s corner throwing in the towel in the thirteenth to rescue their battered challenger. Red satin shirt has zipper front and screened white text on verso reading, ‘World Champion Larry Holmes.’ A thrilling farewell to the greatest trainer in boxing history. LOA from Heritage Auctions.”
The reserve price for this jacket wasn’t met at auction. The item is now being offered for sale on the Heritage website for $600.
One might start with the sloppiness of Heritage’s research by noting that the auction catalog spells Gerry Cooney’s name incorrectly. More significantly, as evidenced by a video of Holmes-Cooney posted on YouTube, the jacket worn by Arcel had a PONY patch on the right front breast and an Everlast patch on the left front breast.
The robe being offered for sale by Heritage has only the Everlast patch.
This contradicts Chris Ivy’s claim that ”our authentication processes are the most rigorous in the industry.”
The three auction items referenced above appear to be something other than what Heritage represented them to be. There are also instances where more documentation would have been appropriate to bolster what appears to be questionable provenance.
Lot #81845 in the May 11-13 Heritage auction is listed in the auction catalog as “1960 Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) First Professional Fight Card Program.”
The Heritage website link for the program is:
The Heritage auction catalog describes the program as follows:
“A month earlier, on September 5, 1960, an eighteen year old Cassius Clay stood proudly on the top level of an Olympic podium in Rome as the American national anthem played in his honor. Here we find what is arguably the rarest relic in the professional career of the Light-Heavyweight Gold Medalist, the modest single-page fight card for Clay’s professional debut at the Freedom Hall State Fairground in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, a six-round meeting with the thirty year old police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia, Tunney Hunsaker on October 29, 1960. After the bout, Hunsaker would report, ‘Clay was as fast as lightning. I tried every trick I knew to throw at him off balance but he was just too good.’ And so began the path to a 1964 meeting with Sonny Liston at Miami Beach, and the Heavyweight Championship belt. The 7×9.5″ page survives in astoundingly fine condition with no creasing or tearing. Unscored. This program originates from the granddaughter of Joe Martin. Joe Martin was the police officer who introduced Clay to boxing as a youngster.”
Here’s the problem.
Heritage says the program came from Joe Martin’s collection through Martin’s granddaughter, Jole.
Jole Martin sold her grandfather’s collection to a collector named Peter Morkovin. The Clay-Hunsaker programs, which she found among her grandfather’s belongings after he died, were included in the sale. Morkovin was a sophisticated collector. He asked for and received a notarized letter of authenticity from Jole for each Clay-Hunsaker program. That was important to him because, prior to Jole’s discovery of the programs, no Clay-Hunsaker programs were known to exist.
Morkovin subsequently resold the Clay-Hunsaker programs. Thereafter, Heritage sold Clay-Hunsaker programs at auction on October 26, 2012 (lot #81222 for $3,107), May 3, 2013 (lot #82069 for $3,346 ), and November 8, 2013 (lot #82581 for $2,168).
The Heritage catalogs from these earlier auctions describe the first two of these three copies of the Clay-Hunsaker program as being accompanied by a notarized letter of provenance from Jole Martin. The third program, which doesn’t list a notarized letter of provenance from Jole Martin, sold for considerably less than its counterparts, suggesting that sophisticated collectors of Muhammad Ali memorabilia had doubts about its provenance.
The Clay-Hunsaker program offered for sale at the May 11-13 Heritage auction was not listed as having a notarized letter of authenticity from Jole Martin. It didn’t meet the reserve price and is now being offered for sale on the Heritage website for $3,600.
Also, the condition of the Clay-Hunsaker program currently being offered for sale by Heritage raises questions.
Each of the programs that Martin sold to Morkovin was on a single 7-by-9.5-inch piece of paper. And each program had a degree of foxing (brown spotting that becomes visible on paper as it ages). Similarly, the three copies of the Clay-Hunsaker program previously sold by Heritage each had a degree of foxing. But the Clay-Hunsaker program included in the May 11-13 Heritage auction and now for sale on the Heritage website is clean.
Equally troubling, the Clay-Hunsaker program currently being offered for sale by Heritage has flawless lettering. But on other known copies of the program, the lettering is uneven, as though the programs were mimeographed off and the mimeograph drum was running out of ink.
The Clay-Hunsaker fight was contested 56 years ago. An unscrupulous seller could get old paper and reproduce a one-page program. That might not be what happened here. But better authentication would be nice.
Finally, lot #81846 is listed in the Heritage auction catalog as “1988 Mike Tyson Fight Used Mouthpiece from Historic 91 Second Knockout of Michael Spinks.”
The Heritage website link for the mouthpiece is:
The Heritage auction catalog describes the mouthpiece as follows:
“In one of the most highly anticipated fights of the 1980’s, Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks represented two undefeated superstar boxers, who each entered the Atlantic City Convention Hall ring as a legitimate heavyweight champion. The richest fight in boxing history to that point, grossing some $70 million, saw Spinks last only 91 seconds, as he was knocked down for the third and final time in the round. Originating from the collection of Tyson’s famed trainer Kevin Rooney, the rubber mouthpiece was worn during that historic fight by Iron Mike. Accompanied by its original yellow plastic case, with ‘vs. Spinks from Kevin Rooney’ on one side, and ‘Mike Tyson’ on the other, it displays even toning throughout. LOA from Heritage Auctions.”
The mouthpiece sold at auction for $2,640.
For starters, Tyson knocked Spinks down twice, not three times as stated in the Heritage catalog.
More important insofar as the provenance of the mouthpiece is concerned; Steve Lott was in Mike Tyson’s dressing room before and after the Spinks fight and in Tyson’s corner during the bout.
Lott says that the “original” case for the mouthpiece that Tyson used in the Spinks fight was not the rectangularly-shaped case shown on the Heritage website but rather a plastic case that was shaped somewhat like a heart to reflect the shape of the mouthpiece.
Also, if the mouthpiece came “from Kevin Rooney,” why is there no letter of authenticity from Rooney?
A Heritage Sports Collectibles brochure states, “The mission of Heritage Auctions is to be the world’s most trusted and efficient marketplace and information resource serving owners of fine art, collectibles, and other objects of enduring value. Heritage’s fine reputation is not a matter of chance. It reflects our relentless drive to always improve our services.”
Adding to that, Chris Ivy has said, “We rely as much as possible on the most respected third-party authentication services, both for their specialized expertise and for the assurance to our buyers that there is no seller bias clouding the evaluation.”
Who were these “most respected third-party authentication services” insofar as the May 11-13 Heritage sports collectibles auction is concerned?
Why didn’t Heritage take the simple step of comparing its auction items with fight videos that are readily available on YouTube?
Buyers rely on Heritage’s name and reputation for authentication. If this is the standard of care that Heritage exercises with regard to boxing-related items, what standard of care does it exercise with regard to other auction items?
Everyone makes mistakes. Heritage appears to have made a lot of them.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.