Would you sell a piece of history?
Let's just say, for the purposes of this discussion, that you were in possession of a piece of history with a generally healthy market value-an 1884 Carson City $20 gold coin, for example.
written notes from the Gettysburg Address. Or, say, the baseball that Barry Bonds hit to break Hank Aaron's homerun record. Would you sell it?
I wondered about this recently when I read that Matt Murphy, the fan who caught the historical home run ball (or ended up with it after a major scrum, anyway), was selling it through SCP Auctions (www.scpauctions.com), one of the largest auctioneers of vintage sports cards and memorabilia in the country.
Initially, I thought I probably wouldn't sell it, but that thought only lasted a few minutes. It wasn't long before the stone cold reality set in: If I was Matt Murphy, or if I had found myself in his position, I'd have to sell it.
First, I doubt I could talk anyone into helping me cover the expected income tax penalty that I'd incur simply from acquiring the darn thing. Since Uncle Sam would view this as an increase in wealth (even though all I had was a baseball) he'd expect his cut, and I simply don't know that many people with an extra $150,000 they're looking to hand over.
Second, I wouldn't be able to stand having it around. Murphy himself makes this point very well: He became a delusional paranoid nearly instantaneously.
In a Time magazine article, Murphy recalls the events of that night: "We switched hotels, and the hotel offered to put the ball in their safe, in the bank manager's office. I didn't really like that idea. So I went up to the suite, and there was this electronic lockbox. I put it in there, put in the combo, took a deep breath ... you know, like, 'whew.' I took a shower, made some phone calls, came out, changed the combo, went downstairs, got some champagne, came back up, changed the combo again, and spent the rest of the night in front of the door. Paranoid. Paranoid. Paranoid. They're coming to get me at any minute now, and I'm going to fight them off. We put it in a safe deposit box the next morning."
Did Murphy ever think about keeping it? Not really. He explains, "I originally wanted to keep it. But you have to have a nice house with a big living room and a trophy case to put the ball in. You need a very large and expensive security system, because it'll be gone the next day."
Selling it was really the only option and SCP was a logical choice. It has been conducting auctions of this sort almost 30 years and has the experience to handle big items like the Bonds baseball. They've sold such collectibles as the autographed bat Babe Ruth used to hit his first home run in Yankee Stadium ($1,265,000), the original plaster cast of the Heisman trophy sculpture from 1935 ($228,000), and the finest known Honus Wagner tobacco cards ($2,350,000). Yes, that last number was over two million.
The Web site for this particular auction (www.theroadtohistory.com), while functional, won't win any awards for design or presentation. In fact, there doesn't seem to be much at all about the site itself to differentiate it or cause it to stand out. For SCP, however, that isn't much of a concern. After all, it's the items it's selling that garners (and deserves) the attention.
So, in the end, this indelible piece of history will go to the highest bidder. Last I checked, the highest bid was around $100,000, but it's expected to finish around $500,000. If you're interested, you have until Sept. 15, when the "initial bidding period" will close. Unfortunately, due to lingering questions about Bonds' steroid use, it may end up being the most expensive item in a collection permanently attached to an asterisk.
Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at email@example.com.