Golf, tennis collectors find their niche at specialty auction houses

Bringing singular focus and passion, tennis and golf houses focus on doing one thing well

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A match-used racket from Rafael Nadal's first Wimbledon title went for just $12,600 in a recent auction at Goldin. (Credit: Getty Images and Goldin Auctions)

A Rafael Nadal racket, used during his first Wimbledon title run in 2008, sold last weekend at Goldin Auctions.

The collectible from one of the most significant Grand Slam events in modern tennis history went for just $12,660. If that match-use racket were a card, it would barely have cracked the top 10 for all-time sales.

How could such a significant piece of history fly under the radar at one of the most prominent sports memorabilia auction houses on the planet?

It's all about specialization ...

Matt Cashin started out like most collectors and sellers: Navigating the mainstream auction circuit to find gems from his favorite sport.

He’d been a lifelong tennis fan but really dove into memorabilia beginning in 2015, and when the time came to part with some of his pieces, he quickly discovered the market for tennis memorabilia was severely lacking.

Cashin repeatedly found himself face-to-face with the same issue: Lack of exposure.

For the past five years, Cashin has been running Prestige Memorabilia, a tennis memorabilia company relying on industry expertise to appraise, authenticate and bring items to market for sellers.

But until 2023, Cashin wasn’t running an auction house.

Instead, he was selling primarily his own personal collection through the bigger auction houses, none of which focused solely on tennis, and oftentimes left Cashin feeling like his collection was getting the short end of the stick when it came to marketing and curation.

"I was frustrated by the lack of exposure that a lot of these items — these phenomenal pieces — were receiving," Cashin said. "Then, over the years, a lot of people had started to visit the website, so I thought it made sense to start an auction house."

Cashin has run three auctions so far, under the name "The Tennis Auction," dating back to September 2023. The auctions have yet to reach anywhere near the volume of the industry-leaders. Just two lots cleared $1,000 in the initial auction, with seven reaching $1,000 in the second auction in January, and eight in the third this March.

Though the newly established auctioneer clearly has work to do in order to fill out the bulk of its lots, each of the three auctions have been led by an impressive flagship sale.

In its first auction last September, The Tennis Auction brokered the sale of Roger Federer’s 2018 Australian Open match-worn and signed outfit for $33,715.20 (Credit: The Tennis Auction)
In its first auction last September, The Tennis Auction brokered the sale of Roger Federer’s 2018 Australian Open match-worn and signed outfit for $33,715.20 (Credit: The Tennis Auction)

First came Roger Federer’s 2018 Australian Open match-worn and signed outfit from his last career Grand Slam win, which sold for $33,715.20.

Then, in the second auction in January, Nadal’s match-used racket from the championship point in the 2007 French Open final against Federer sold for a record $118,206.

In the most recent auction in March, the top lot was a 2006 Federer match-used and signed racket with provenance from the Australian Tennis Museum ($37,663.20).

Just like Cashin, Ryan Carey is of single mind when it comes to sports memorabilia. Though for the owner of Golden Age Auctions, that means golf.

The two sports not only share parallels in the typical ways — solitary games with worldwide appeal yet peripheral attention in the U.S., but also in the memorabilia industry.

For Cashin, he has found his clientele to be largely made up of tennis fans with little-to-no interest in sports memorabilia (until they find The Tennis Auction), a sentiment Carey echoed for golf.

Recently, Carey’s Golden Age Auctions sold an Andy Warhol Portrait of Jack Nicklaus for more than $1 million. The auction house proudly proclaimed on social media "The Nicklaus Warhol sold for over $1 million "because" it did not sell within the art world. Those bidders gave up early. The painting sold to A GOLFER."

The two auctioneers are operating along a similar paths, though it’s undeniable the golf market is far more mature than tennis. Golden Age brokered the most valuable ticket ever sold, a multi-day pass to the 1934 Masters and is constantly in the headlines for major Tiger Woods auctions, such as the April 2022 sale of Woods' "Tiger Slam" irons for $5.15 million.

Though the markets might look different, they both share the same steadfast belief in the power of specialized auction houses.

"We specialize in golf for one reason: We love everything about the game of golf. We play golf with our customers, go on golf trips with them, visit their homes and talk nothing but golf," Carey said. "How can a consignment director at one of the big-box auction houses have an intelligent conversation about the game of golf with a potential consignor? How can they find the right buyer for an item if they’ve never even seen that piece before?"

Cashin sees a similar opportunity for tennis, a sport rife with wealthy fans yet to be introduced to the world of collecting.

“Federer and Nadal especially are just such beloved, iconic athletes,” Cashin said, explaining how he has watched this fandom translate into bidding activity over the past six months.

Carey is less subtle about the advantageous of specialization.

“I’ll shout it from the mountaintop. Niche auction houses will continuously outperform the big-box auction houses,” Carey said. “At least unless or until those larger auction houses have specialists and experts in each field. The days of a generic consignment director winning a great consignment over a smaller auction-specialized auction house appear over.”

It’s a matter of quality over quantity for Carey, who uses mailing lists as a barometer for a house’s addressable audience. He concedes the "big-box" houses might have far larger lists, but their ability to convert is impeded by their generic focus. An effective auction house should be marketing to the most likely buyers, not simply the largest group of people, Carey explains.

“Golf is a niche sport, and will always remain a niche sport,” Carey said. “Should you try to sell a rare golf item to a large mailing list of general sports fans? Or should you instead offer it to known golf collectors? The answer is the latter.”

This is not to say the two men and their businesses are free of impending threats.

Sotheby’s included two tennis rackets in its recent Sports Week auction series. Joining a paired-down list of high-end items, curated for maximum intrigue rather than pure volume, the industry titan achieved respectable results: $53,340 for Novak Djokovic’s 2015 U.S. Open "championship-clinching," match-used racket and $33,020 for a Rafael Nadal signed and match-used racket from the 2018 French Open and 2018 Wimbledon semifinals, respectively.

But both The Tennis Auction and Golden Age share an illusive quality that even the most deep-pocketed auction houses can never replicate: Singular focus and passion. Whereas another auction house might celebrate an excellent result in golf or tennis before moving on to their next category, Cashin and Carey stay put, a constant presence in an industry routinely bending to the latest trends and fads.

For Carey, it’s not rocket science.

“The big-box auction houses do a hundred different categories fairly well. Niche auction houses just need to be great at one thing.”

Will Stern is a reporter and editor for cllct. You can follow him on X at @Will__Stern.