Napkin which brought Messi to Barcelona sells for $964,450

Lacking Messi's signature, the famed napkin still is considered a vital piece of soccer history

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Sports history was sealed on this napkin, which represented Lionel Messi's first agreement with FC Barcelona.

For months, the most anticipated document to hit the auction block in recent memory garnered headlines around the world, capturing the attention of die-hard collectors and mainstream media alike in the lead-up to Friday’s auction at Bonham’s in England.

Though sports memorabilia of extraordinary importance has seemed to grab the world’s attention more and more in recent years, the excitement is typically restricted to collectibles such as game-worn jerseys, ultra high-end cards and illusive autographs. The grail sold on New Bond Street in London falls into none of the typical categories.

That’s because it was a paper napkin adorned with nearly 25-year-old blue ink.

It’s officially the most expensive and most famous napkin in the world. The napkin altered the course of sports history forever in December 2000, when haphazard scribbles paved the way for Lionel Messi to sign with FC Barcelona, where he became arguably the greatest player in the history of soccer.

The napkin had just one bid of $275,000 (without buyer’s premium) until the final 30 minutes when it received a flurry of activity to surge past the high estimate of $630,000 and enter extended bidding, finally hammering at $964,450 (including buyer’s premium).

A 13-year-old Lionel Messi was hoping to prove himself with FC Barcelona to secure a spot as a player. But much to the teenager’s dismay, as well as that of his father, Jorge, the team was unwilling to commit despite the young Messi’s obvious talent.

Jorge was ready to cut his losses, threatening to bring his son, a future eight-time Ballon d'Or winner, La Liga all-time goals leader and all-time professional soccer assist leader, back to Argentina to explore other options.

What happened next — by this point a staple of Messi’s origin story — recalls the club’s director of football, Carles Rexach, receiving a “frantic” call from Jorge, who told him Barcelona’s opportunity to sign his young phenom son was no more.

Not wanting to lose out on a future generational talent, Rexach sprung into action.

"That was when, thinking on my feet, I decided everything," Rexach told ESPN in 2020 for the 20th anniversary of the signing. While at a tennis club in Barcelona, he asked the waiter for a napkin, unable to find any other type of paper. There and then, he drew up an impromptu contract to provide Jorge with a modicum of commitment to his son.

He quickly jotted down the following words, which are now the stuff of legend: “In Barcelona, on 14 December 2000 and in the presence of Messrs Minguella and Horacio, Carles Rexach, FC Barcelona's sporting director, hereby agrees, under his responsibility and regardless of any dissenting opinions, to sign the player Lionel Messi, provided that we keep to the amounts agreed upon.”

After Jorge was alerted of the napkin's signing in the presence of a witness, Messi could now consider himself a Barcelona player. The napkin now featured signatures from Rexach, Argentine agent Horacio Gaggioli and advisor Josep Minguella.

Barcelona president Joan Gaspart confirmed the agreement that night.

“My lawyers looked at it," Rexach explained years later. "The napkin had everything: my name, his name, the date. It’s notarised. It was a legal document."

Rexach was able to use the napkin as proof of the team’s commitment to Mess, convincing Jorge and the family’s agent to reach the agreement that brought Messi to Barcelona, where he would become a worldwide superstar, a fusion of player and team success similar to that of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots over their dynasty in the 2000s.

Gaggioli, appearing to have a sense of the future importance of the napkin, brought it home to Andorra, where he placed it in a bank vault for more than 20 years.

“This is one of the most thrilling items I have ever handled,” Ian Ehling, head of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams New York said. “Yes, it’s a paper napkin, but it’s the famous napkin that was at the inception of Lionel Messi’s career. “It changed the life of Messi, the future of FC Barcelona, and was instrumental in giving some of the most glorious moments of football to billions of fans around the globe.”

Looking back. Gaggioli called it a "marvelous moment."

“It’ll be a part of me for the rest of my life, The napkin will always be at my side. I live in Andorra, and I’ve kept the napkin in a safe inside a bank.”

After Gaggioli decided to bring the napkin to auction, originally scheduled at Bonham’s for earlier this year, the sale was postponed by the auction house to claims of disputed ownership, with Minguella telling Catalunya Radio the napkin had been in his office for years, and he had offered Barcelona the chance to display it in the club’s museum, according to the New York Times.

But this was apparently cleared up within a matter of weeks, as noted in Bonham’s auction lot, which includes the following assurances: “Allegations concerning the ownership of the Napkin were raised in March but have not been substantiated and appear from recent press comment to have been retracted. The consignor of the Napkin has received a legal opinion which confirms to them that they have clear title and the right to sell the Napkin under Spanish law, and the seller gives a full warranty of title with the sale. A copy of the opinion will be provided on request to any bidder approved to participate in this sale.”

The napkin, an unlikely suspect for a coveted piece of sports memorabilia, now can legitimately lay claim as one of the most valuable pieces of Messi memorabilia in history, despite the star’s signature appearing nowhere on the document.

Messi’s most expensive memorabilia ever sold came in a December 2023 Sotheby’s auction of a set of six game-worn jerseys from Messi’s historic run leading Argentina to victory in the 2022 FIFA World Cup for $7.8 million.

But, now, this napkin not only enters the pantheon of Messi and sports memorabilia sales ever conducted publicly, but it outranks the most expensive Messi card ever sold, a distinction belonging to a 2014 Panini Prizm World Cup Gold card limited to a print run of just 10 and assessed a PSA 10 grade (one of just two PSA 10 examples) which sold for $522,000 in April 2022 at Goldin.

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